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Transition: the (Oft Overlooked) Fourth Discipline of Triathlon

Many triathletes in their first few years of competition work hard on lowering their finish times, struggling to take a minute or two off the run or perhaps five minutes off the bike. However, often they overlook the place where you can easily take minutes off your race with a little preparation and smart thinking - the transition.

Triathlons have two transitions, both of which are places to pick up time without a lot of extra work. The swim to bike transition is known at T1 and the bike to run transition is T2. Here are some tips to shorten your transitions and improve your finish times.

Location, Location, Location

Where you place your bike in the transition area can definitely affect your T1 and T2 times. Depending on the race, you may be able to put your bike anywhere; some races have bike racks with specific race numbers, so you have to be on that rack; some races assign a specific rack location for each athlete. Regardless of the set-up, you want to position your bike closest to the Bike Exit. Why? It's slower to run with your bike than without, so you want to minimize the distance. You may run further to the Run Exit, but overall T2 will be faster.

Next, set up your gear. Going from the back of the bike to the front, lay out your bike gear first and your run gear closest to the front wheel - the order you will be using things. Open zippers on all clothing. Unbuckle the bike helmet strap and put the straps over the side. Place the helmet with its front towards the back of the bike, so you can pick it up and put on with one smooth motion. If you have aerobars, put the helmet on them so you don't need to bend over.

If you wear them, undo bike gloves and put in the helmet. Open your sunglasses and place them on top of your gloves (lenses toward front of helmet). Now you can quickly put on the sunglasses with one motion, then put on the gloves, then quickly put on the helmet and buckle.

Open up your bike shoes and running shoes by loosening the straps/laces so your feet can slip in quickly. A little baby powder will help also. If you wear socks, roll them down to the ankle. This makes them easier to get on, particularly with wet feet.

If you watch the pros, you'll notice they put their bike shoes on the bike before the race. The shoes can be secured horizontally with a rubber band to bike frame (which will pop off when you start pedaling). After exiting T1, the pros jump on the bike and put their feet on top of the shoes, and start pedaling; once they get going, they'll reach down and put their feet into the shoes. Likewise, approaching T2, they pull their feet out and ride on top of the shoes until they jump off the bike at the dismount line. This makes for very fast transitions, but if you want to try this you need to practice, practice, practice. Don't attempt this the first time at a race!

Map It Out

As soon as you have everything set up at your bike, walk to the Swim In. Walk back to your bike. Count the racks, aisles, etc. Look for permanent "landmarks" to point you to your rack - signs, water tables, trees, fence posts, and so on. Go back to Swim In and repeat.

Next, walk from your bike to the Bike Out. Thinking about doing this while running with your bike. See how to get out and where you can mount your bike after exiting, and where you have to dismount coming back in. Now walk back to your bike. Again look for permanent "landmarks" in this direction to point you to your rack and to your run gear. Remember that when you come into T2 it's going to look very different - a lot of the bikes may be out on the course. Repeat.

Now walk from your bike to the Run Out. Think about the best way to get there. Repeat.

Notice above I mentioned "permanent" landmarks. Many athletes bring their own location markers, such as a balloon or flag. It's also common to see chalk markings and arrows on the pavement to point the way to a bike. But, you shouldn't rely solely on these. Balloons can blow away in the wind, and flags may fall down. And chalk doesn't retain its look after a couple of hundred wet triathletes have run across it! Always know where to go by something that isn't going to move or disappear.

T1 Tips

When you come out of the water, unzip your wetsuit and pull it down to your waist as you are running towards transition. This helps prevent overheating and means less work once you get to the bike. Also take off your goggles and swim cap immediately on exiting the water; you may be light-headed and this will help.

When you reach your bike (after using those landmarks!) pull your wetsuit off inside out. Using a product like Suit Juice or Body Glide will help getting the suit off, particularly around the legs. Put the wet out of the way, under the rack. Don't worry about folding it; you can do that after the race. Make sure you don't drop the wet suit on any of your run gear - I did this once and forgot my race belt and race number. (And had to go back after a half mile run and get it!)

Put on your shorts, shirt, socks, and bike shoes as necessary. Put on sunglasses, bike gloves, then put on your helmet and fasten it. Grab our bike off the rack and head toward the exit. Remember that USAT rules state you must have helmet on and fastened whenever on the bike, so buckle then grab your bike. By the way, this rule also applies before and after the race. If you are riding your bike to transition race morning without a helmet or helmet unbuckled, you can be disqualified.

Run your bike out of transition and to the mount line using a seat carry. Position yourself on the left side of the bike (opposite side from the chain) and hold onto the seat with your right hand. Steer the bike by leaning it left and right. This takes a little work to feel comfortable, so practice it in training. Practice tight and wide right and left turns, and u-turns.

T2 Tips

When you are coming towards the end of the bike course, shift to a lower gear and pedal faster (higher cadence). This helps prepare your legs for the run. Get off the bike at the dismount line and run it in using the same seat carry. Remember those landmarks to find your gear.

Rack your bike, and remove your helmet and bike gloves. If you're wearing bike shoes remove them and quickly pull on your running shoes. Then, once your running shoes are on, grab everything else and start RUNNING! This includes gels, your hat, race belt and race number, water bottle, etc. As you are running out of transition you can throw on your hat, put the gels into a pocket, and put on your race belt. The key here is that you are doing all this while running, not killing time standing in transition.

Practice makes Perfect

These transition skills can improve your race times, but you need to practice before race day. Whenever you do a bike workout, practice running the bike with the seat carry. On a run workout, lay your run gear on the ground then pick it all up quickly and start running. Whenever you do a brick (bike + run workout), practice your T2 transition to make it smooth and efficient. And try a few swim + bike bricks so you can practice your T1 transitions too. Practice, think transitions through, set up correctly, and race smart - and you'll improve your race times, all without breaking more of a sweat during your swim, bike, and run workouts.