Triathlon: Tips for Faster Transitions

By Raymond Britt
Published in Chicago’s Windy City Sports magazine
Official Accenture Chicago Triathlon Program

You’ve been training for months to swim, bike and run in your big triathlon*. You’re as ready as you’re going to be. You even think you know how fast you might go in all three disciplines. But wait. Don’t forget to factor in your transition time.

[* In this article, that big triathlon is the Chicago Triathlon, but the transition tips can be applied to any triathlon.]

And in the Chicago Triathlon, your transition time could be noticeable. For as long as I’ve been racing it, the Chicago Triathlon has, in one form or another, featured transitions that are among the lengthiest in the sport. This year is no exception.

Your transition times on race day can eat up ten minutes or more, and the clock is running the entire time. Want to get through transition as fast as possible? Read on.

Getting It Right Before the Race

You can make your transitions run smoothly before the race begins, as you prepare your space in the transition area. Get an edge and save time by getting it right, before the race starts.

Go early. Wheel your bike and gear into transition with plenty of time before they close the transition area. Yes, it will be painfully early. Yes, it will be worth it to have the extra time to get everything just right.

Rack Your Bike. Find the bike rack with that matches your bib number. Before putting your bike on the rack, make sure it’s in the gear you want when you start your ride. Simple thing. It will help you start faster.

Get Your Gear Ready. Once the bike is on the rack, lay out your gear efficiently. I use the space no wider than my handlebars.

* Left side, under the pedal and beside the wheel: bike shoes in front, running shoes behind them; socks on each bike shoe, half rolled up to make it easier to put them on; optional — running cap on the running shoes.
* Right side: gear bag (bright yellow), opened, with other things I might need (gels, ibuprofen, extra sunglasses.

Put everything else you will need on your bike:

* Helmet on the handlebars (clip the chinstrap, or it may fall and roll away)
* Sunglasses and gloves in helmet
* One bottle of your preferred drink in bottle cage; you can refill at aid stations
* Optional, but good for nutrition: two 100-calorie GU gels taped to your handlebars; take one every 10 miles on the bike

Don’t Change. An easy way to shave time on your transitions: don’t even think of changing clothes. Wear one race outfit throughout the entire race, including bib number. For me, it’s a cycling shirt, cycling shorts and race belt holding the bib number. I wear it all under my wetsuit in the water. It will not make a difference in your swim, but it will save time and energy in transition.

Rehearse. With everything in place in the transition area, I stand in front of my bike and do a short mental rehearsal – what I’ll reach for, where it is, what’s next. It gives me final confidence it’s all there.

Your Transition Path. The last thing to do before you leave transition before the race is to figure out how to find your bike after the swim. Count the number of rows between your bike and a natural landmark (e.g., a tree), relative to the swim and bike entrances (for your bike to run transition). Visualize your entry from the swim and bike, trace the steps, and it will be easy.

Swim to Bike Transition

The Chicago Triathlon swim to bike transition distance is one of the longest in the sport. But you can handle it.

Run Now? Yes. As you step out of the water, you’ll have a journey of several hundred yards ahead of you before you actually enter the transition zone. I typically run it, and it takes me about three minutes. As I run, I begin to peel my wetsuit down to the waist to save time.

Look Cool. Important: As you run into the transition area, look cool. A photographer may snap your photo for later viewing.

Like Clockwork. After your photo op, count the rows from that landmark and aim for your bike rack. Once there, you can go through the transition process in pretty fast order:

* Remove rest of wetsuit, and drop it, cap and goggles on the bag to the right of your bike wheel.
* Sit down (you’ll still be a little disoriented), pull socks and cycling shoes on
* Take your bike off the rack, and start heading to the transition exit
* While pushing your bike, put your sunglasses and helmet on (make sure to secure the chin strap); you can don the gloves then, or as you start the bike ride
* Pass over the timing mat and off you go . . .

Bike to Run Transition

The bike to run transition is simpler and much faster than swim to bike. There’s no extra distance, no unwieldy wetsuit to deal with. It’s pretty much in and out.

Start Early. Within a ½ mile of the finish I remove my cycling gloves and put them on my aerobars. Closer to the bike finish, I reach down to loosen my cycling shoes.

Change Quickly. The transition itself is simple. Rack your bike. Replace the helmet with your running cap. Keep sunglasses in place. Bike shoes off; running shoes on (try a locking lace system instead of tying shoes to save more time). Off you go.

Look Cool. There may not be a photographer at the run course entrance, but look cool anyway. There will be many spectators waiting for you, and you don’t want to disappoint.

Final Note: Speed may slow you down

Past experience has taught me that the more I try to speed up in transition, the more mistakes I make. Every time.

Don’t rush, just take it easy. Remember, you’ll have already laid things out perfectly, so it’s almost autopilot. No need to rush, just glide through transition. And you’ll save time along the way.