When Lulu Searles first heard about triathlon in 2016, she instantly knew she wanted to take part. After taking up running in 2013, the thought of adding swimming and biking to her repertoire for even more endurance fun was extremely appealing. But there was one thing that gave her pause: What were deaf and hard-of-hearing triathletes like her supposed to do? How do triathletes take care of their hearing aids anyway?
Searles, who had been diagnosed with a vestibular schwannoma (a tumor on the main nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain), wore a hearing aid in her left ear. The device, which is designed to amplify everything, did exactly that: “It was hard to train with hearing aids, because I would hear planes, birds, wind, but not people around me,” Searles said. “It also made it difficult to hear when cars or people needed to pass me.”
She also found hearing aids to be finicky when coming into contact with excessive moisture or perspiration. Like any electronic device, Searles had to take great pains to keep her hearing aid dry, which meant leaving the aid in her locker when swimming and carrying a plastic bag to stash her aid in a pocket when out for a sweaty ride or rainy run.
“It eventually got to the point where I wouldn’t wear my hearing aids at all when I was doing longer training workouts,” Searles said. “I was too concerned about them getting wet or damaged.”
Approximately 1 in 20 Americans are deaf or hard of hearing, with one-third of those wearing some form of assistive device, such as a hearing aid (which amplifies sound using microphones and speakers) or cochlear implant (which stimulates the auditory nerve directly). Though statistics are not available for how many triathletes are deaf or hard-of-hearing, it’s reasonable to assume the numbers interested in the sport are in line with the population at large—yet resources are sparse for this subset of athletes. Hearing aids are expensive, and many audiologists (health care specialists who diagnose and treat hearing loss) discourage activities and exercise that would get the hearing aid wet. That’s a mistake, said audiologist and triathlete Briana Frank of Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“I hope that individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing (HOH) feel supported by their assistive devices, as well as their peers, to engage in the sport of their choice,” Frank said. “Their hearing loss should not stop them from doing what they love.”
Frank cites recent innovations in hearing aid technology, including improved casing and higher ingress protection (IP) ratings for resistance to debris and moisture. “I am more confident than ever in encouraging individuals to sweat with their hearing aids on,” Frank said. She encourages deaf and hard-of-hearing triathletes to work with their audiologists to find the best hearing aid for their amplification needs and lifestyle.
Hearing Aid Care for Triathletes
Be water-wise. While many hearing aids may market themselves as being “waterproof,” that doesn’t always mean they’re ready to take a dive into the pool. Cochlear implant technology is more established when it comes to swimming, and have a higher IP rating than hearing aids. Cochlear implants also have vacuum-sealed accessories that can help prevent water damage while still providing sound awareness. Since hearing aids function and amplify sound differently than CIs, they are not created equal, and therefore, Frank recommends removing hearing aids for water sports.
Have a “wind” setting. Since hearing aids amplify everything, wind on a bike can be quite loud and stop the user from hearing traffic or other riders. To address this, Frank recommends asking for a “bike” program to be added to the hearing aid, which can create a preset program that takes into account the specific noise profile of a ride by minimizing wind noise and maximizing traffic and human voices. You can also test out various helmets—the design of some helmets may serve as a block from direct wind, especially for behind-the-ear hearing aid styles, where the microphones sit on top of the hearing aid.
Minimize the bounce. The rigorous, repetitive motion of running can certainly cause hearing aids to slip out of the ear, but there are retention techniques and accessories to help with this. A good fit is critical, so work with the audiologist to ensure all components are exactly where they need to be. For extra security, consider double-sided tape on the skin behind the ear.
Redirect sweat. Frank is a big fan of hearing aid sweatbands like Ear Gear. The neoprene covers fit hearings aids like a glove and add a layer of protection from moisture. They also come with a cord that can attach to clothing, providing peace of mind that if they do slip out, they won’t go far. “Some of my patients leave their sweatbands on full time,” Frank said.
Bring in reinforcements. Both Frank and Searles recommend bright head and tail lights to alert oncoming cars, as well as a radar device that can tell the rider if traffic is up ahead or behind. The Garmin Varia ($199) is a user-friendly option for radar and visual alerts to vehicles approaching from behind.
Dry out every day. When you take your hearing aids out for the night, place them in an electronic hearing aid dryer or a jar with desiccant beads. “Some type of dryer is a must-have for athletes wearing hearing aids and cochlear implants,” Frank said. “It prevents breakdown and extends the life of the device.”
Don’t let your worries stop you. Yes, hearing aids are expensive—but they also come with warranties. Frank would rather see people be active and happy than worried about damaging their hearing aid. “Hearing aids and cochlear implants have generous warranties for the first 2-5 years that cover damage, so I encourage people to do what they love or try something new without concern over breaking anything,” Frank said. “Just go for it.”