Most triathletes spend the bulk of their training time focused on the three disciplines of swimming, biking, and running. However, the transitions between each discipline also require training and are swim-to-bike (T1) and a bike-to-run (T2). Although they seem simple, a poor transition can add precious time and waste energy during a race. Many triathletes have entered T1 in front of their rivals only to see them depart, often up to hundreds of metres ahead, after a poorly executied transition. Even, if you are not concerned about your position but wish to improve your time in a particular race or over a race distance e.g. a sprint or Olympic distance race that involves a wetsuit for the swim, a properly executed transition will easily shave 1 min 30 seconds up to 2 min 30 seconds from your overall time. A good transition can improve your position and spirits, while a bad one can leave you struggling to make up lost time and affect your whole demeanour in the latter part of the race.
Each transition is really two parts: the transition set up, and the execution. Both are critical and, like any other activity in sport, they need to be thought through and practiced.
Working out your Transition Set-up before Race Day
Some races have separate areas for T1 and T2 but most are combined, so you will get a good idea of how to set up your transitions. You may be told in your Race pack exactly where you will rack your bike and how you are expected to set it up, how much room you may have and the order of the bike numbers. For a quite a few races, however, the organizers leave it up to you to find the best spot. Occasionally you will have a choice where to rack the bike and put down your other kit, so you have to pick a good place. In this case, the closer you can get your bike to the exit, the faster you will be in T1, as you will not have to push it very far and it is quicker to run without the bike.
In WTC Ironman 140.6 and Ironman 70.3 races, there is always what is called a clean transition area where no kit can be left on the floor, and these transitions are always set out the day before the actual race. Anything left on the floor is removed. In these races, transitions are operated via a bag system, e.g. with blue bags for bike kit (T1) and red bags for run kit (T2). The bags are left on pegs overnight and you cannot access them on race morning until after the race has started. This greatly simplifies the transitions and decision making as they are almost always the same and you only need to practice. However, for most races you set up the transitions yourself.
The Transition Set-up on Race Day
Assuming you can, lay out your gear and do a walk through to make sure everything is where you need it and ready to go. Make sure you can find your bike, for example by noting how many rows you have to run past before turning into your transition area. Similarly, when you return from the bike leg, you may well come back from a different direction, so again make a mental note of the location of your place in transition and how you will get there. You are not normally allowed to mark the floor or erect a flag or other sign-post, but you can often lay down a conspicuous towel near your bike.
Racking for the bike normally consists of a simple horizontal pole, so start with the seat hooked over the pole with the bike facing the direction you will arrive from the swim for T1. Make sure your bike is in a gear that allows you to push off or start pedaling without either spinning the pedals too fast or are too hard to push. If you choose too hard a gear and you may struggle to get going and may fall off. If you choose yoo easy a gear and you will spin your legs like crazy and probably start weaving across the road, potentially colliding with the curb or other competitors.
Before you rack your bike it is usual to ensure your tyres are inflated correctly. However, do not over-inflate if the temperature is scheduled to vary a lot. If you set up transition the day before, it may be worth deflating them slightly to avoid a blow-out which can be very stressful just before a race.
Place the helmet with the straps out facing you exactly how you will put it on. You can either place your helmet on your tri bars or on the floor. If it is windy or the helmet is liable to be knocked off, then put your helmet on the floor. Place your glasses either inside the helmet exactly how you will put them on, or hung to a cable where they will not fall off and you can put them on down the road.
One of the most important rules in triathlon is that you must put your bike helmet on your head with the strap fixed before you touch your bike. Failure to adhere to this rule can result in disqualification. Similarly when you return from the bike leg, you must rack your bike fully before attempting to remove your helmet.
If you can, set up your kit on the left side of the bike as it faces forward on the exit from T1, (depending on whether it is facing you or away from you). This is important because you should run to T1 exit with the bike on your right and can mount the bike from its left side without getting tangled in the chain rings.
Depending on the race distance, you may prefer to use socks, though for short distances the time and effort you expend may simply not be worth it. Obviously putting them with wet feet can be an issue, but may be unavoidable in wet conditions. If it is dry, then placing a towel on the floor to stand on whilst putting them on may help. Putting talc inside your socks and shoes is an excellent idea for all conditions and distances. If using socks, place them so you can pull them on quickly over your feet. They are vital if the terrain for running is rough, uneven and long enough, using socks can definitely help you avoid blisters and sores.
It is quite usual to set up your cycling or running shoes so that you can step straight into them as you reach your spot in transition using any heel loops to help you get them on. Leaving the cycling shoes on the ground for the start of the race means you will have to make your way to the mount line at the exit from T1 wearing them (or running shoes/trainers if not using cycling shoes). Alternatively some triathletes prefer to leave their cycling shoes attached to the pedals by the cleats and put them on while riding. Some also use rubber bands attached to the bike at the heel loops of their cycling shoes so that they are topside up to start and don’t bounce on the road and come off the pedal on the way to the T1 exit. In either case it is vital to practice putting your shoes on as soon as you get on to the bike course.
Most experienced triathletes use a race or number belt with one number attached securely at the top using several safety pins or loops on the belt. During the bike leg, in most countries and most races, this has to be clearly displayed on your lower back. This can then be moved from your back to your front during T2 as race numbers usually have to be clearly displayed on you front for the run. Therefore race belts are a really great idea for most situations. If your triathlon involves a pool swim, a belt can often be placed inside the helmet for easy attachment around your middle in T1. With wetsuit open-water races, you may be allowed to pin your race numbers to your front and back, but you will then need two numbers, and some organizers do not provide two. If the swim is non-wetsuit or pool-based and you are not wearing a trisuit, then you can either pin the number or numbers to a singlet or top you intend wearing.
Food and drink are usually attached to the bike so you can fuel on the road. Take with you enough food and drink that you can reasonably consume during the race. Bottle cages and food boxes are the usual methods of carrying these items and can be brought along on race morning.
Later on, after completing the bike section of the race (T2), you can place the bike on the brake levers as this will save time and is less clumsy. and rack standing on the same side your running shoes are on, so that you do not have to move around the bike.
For T2, place any running shoes with laces already open and in a location that is accessible and will not get knocked around. Some triathletes like to use elasticated or normal laces with lace locks as these speed up T2. Elasticated laces can be uncomfortable over longer run distances as the feet can sometimes come out or slip and slide inside the shoes, especially if the run is off-road. Place any running hat on top of shoes either to be put on first or carried and put on as you exit T2.
Practicing your transitions.
Keep your transitions clean and simple. Don’t try to do too many things during a transition. Keep the number of tasks to the bare minimum. In a transition, the more you have to do, the more time it takes and the more things that can go wrong. In T1, the fastest athletes in short races may only put on a helmet and grab their bike to run out, wearing a one-piece racing suit to avoid clothing changes and have their shoes already cleated into their pedals.
If you want to be efficient in the transition, you need to learn how to do a few things at once and keep moving in a seamless, fluid motion. Know what things you can do while running or cycling or on the run-up to transition and what you have to do before leaving. Something as small as taking off your swim cap and goggles, or unzipping your wetsuit and pulling it down to your hips on the run-up to T1 can save seconds. Putting on your run cap and sunglasses as you run out of T2 is equally efficient. It may seem like these things take little or no time, but they help keep your momentum for the next discipline.
3. Practice Executing the Transitions
If you want to get better at transitions, you need to practice them. A good time to practice is during your regular training e.g. after a regular bike ride, have your running gear laid out ready for a quick change to get out and run, even if just run a mile or two (bike-run transition brick).
You can set up transitions in a local park or field or even in the back garden and perfect your changes by setting them up exactly as you expect them to be laid out in your race. Then practice, practice, practice.
You can also try out new techniques to see what might work for a particular race and what you can do without. However, a golden rule in triathlon is – Never ever try anything new on race day.
An important aspect of moving your bike to the T1 exit is to practice pushing your bike with one hand on the saddle. You may have to go around a corner and you can steer your bike most effectively using this method with enough practice.
Once you have decided how you intend to conduct each of the transitions and practiced them over and over, try to spend some time visualizing each step in your head, see yourself conducting the steps in order. Visualizations have been shown to be very effective simulation techniques.
4. The Race Day Walk Through
On race day, you should arrive with enough time to set up your transitions and survey the transition area before the race and actually do a walk-through of the run-ups to and exit from T1 and similarly how you will return after the cycling to enter T2 and exit on to the run so you know exactly where to go. You might also want to check at the same time where the finishing chute is for the finish line. This walk-through is also a good time to review your mental rehearsal and make any necessary adjustments to your plan.
After exiting the water, immediately unzip your wet suit and pull it down to your hips. Don’t worry about looking for your swim time. This will just distract you and put you off your game plan, you need to be thinking all the time about what to do next.
Never try and drink anything inT1. Wait until you are on the bike.
Similarly in T2, there may be water or energy drink right when you exit the transition, drink there, or carry that second water bottle on the run. Chances are however, you will never see it again. Don’t waste time in transition sipping water. Think – ALWAYS KEEP MOVING, pausing only to put clothes on, glasses on and the helmet to bike, and your flats to run.
The last thing you grab from the swim to bike is the BIKE.
Put everything in your box, if you have one. Move your number or race belt to display your number at the front.
Run to the bike exit using a seat carry — hold on to the back of the seat and steer the bike by leaning it. Mount after the mount line. There is usually a Marshall or Race official to remind you where this.
When you are coming towards T2, shift to a lower gear and pedal faster (higher cadence). This helps prepare your legs for the run. Dismount before the dismount line and entry to T2 or you risk a penalty or disqualification. You cannot ride into the transition area. Keep your helmet on and buckled until you rack your bike. Run but don’t sprint with your bike to find your stuff, using the seat carry. Remember to to rack the bike on the brake levers when you return, standing on the same side your running shoes are on. Put your running shoes on first. This way you can grab the other stuff (hat, gels, etc.) and put them on as you head toward the exit.
Middle and Long Distance Triathlons using a bag system for transitions
WTC Ironman 140.6, Ironman 70.3 and other middle and long distance races often adopt a bag system, typically blue for bike and red for run. They may also give you a white bag for your street wear after the race. Transitions typically take a little longer in keeping with the preparations and care you need to take in advance of the distances and time involved for the bike and run legs. You may decide for example to change completely from your bike kit into run kit and not use a trisuit for reasons of comfort. These bags have to be packed the day before the race, and if the weather conditions are forecast to be changeable through the day then you may wish to pack for every eventuality. Lists are therefore important! Assuming you are wearing a trisuit throughout the race and wetsuit for the swim, a typical blue bag might contain the following:
Number belt with number attached
A typical red bag might contain the following:
Running socks (if you wish to change)
Spare arm warmers
Vaseline or Bodyglide to prevent chaffing
Some specific nutrition for the run e.g. gel or shot blocks
Add in or subtract other equipment or clothing to/from both bags according to the particular variations you introduce.