How to Transition in a Triathlon

By: Craig Haggit
There may be many bicycles on the racks when you leave for the ride but few when you return, or vice versa, so remember where you put your equipment.
Cathrin Mueller/Bongarts/Getty Images

If someone were to ask you what a triathlon was, most of us would describe the three sports -- swimming, cycling and running -- that make up the traditional triathlon and almost always occur in that order. And this would be correct, as far as it goes. But you'll rarely see triathletes biking with their swimming caps on, and, for that matter, they wouldn't win many competitions trying to run with bicycle cleats, either.

Each triathlon has a special place called a transition area (and there is almost always only one such zone) where participants change gear and clothing and do anything else they might need to do before moving on to the next stage. Now, you might think this would be a good time to catch your breath, pop a candy bar or wax eloquent about your favorite electrolyte with the other athletes. If you're doing the triathlon for fun or to just see if you can finish, then knock yourself out. In fact, first-time triathletes should be more concerned with getting familiar with the whole scene.


But if you're in it to win, the transition can easily make or break you -- and the clock keeps on ticking. Moving between events in the most efficient way possible means you won't have to make up that time on the bike or during the run, conserving energy for when you really need it. According to statistics from the International Triathlon Union, the average time difference between the top two male triathletes in the first five events of 2010 was a narrow 6.6 seconds. For women, it was only 3.2 seconds. If you think for a moment about how long it takes to take a drink, put on some socks or eat a granola bar, you can begin to appreciate just how important the transition can be.

Top triathletes can complete the first transition (swim-cycle) in less than a minute, and the second changeover (cycle-run) in less than 30 seconds [source: International Triathlon Union]. For less competitive triathlons, good transitions average around 2 minutes and 45 seconds, respectively.

In this article, we're going to look at each transition individually, exploring ways to shave away crucial seconds. Some will help you save time; others will help you avoid getting kicked out of the race altogether. Next, let's look at what you need to do as you get out of the water.


Triathlon Transition 1

As you finish the swim, stretch your ankles so they don't cramp, then get out of the water slowly to give your legs a short reintroduction to land.
Getty Images

If you're a spectator, watching a transition area in a triathlon is a great time, but it can be a den of chaos for an athlete. Before we talk about tips and tricks for getting through this gauntlet, we should get familiar with how these areas are set up.

In most triathlons, the transition area is located somewhere between the end of the swim and the start of the bike ride and consists of any of various arrangements of bicycle racks and entrance/exit points. This can mean a short walk from the water's edge or a run of a few hundred yards. Most organizers try to control the mayhem with specific entrances and exits for each sport -- and by ensuring the athletes all move in the same direction within the same space.


After the race has started and you're heading into the swim-cycle transition (T1), start thinking about where your bike is. When you get out of the water, the first thing you're going to do is make your way to your bicycle and remove your wetsuit, if you're wearing one.

Once you've removed your wetsuit, you need to put on your helmet and shoes, make sure you have water and that your race number in its proper place (the event rules should tell you where this is). These are required either because the regulations or your body demand it. There are many optional things you can do, which we'll discuss later in the article. Sunglasses, lotion and even dirt can all play a big role in your transition. We're talking seconds here -- no detail is too small.

Once you've removed your swimming gear and finished prepping for the bicycle ride, walk or run your bicycle out of the transition area. If you get on the bike too soon, you could be disqualified. Know the rules for each race.

Next, we'll take a look at the second transition.


Triathlon Transition 2

As mentioned, most triathlons are organized so that a single, general area and its immediate surroundings serve many functions: starting lines, spectator zone, transitions and finish line. That's a lot of activity for one spot - know that each time you come here it won't look the same as when you left. Depending on where you are in the race, there may be many bicycles on the racks when you leave for the ride but few when you return, or vice versa. This is why you really need to know where your gear is and how to get to it fast. As you enter Transition 2, your body's been working extra hard, depriving your brain of oxygen. The less you need to think about what you're doing, the better.

To get ready for the transition, try biking in a lower gear on the last kilometer or so of the ride. This will help prepare your legs for the faster stride of the run, making it feel less awkward. It would probably help you to remember again where your gear is, since your bicycle is no longer marking your spot.


Also, be sure to get off of your bike no later than the dismount line. Once you reach your station, rack your bike and remove your helmet. Change into your running shoes, grab your shades if it's bright out, and any hat, visor, water or energy food you might need. If you have a race belt with your number, don't forget to grab that as well. Put on the headgear and race belt as you run out of the transition area.

Note that transition times vary based on both your preparation and individual race organization. The cycle-run transition should take somewhat less time than the swim-cycle transition, in part because you don't have a bulky wetsuit to remove.

Now that you know what's involved in each transition, let's explore ways to help you do it faster and with a lot less stress.


Triathlon Transition Tips

The first element of any successful transition is preparation. Use a triathlon bag to stay organized and arrive early enough to set up properly.

Some races preassign a specific location to each athlete, but if allowed, choose a spot at the end of one of the racks. This will let you quickly locate your bike, give you more room to transition and help avoid destruction if the rack collapses from too much weight. If your bike does end up in the middle of a rack, carefully note the location so you won't waste time searching for it later.


Hanging your bike by the front of the seat provides good stability and access. Place your helmet on your bike's handlebars if it's stable, with your sunglasses inside. Lastly, make sure your bike is in the right gear for starting the ride and that the tires are properly inflated and wheels are aligned [source: Ricci].

Lay out a towel next to your bike with all the gear you'll need for the entire race on it. Have separate sections of the towel for each leg of the race, with your biking gear in front. Place an extra water bottle here to rinse the dirt and grit off your feet after the swim so you don't get blisters on the bike or run.

As you finish the swim, stretch your ankles so they don't cramp, get out of the water slowly to give your legs a short reintroduction to land, then hurry to the transition area, pulling your wetsuit down to your waist as you do so [source: Scott]. Remove the rest of the wetsuit as quickly as possible at your transition area. Lubricating the lowest part of the inside of your wetsuit might help you remove it faster.

Competitive triathletes sometimes mount their shoes onto their bikes during setup, using rubber bands stretched from one of the pedals to the rear axle or quick-release bar. Slipping on their well-positioned shoes, they break the rubber band as they begin to pedal. It's easier if you start with your feet on top of your shoes at first [source: Scott]. It takes practice, but this can save precious seconds. You might also consider using elastic shoestrings and lubricating your biking shoes so your foot slips in more quickly. Attach any nutrition packs to the bike with tape for easy access after you start the ride.


Tips for the Second Transition

Arriving at your transition area, quickly place your bike on the rack and remove your helmet (you should've unstrapped it by this time). Your running shoes should be sitting on your towel, with the tongues and straps up and loose so your foot slides in easily. In one seamless motion, take each foot out of your cycling shoe and place it in the running shoe. Elastic laces that can be used with almost any shoe can eliminate the need to tie or tighten a strap [source: Bernhardt].

If you're adding socks at this point, be sure you're standing on the towel so you don't have any dirt or gravel to contend with on the run. Like cycling shoes, special triathlon running shoes are made that reduce if not eliminate the need for socks, which can be hard to put on wet feet. It comes down to what you personally are most comfortable with. If you insist on socks, roll them up so you can unroll them onto your feet later instead of trying to pull them on.


You shouldn't need to physically train as much for the transitions as you do for the sports themselves, but you'd be wise to practice to the point where it's second nature. Above all, pick a routine that works best for you, and stick with it on race day. Changing your routine at the last minute will probably spell disaster.

Don't overlook being mentally prepared for the transition as well. Again, remind yourself how to get to your transition area after each sport, and mentally review your plan of attack once you get there. Visualize what you're going to do. Don't forget where the starting line is for the next leg of the triathlon.

Last but not least -- and we've definitely mentioned this before -- do not forget where your transition area is. You'll see these lost souls at any big triathlon: You do not want to be this person.

A good transition is as much art as science. Developing and perfecting your transition using the suggestions in this article will create a more stress-free and enjoyable experience for the entire race. Before long, it could even move you to the top of the podium.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bernhardt, Gale. "6 Ways to Develop Fast Transitions."
  • Edwards, Sally. "Triathlons for Women." VeloPress. 2010.
  • International Triathlon Union. "World Championship Series." 2010. (Aug. 6, 2010).
  • Kokomo Parks and Recreation. "Kokomo Sprint Triathlon Results." June 5, 2010. (Aug. 6, 2010).
  • Murray, Ian. "Transition: Getting it Right." Aug 25, 2009. (Aug. 5, 2010).
  • Ricci, Mike. "Triathlon Transition Setup and Execution." June 4, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2010).
  • Scott, Dave. "A Better Transition." Metro Sports Washington. Page 22. May 2009.
  • Scott, Dave. "Fast Transitioning: Swim to Bike." Sept. 10, 2007. (Aug. 5, 2010).
  • Stensland, Jessi. "Triathlon Transitions." Oct. 28, 2008. (Aug. 6, 2010).
  • Vance, Jim. "Eight Things Triathletes Do to Ruin Their Transitions." Competitor Magazine. April 2009.