Blazing Fast Transitions For Triathletes


Even if you don’t plan to compete with the front runners in your next triathlon, there’s no reason why you can’t be competitive when it comes to transition splits. Swim to bike. Bike to run. T1 and T2.

“Train Hard. Get plenty of rest. Drink lots of fluids. Go like Hell.”

Nike triathlon ad from the 1980’s Go like Hell, indeed.

Often referred to as the fourth and fifth legs of a triathlon, transitions can be intimidating to newcomers and frustrating even to veteran triathletes. Time counts every bit as much in the transition area as it does out on the course. In events that are Olympic distance or shorter, transitions should be raced, with the objective of gaining as much time as possible over the competition, as opposed to viewing them as, well, nothing more than a transition between events. So, what’s the key to speed in transition? Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity…combined with a little bit of planning and practice. Let’s break this down by showing how a little planning can help.

What to Wear This is a crucial factor in improving transition speed. If you are planning to add shorts or a jersey in either T1 or T2, this will slow you significantly. For races that are Olympic distance or shorter, plan on wearing the same attire from start to finish. Typically, this means wearing tri shorts and perhaps a racing top. Be cautious about wearing a racing top with pockets – these are great for carrying items on the bike, but will burden you with unnecessary drag during the swim. And in races that are Olympic distance or shorter, pockets are usually unnecessary for the bike. If you plan to wear a watch at any point during the race, wear it right from the start so you can avoid having to put it on during T1 or T2.

Socks or sockless? If you’ve always worn socks while racing, going without them can definitely make you more efficient during transition. Of course, socks are very effective at preventing blisters, and you may need to develop a sound blister management policy prior to ditching the socks. Blister management may include anything from covering your feet in a product such as BodyGlide (before the race, not in transition) to sprinkling powder in your shoes to reduce friction. There are also shoes that have a softer (or seamless) lining to prevent irritation when going sockless and shoes that are designed to drain moisture more efficiently (always a nice option for triathletes). Ultimately, going sockless is something to experiment with in your quest for transition speed, but it should not be pursued if it results in blisters that become a painful distraction during the race.

Speed Enhancing Equipment There are a few pieces of gear that are crucial if you are pursuing serious transition speed. Here’s a quick summary:

  • Bike Shoes: Look for a shoe that has Velcro straps that open to the outside (lateral side) of the shoe. Why is this important? Rather than putting your bike shoes on in transition, it is much faster to clip your shoes into the pedals in advance and insert your feet once you are out on the course and have picked up speed (this requires some practice, but once mastered will definitely improve your speed, not to mention it will make you look like a pro!) Straps that open to the lateral side of the shoe will not interfere with the chain or front derailleur while they are unfastened.
  • Racer Belt: We’ve already covered that it is best to wear your tri shorts and racing top the entire way rather than putting them on in T1 or T2. However, you will be required to wear a number during the run and since it is not efficient to wear it pinned to your tri shorts during the swim, it is best to attach it while leaving T2. A racer belt (a simple elastic band to which your number can be clipped or pinned) that can be worn around your waist offers the most efficient way to attach your number as you race out of T2.
  • Quick Ties or Elastic Laces: Whether it’s Cord Locks or Yankz!, eliminating the need to tie shoes in T2 is something that every triathlete can appreciate. Not only do these laces make your transition much quicker and less frustrating, they also ensure that the laces will not come untied while out on the course.
  • Racing Flat or Performance Trainer: Even if you’ve become a master of the brick workout, your legs may still feel like petrified wood as you exit T2. A lightweight shoe, whether it’s a Performance Trainer or Racing Flat can help get you into your run tempo quicker by eliminating some weight and providing that all important sensation that you still have some zip and speed left in your legs.

Pre-Race Now it’s time to think about pre-race strategies to enable you to blaze through your transitions. Let’s start by considering your location within the transition area. These days, most races assign transition spots based on race number, but there are still some that offer a first come, first served policy when it comes to selecting your transition spot. Regardless of whether you have a pre-assigned transition rack, you will want to choose a position that is on the outside of the rack. This provides the easiest in/out access and also makes it easier to find your location as you???re racing through transition. How do you secure an outside position? That’s easy. Just make sure you show up before these spots are taken (this requires that you get there pretty early on race day). You’ll notice that the savvy individuals who show up early on race day always grab these spots first. Now that you’ve staked out your transition “turf,” you need to perform some advance scouting in order to understand traffic flow from the swim finish to the transition area. Practice locating your bike in the transition area from the direction you will be coming out of the water. In fact, it is best to walk through the entire course from the beach up to your location in the transition area, taking note of surface conditions and the most efficient way to get to your bike. Be sure to do this, as the scenery always looks a little different during the race than it looks prior to the start. If you have not walked through this, you may lose time trying to locate your bike. The same can be said for T2. Practice locating your transition spot from the perspective you will have after you dismount from your bike. It is ideal to find a distinguishing feature that identifies your location, but you can also pay attention to the numbers (if racks are numbered) or count rows of transition racks and make a mental note of the row in which you are located (this is where it is also beneficial to have an outside position on your transition rack). Minimally, make a note as to whether you are in the front, middle or rear portion of the transition and whether you are on the left or right side from the point of entry. Now that you have found the ideal position in transition and scouted the entry and exit routes, it’s time to get your gear set up in the most efficient manner.

Transition Space Layout Simplicity must reign supreme here. Start by placing a towel on the ground at your chosen transition spot. This will provide you with a clean, dry area on which to place your gear. Rack your bike so that your handlebars are facing outward (hook the bike to the rack using the saddle or the rear bottle cage if you use one of these devices). Make sure your water bottles with your favorite race day mix are placed in the bottle cages in advance. Only items you will need during the race should be visible in your transition spot. These include:

  • Helmet: Place this on your handlebars, resting upside down, with straps open and placed to the side to make it very easy to pick up and put on.
  • Bike Shoes: Attach these to your pedals in advance to ensure precious seconds are not lost trying to get them on your feet during in T1. This will also save you from the potentially dangerous act of running out of T1 while wearing bike shoes.
  • Run Shoes: Place these away from the bike to ensure they don’t get bumped or moved during T1. If using cord locks, make sure these are opened and the shoes are loosened to give easy access to your foot.
  • Socks: If wearing socks, these should be rolled down to ensure they can be put on easily and they should rest on top of or next to your run shoes. The assumption here is that socks will be worn during the run only. Putting socks on after the swim is more difficult due to sand and grit that gets picked up on the way to T1.
  • Racer Belt: Place this next to (but not on top of) your run shoes. This is the last thing that you will grab as you head out of T2.
  • Gel: Place a gel next to your run gear in the event that it is needed at the start of the run. Keep in mind that you will have been racing for a while and picking up some quick nutrients may be of great assistance, especially if you are facing the prospect of a 10K run. If you are going to consume a gel, it is best done early on in the run.
  • Extra Water Bottle: In the event that you went through the entire supply of your favorite race day drink on the bike, a few sips from a water bottle containing this drink can be a lifesaver as you head out of T2. Once you???ve got what you need, dispose of this bottle properly.
  • Bike: Be sure your bike is in the proper gear before placing it on the transition rack. The last thing you want as you start the bike is to be in too high or too low a gear. Take note of the course profile coming out of transition and select a gear that will allow you to pedal quickly at the start of the bike. A good pre-race checklist should include all these items so nothing, no matter how obvious (including your bike and shoes…believe me, it has happened) can be forgotten. Of course, there are other items worth keeping nearby in transition (tubes, pumps, water, extra nutritional items in the event of an unexpected bonk, etc.), so plan on bringing a good race day bag that can accommodate all these peripheral items so they do not clutter your transition area. Now that we’ve covered everything to consider prior to the race, let’s go through how it will all come together during the race.

T1: Swim to Bike T1 begins during the final phases of the swim. Don’t approach a triathlon as three separate legs with transitions in between, think of it as one complete event. Going harder at the end of the swim leg so you get a good swim split will only leave you gasping for air as you exit the water and head towards T1. You are throwing away time by doing this. Mentally prepare for the run to transition during the final 50-100 yards of the swim. Continue your tempo from the swim all the way through the run to the transition area. As you are running to T1, take care of the basics. Remove goggles and cap and be sure to recall the route to your spot that you scouted before the race start. If you happen to be wearing a wetsuit, remove the top half as you are running to T1. As you enter transition, be thinking of everything that needs to take place next (here’s where you’ll really appreciate simplicity).

  1. Find your spot: whether it’s counting rows of transition racks, finding a landmark that is near your spot of simply knowing where you are located, getting to your transition area in the most direct manner is crucial. This is where scouting the route in advance pays dividends.
  2. Drop Cap and Goggles/Remove Wetsuit: This is, of course, quite an obvious step, but be sure to drop your cap and goggles away from the rest of your gear. If wearing a wetsuit, quickly peel down the bottom half and pull it over your feet (applying a little Body Glide to your ankles before the start can be useful here). Removal of the wetsuit is easier when sitting, but can also be done while standing (this requires a little more practice). Don’t worry about the wetsuit being inside out or not being placed perfectly in your spot – the goal is to move quickly, not win a prize for neatness of appearance.
  3. Helmet: Put on your helmet and be sure to buckle the strap right away.
  4. Bike: Take your bike from the rack and move quickly toward the “Bike Exit” area of T1. Be sure to cross the exit line (or you will be assessed a penalty) prior to mounting your bike. Grab the handlebars, place one foot on a shoe (already clipped to the pedal) and use your other foot to push off the ground to get started. Once on your bike, get up to a reasonable speed before strapping into your shoes. You may lose a little time getting your feet in place, but at least you will be moving forward at a good clip, as opposed to doing this while standing still in transition.

That’s it! T1 has been simplified to dropping cap and goggles, strapping on helmet and grabbing your bike. Be sure to go through these steps mentally prior to the race and maybe even practice them (especially getting into your shoes on the bike) prior to the start on race day.

T2: Bike to Run Like T1, T2 begins during the final phases of the bike leg. For starters, you will want to unfasten the straps of your bike shoes and place your feet on top of the shoes. This is easily done while you are cruising at speed down towards T2 (there is usually a bit of a descent heading back towards transition since it is normally near the water). Again, mentally go through the steps you will take while in T2 during the final half-mile of the bike ride. Keep your speed up, but don’t sprint the last mile, as this will just wear you out as you go through transition. As you approach T2, remember you must be completely off your bike by the time you cross the dismount line. As you approach this line, hold the handlebars and swing one leg over the bike so you are ready to dismount cleanly (bike shoes will remain clipped to your pedals), slowly apply the brakes and, just before you stop, hop off the bike to take advantage of your momentum as you begin running with your bike through transition. Once in T2, be thinking of everything that must happen next:

  1. Find your Spot: Use the same system that you used while entering T1 to locate your gear in the transition area – remember, the scenery will be different now that your bike is not with the rest of your gear.
  2. Rack Bike: Simply hook the brake levers to the transition rack. This will be the easiest and quickest way to rack your bike.
  3. Remove Helmet: Make sure this is done after you rack your bike.
  4. Socks/Shoes: If wearing socks, you will lose a little time here. If not, simply slip on your shoes.
  5. Racer Belt: Grab your racer belt, but don’t worry about attaching it while in transition. You can attach the belt as you exit transition and begin the run.
  6. Bottle/Gel: If necessary, grab the extra bottle and gel that were placed next to your run gear.

That’s all for T2. Again, it’s simple and efficient: rack bike, remove helmet, slip on shoes, grab racer belt and start running! Now it’s time to put what has been covered into practice.

Make it a goal to have the fastest transition splits in your age group, or perhaps for the entire field. It’s an easy way to cut time without adding to your training, and you may find that winning the transitions translates to that elusive top-three, or perhaps, first-place finish.

Have Fun and Good Luck!