Transitions are what occur between the swim, bike, and run segments of multisport events, and are often considered the fourth discipline of triathlon.
In the typical swim-bike-run triathlon, transition 1, or T1, refers to the transition between swim and bike, while T2 refers to the transition between bike and run.
Transitions can be thought of as the fourth discipline of triathlon, and athletes can improve their race performances by working to achieve consistently smooth and efficient transitions. At the races, mere seconds can separate the winners from second place, award winners from the empty handed, and the qualifiers from those who will have to try again next time.
With many races now posting T1 and T2 splits (transition times) within the results, good transitions can make for bragging rights in and of themselves.
Saving Time in Transition
While most triathletes work hard to improve their swim, bike, and run times, many overlook the potentially large time savings which are possible through the practice and refinement of transitions. What these athletes should realize is that everyone can improve their transition times with effective planning and practice. It is much easier to save time with quick transitions than it is to swim, bike, or run faster in the race.
While accumulated experience in the races can eventually hone an athlete’s transitions, even the most experienced need occasional practice to keep them sharp and mistake-free.
Beginners can avoid learning the “do’s and don’ts” the hard way, by getting some instruction or coaching from those who know the tricks of the trade, and practicing before a race. Coaches can spice up multisport training by including occasional transition practices and by challenging their athletes to switch disciplines and associated equipment efficiently and quickly, even when faced with unexpected problems.
General tips for the athlete
Transitions are important for every triathlete, regardless of ability. For some, the importance lies in the chance to recover from one discipline while preparing for the next, ensuring comfort and safety for the next even, and saving time, or at least not losing time to one’s opponents. It is important to identify one’s competitive orientation before working to improve transitions.
For all triathletes, planning is the key to successful transitions. The more that one plans and prepares before the event, the less that one needs to do during the race, and the smoother that transitions will go.
Bringing the Right Gear Into Transition
From the outset, one needs to select equipment appropriate for triathlon, and not be afraid to modify one’s equipment for racing convenience, provided that safety is not compromised in the process.
While some triathletes insist on lugging large bags full of anything conceivably needed into the transition area (TA), simplicity is a crucial element in the planning of transitions. The athlete should have a list of all necessary articles for the race, and pack for races according to that list. Everything aside from the absolutely necessary items going into TA should be left in the car. As a side note, it is helpful to mark all equipment with one’s name, using a permanent marker, as many athletes use identical equipment.
How to Arrange Your Gear in Transition
Another key for successful transition planning is the arrangement of equipment in transition.
One should try to arrange the equipment in the order that it will be used, and attempt to minimize the amount of travel or movement required to go from one step to another. One should picture a miniature assembly line, where everything necessary is right at one’s fingertips, and the equipment is lined up to be used in perfect sequence with no sidetracking or backtracking.
The Swim Equipment in Transition
Starting with swim equipment, one should select goggles designed for outdoor use, and able to take a hit or kick without coming off. For rough swims, the goggle straps should go under the swim cap, so they’re less likely to come off. Socket-rocket type goggles might be great for the pool, but can cut the skin around the eye socket when someone plants a kick square on the lens. For the best swim goggles you can check out our top triathlon swim goggles. Similarly, some coaches recommend replacing rubber goggle straps with nylon shock cord, which is unlikely to break, even when it’s old.
Wetsuits should be relatively easy to remove, even when the athlete is dizzy, breathing heavy, and cold. Consider cutting ankle and wrist areas of the wetsuit, if removal is a problem. Simply trim off a two to four-inch straight or diagonal ring of the neoprene up from the ankle or wrist. The slight loss of buoyancy and warmth will most likely not be noticed, and the wetsuit will come off much easier.
Triathlon clothing should be something that is comfortable and non-chafing for all three disciplines. Ideally, the right race clothing can be worn from start to finish without fuss, discomfort, or adjustment.
The Bike Equipment in Transition
For biking equipment, triathlon-specific shoes are most helpful. You can check our the best triathlon cycling shoes. These are the type with just one or two Velcro straps on the top of the foot, and a loop on the heel for pulling. One should be careful not to select shoes with too big a tongue, or one should cut down the tongue to facilitate getting the foot into the shoe quickly. If straps come out of bindings too easily, one can add a rivet, zip-tie or other device to the ends to prevent this from happening.
Pedals and cleats should be any type that is easy and quick to connect shoe to pedal without having to look.
The primary purpose of a helmet is to save one’s head in an accident, and one should not skimp on safety for speed or convenience. With that said, one should select a helmet that can be buckled quickly to create a safe and secure fit. USAT rules mandate that the athlete buckle the helmet before getting on his/her bike, and to keep it fastened throughout the bike portion. If you are in the market for a new cycling helmet you can check out our top cycling helmets.
As for the bike itself, most any type be used for smooth transitions, but one should consider the placement of bottles and other accessories in how the bike will be mounted, dismounted, racked, un-racked, and re-racked.
The Run Equipment in Transition
For running equipment, the shoes are most important. It is helpful to replace the regular shoelaces with elastic laces and lace locks. One should be able to slip the shoes on quickly, and to find a comfortable and secure fit.
A running hat or visor may be helpful, as is a race number belt. Other important things to have for transition are: good sunscreen, skin lube, sunglasses, spare energy gel or bar, fluids, tools, spare tubes/triathlon bike tires, and a waterproof bag for wet items after the race.
Become Familiar with the Race Venue
Each race venue is different, and while a triathlete may execute transitions similarly in terms of equipment, it is essential that he/she become familiar with the specific characteristics of each venue prior to the race.
Once an athlete has found his/her assigned transition spot, he/she should immediately familiarize himself/herself with the finish of the swim and swim-in, bike-out, bike-in, and run-out areas of TA. If transition spots are not pre-assigned, he/she should select a spot that minimizes congestion and overall distance of travel within TA.
Many transitions have been flubbed by athletes failing to remember where their transition spot was located. To remedy this, one should walk through the flow of transition before the race to create a visual map, looking for landmarks or counting racks to help aid the memory.
Some races allow the use of chalk on the pavement, or tying of helium-filled balloons to the racks, but neither of these methods is necessary with proper planning and conscientious preparation.
However, a familiar and bright towel laid out to cover one’s transition spot can expedite the trip (and make for a good way to clean off the feet), once an athlete has found the right rack, though certain events do not allow any items to cover the ground.
As a courtesy to others, one should take as little TA space as possible, and leave extra gear in the car.
It is also important to determine the location of the mount line and dismount line for the bike, and to determine a proper gear for starting on the bike. USAT rules stipulate that athletes must pass the mount line before getting on the bike to begin the ride.
At the end of the ride, athletes must dismount the bike before reaching the dismount line. An athlete makes final adjustments to her transition spot before heading to swim start.
For this section, the intention is to offer specific tips by ability. While overachieving triathletes are often tempted to try more advanced skills than they are capable of completing, it is essential that an athlete master the basics before moving on to the more complicated techniques.
Beginners should primarily concern themselves with ensuring a fun, comfortable, and safe racing experience, rather than stressing about their speed in transition.
Intermediates can begin to weigh the pros and cons of each piece of equipment used, and each action taken in transition, to determine the balance between comfort and speed, and between luxury and necessity.
Advanced triathletes will need to adopt advanced transition skills, and to rid themselves of all but the most essential and fast equipment.
Athletes should never try anything new on race day.
Transition Set Up
1. Familiarize self with the rules, and how they apply to the race venue.
2. No glass containers are allowed in transition area (USAT Rules).
3. Put on sunscreen before getting body marked.
4. Apply skin lube to any areas that may chafe, including neck, armpits, crotch.
5. If a wetsuit is used, lube the ankles, wrists, neck, and armpits before putting on the wetsuit. It may help to keep socks on while putting on the wetsuit.
6. Check overall operation of the bicycle, and select an appropriate gear for starting.
7. Ensure proper tire pressure.
8. Make sure brakes clamp and release properly, and that each wheel rotates freely.
9. USAT rules stipulate that the majority of the bicycle must be on the side of the rack corresponding with the athlete’s transition spot. The bike may face either forward or backwards.
10. Make sure the bike is equipped with adequate fluids and food for the distance.
11. Consider how one will deal with mechanical problems, and equip the bike accordingly.
12. Lay out equipment in the order in which it will be used.
13. Make sure helmet is unbuckled, straps are laid open, and helmet upside down with front facing toward athlete. Set sunglasses in place for quick wear. If you’re looking for the best sunglasses for triathletes, check out our triathlon sunglasses guide.
14. Check out swim start and finish, and familiarize self with transition flow.
15. Prepare run shoes (and your triathlon socks) for quick wear, and have a plan for blister prevention.
16. If used, ensure timing chip is properly placed and secure. Make sure band is set in such a way that it won’t fall off or chafe the ankle during the race.
17. Make sure that bike numbers, helmet numbers, and bib numbers are properly placed. Plan not to wear bib number on swim or bike, unless required.
Advanced Transition Setup Tips
18. Leave bike shoes clicked into pedals, and secure them in upright position. Ways to secure the shoes may vary: looping rubber bands or floss (either should break easily upon pedaling) from the heel loop to the bike, using Velcro to attach shoe to the bike frame or crank arm, etc. Using rubber bands, the left shoe can be attached to the rear quick-release, while the right can be attached to a bottle cage, front derailleur, or elsewhere.
19. Attach sunglasses to helmet or bike frame, so they can be put on while riding.
20. Keep helmet on handlebars, using Velcro or other means to ensure its stability.
21. Use baby powder or skin lube in shoes for blister prevention if necessary.
22. Consider using liquid bandage (like nail polish) as blister preventative for potential hot-spots.
23. Practice swim starts and finishes to determine depth and appropriate start/finish techniques.
Long Distance Transition Setup Tips
24. Prepare special needs bags with nutritional needs, fluids, salt, extra socks, etc.
25. Ensure gels and/or bars and bottles are securely attached to bike.
26. Have tools, tubes and/or pre-glued tubular ready securely attached to bike.
Transition 1 (T1) Swim to Bike Tips
27. Begin a mental rehearsal of T1 toward the end of the swim.
28. Remove goggles from eyes upon ability to stand, ensuring best vision.
29. If a wetsuit is worn, leave cap and goggles on head and begin unzipping wetsuit immediately, working it down to hips before reaching TA. Upon reaching transition spot, finish removing the wetsuit by pulling it insideout over legs and feet. This process can be made easier by standing on one side of the suit and pulling up with the opposite leg. It may be necessary to use the bike rack for balance, and one should avoid sitting, if possible. Some races have wetsuit peelers to help athletes.
30. Make sure that cap and goggles are not discarded or lost on the way to transition. This will avoid an abandonment of equipment penalty under USAT & ITU rules.
31. Stow all swimming items underneath bike, and out of the way of others.
32. Put on helmet and fasten buckle before removing bike from rack. (USAT rules stipulate helmet is buckled before mounting, while ITU rules stipulate helmet is buckled before un-racking bike.)
33. Remember USAT rules generally do not allow riding in the transition area.
34. Always keep the bike to the right when pushing it or mounting, to stay clear of chain rings and chain.
35. Walk or run the bike past the mount line before getting on the bike, and make sure the path is clear before mounting.
36. Many accidents happen just past the mount line. Be careful to maintain a straight path while getting up to speed, and to look ahead, rather than down at pedals or shoes.
Beginner Transition 1 (T1) Tips
37. Put on bike shoes, sunglasses, and helmet before removing bike from rack.
39. Hold on to handlebars or the bike stem to walk or run with bike to mount line.
40. Consider mounting bike well past the mount line and/or off to the side, as it is a courtesy to the speedy experienced athletes who may be coming quickly from behind.
Intermediate Transition 1 (T1) Tips
41. Use a stem- or seat-carry to direct bike in transition while running with bike.
42. Consider using a full flying mount or modified flying mount at the mount line. The modified flying mount is done by holding onto the handlebars, stepping onto the left pedal or shoe and pushing off with the right leg. As the bike rolls, the athlete swings the right leg over the saddle, steps onto the right pedal or shoe, and begins pedaling. The full flying mount is done by holding onto the handlebars, jumping onto the saddle, stepping onto the pedals, and beginning to pedal. Get up to race speed before beginning to put feet in shoes. Re-accelerate after getting one foot in shoe, before putting other foot in shoe.
43. Put on sunglasses once up to speed, remembering to place glasses underneath helmet straps
Advanced Transition 1 (T1) Tips
44. If ocean swim, try to catch a breaking wave in to the finish
45. Dolphin dive to swim exit, if possible.
46. Upon ability to stand in water, begin high stepping over water to shore.
47. With bike, use a seat-carry to run with bike, and flying mount to start.
48. Get up to race speed and in good position before beginning to put feet in shoes.
49. Re-accelerate after getting one foot in shoe, before putting other foot in shoe.
50. Put on sunglasses once up to speed, remembering to place glasses underneath helmet straps.
Transition 1 (T1) Tips for Long Distance Races
51. Find wetsuit peeling volunteers, if available.
52. Get T1 bag from numbered hanger, and proceed to changing tent.
53. Remove items from bag, change, and place swim items back inside.
General Transition 2 (T2) Bike to Run Tips
54. Begin a mental rehearsal of T2 toward the end of the bike.
55. If possible, use last part of bike to loosen up legs and prepare for the run.
56. In last part of the bike, keep the cadence in the 90-95 range, to facilitate the switch to running.
57. Reduce speed and get off bike on left side before the dismount line.
58. Walk or run the bike back to transition spot, and rack bike properly (USAT rules stipulate that the majority of the bicycle must be on the side of the rack corresponding with the athlete’s transition spot. The bike may face forwards or backwards.)
59. Rack bike before unbuckling and removing helmet (ITU rules require this).
60. Put on running shoes, and adjust laces if necessary.
61. Grab hat, bib number, and any other items to put on and adjust while running.
Beginner Transition 2 (T2) Tips
62. Come to full stop prior to dismount line, and step over bike to dismount.
63. Use a handlebar- or stem-carry to direct bike to transition spot.
64. Make sure to have dry running socks before putting on running shoes.
65. Remove bike shorts and gloves, if worn.
66. Reapply sunscreen or skin lube, if necessary.
Advanced Transition 2 (T2) Tips
67. Pull feet out of shoes well before dismount line, leaving shoes attached to pedals.
68. Continue to pedal on top of shoes for finish of bike.
69. Consider using a flying dismount to get off bike before dismount line. Keep hands on handlebars, stand and place body weight on left shoe/pedal. Swing right leg behind saddle or over top tube so that legs are both on left side of bike. Ideally, right leg will be placed in front of left leg before dismount. Before dismount line, slow down to a running pace, and hop off bike into a running stride. It may be helpful to lift up bike’s back end briefly at dismount, so that the shoes do not scrape the ground and come out of the pedals.
70. If race number belt is used, attach it to hat, so both can be grabbed and put on while running.
71. Consider using shorter, quick steps at beginning of run, and lengthening stride over time.
Transition 2 (T2) Tips for Long Distance Races
72. Volunteer may take the bike from you at dismount in some events.
73. Grab T2 bag from numbered hanger and proceed to change tent.
74. Change to run gear, and stuff bike gear into bag.
75. Reapply sunscreen and skin lube.
What the coach can do to help athletes with transitions
Much like taking medicine, it may be hard to get some athletes to comply with practicing transitions, even though they know it is good for them. Some athletes only want to swim-bike-run, accumulate volume, and keep their heart rates high, so are resistant to diversions like transition work. For these athletes, the coach will have to be creative in getting the athlete to practice transitions.
One good way is to have the athlete set up their gear for transition after a normal training ride. The coach then instructs the athlete that his/her next training ride will start and end with a race-simulating transition right from the house.
This could be done several times a week, and could even be done with stationary trainer workouts. For those needing work on flying mounts and dismounts, the coach can instruct the athlete to leave his/her shoes on the pedals at all times, for all rides. This way, the athlete gets used to getting on the bike and getting into the shoes while riding, then getting out of them and dismounting at the end of the ride.
Some athletes never want to take a day off, and some have problems dealing with reduced training for the taper.
Enter transition training- what a great thing to practice on days of reduced volume and intensity!
For coaches who work in person with groups of athletes, transition practice can be a fun and social alternative from the usual workout. Combination workouts involving repeated short sets of swim-bike, bike-run, or swim-bike-run are a great way to work on transitions and race-specific fitness simultaneously.
This type of workout is useful to prepare athletes for early season races, when they might still be a bit rusty from the long offseason. If the athlete has access to a pool, stationary trainer, and place to run, he/she can do several mini-triathlons in a short amount of time.
For example, one could do a workout consisting of 4 sets of (300m swimming, transition, 10’ bike, transition, 5’ run) in about an hour and a half with a warm-up and cool-down.
Transition Contingency Training
Once an athlete has a good handle on executing a smooth and quick transition, the coach can challenge him/her by using contingency training in their transition work.
Every veteran triathlete has stories about surprises encountered on the race course, and many of these surprises can happen in transition. Simply put, sometimes what the athlete arrives from finishing the swim or bike to find in TA bears little resemblance to what was once a carefully arranged transition spot.
Sometimes shoes and helmets or other essential gear is missing. Sometimes, equipment has been knocked over or pushed to the side, or maybe someone else has put their gear where it doesn’t belong. Other times, there are mechanical issues as simple as a derailed chain or a loose quick-release to deal with.
About Contingency Training
The point is that coaches can better prepare athletes for the curve balls thrown their way in races, by using contingency training. At some camps and clinics, this is done by having all the athletes set up their transitions, go to the start line, and face away from TA. Then, the coaches come through to wreak havoc on the perfectly arranged transition spots (but NOT creating really unsafe situations).
For example: gears are shifted, chains are derailed, shoes are taken out of pedals, running shoes are tossed away or switched with those of other athletes, items are stuffed down into shoes, helmets are buckled, brakes are set to rub on the wheels, and air is let out of a tire or two to create the dreaded but all-too-common transition flat tire. When the laughing stops, the athletes have performed good psychological skills training and learned important lessons about solving race problems with a cool head, and continuing with the race.
At the race, coaches aren’t usually allowed inside the transition area, unless they are participating in the event themselves. However, there are plenty of ways that the coach can help his/her athletes with transitions from the sidelines.
First off, the coach can help the athlete plan and prepare prior to the race, especially if it’s one of the most important races of the season. On race day, it is always good for the coach to check over the bike to determine whether everything is functioning well. The coach can help with any last-minute adjustments to equipment, and help to instill a sense of calm and confidence in the athlete by verifying that the equipment is ready for the athlete to use.
He or she can also help the athlete determine what gear to use at the start of the ride, and perhaps look over the final transition set-up from outside the TA. Beyond that, the coach can give the athlete some verbal cues to keep them focused on being smooth and quick without making mistakes.
Transition times can make all the difference between satisfaction and frustration, and wise athletes and coaches know it is less taxing to save time in transitions than in the race.
For the less competitive, good transitions mean that mistakes are avoided and nothing is forgotten that could prevent an athlete from experiencing a safe and fun race. Coaches can play an important role in the performance of their athletes by making transition training a priority in the training plan, and by staying current with the latest techniques and equipment for good transitions.
Coaches can make their training plans race-specific, exciting, and fun for their athletes by including occasional transition practices, combination workouts, and contingency training.