Triathlon Transitions: Tips & Thoughts


I learned that it would've been fine to keep on my pullover and flip flops almost until the last minute since I had family there to hand the gear off to.

Having just completed my first sprint triathlon, I am by no means an expert or even a well-versed triathlete. However, from that first experience I think I learned some things during the transitions and in hindsight have realized some things about the transitions that are definitely valuable to me as I prepare for triathlon number two. If for no other reason than to be able to remember them later, I wanted to share some of the thoughts I have on triathlon transitions and perhaps this information will come in handy for others as they prepare for triathlons. And please, if you have triathlon transition tips or suggestions, please feel free to share them!

The transitions were a part of the triathlon that I agonized over during training. Despite my anxiety over transitions the most I did to prepare was to go for a short run after half a dozen or so bike rides. I also talked to every person I know who’d done a triathlon to get their advice and my husband and I watched an ING triathlon on TV one day and I got to see how the pros do their transitions. Needless to say I was floored when I saw that they did not dry off after the swim, didn’t wear socks, and seemed to be in and out of the transition area in a matter of seconds. The only other real “preparation” I did was all mental; I visualized how I thought my transitions would go. I am one that definitely learns by doing so I knew that there was no way I’d really understand transitions and how to make them go smoother until I’d actually done them.

Because the day of our triathlon had predicted thunderstorms I went to extra efforts with my gear that I imagine one would not do if the day were sunny and clear. I had a large trash bag next to my bike with all my gear in it and I did the best to organize my gear in the bag in the order I would need it. I then folded the bag over top itself so that my stuff would stay dry if it did downpour.

Laying It All Out

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I had not thought ahead of time that there might be a place in the transition area that would be better than others. I am sure everyone has their opinion on this but I was very happy with our middle of the pen spot. We were equi-distant between the bike in/out gate and the run out gate. We also picked a spot toward the end of a rack rather than smack in the middle which for me was just less time I had to manhandle my bike. The best lesson I learned in transition placement, however, is to bring a balloon. It did not occur to me that I might not be able to find my bike, but when I saw that another triathlete in our row had tied a large balloon to the rack by their bike I was beyond grateful that I would be able to find my bike later. And of course, I made a mental note to bring a balloon to future events.

With the bike on the rack it’s time to layout gear. I laid things out in the order I thought I would need them, stared at it, and then reordered. You think it’d be obvious–swim, bike, run. I had my running shoes on the inside of the line with my running number belt next to them with the number pinned on, and then my bike shoes. I put one sock in each shoe and my sunglasses on top of my shoes. (Some people like to put them in their helmet.) On top of all that I put my little towel.

I hung my helmet on the back of my seat within easy reach, my water bottle was filled and in the cage on my bike, and everything seemed to be in order. I definitely checked and double checked that everything I would need was there and easy to grab. I’m glad I did this because the transitions went so quickly (though not at top speed like the pros) that it would be easy to miss something if it weren’t in a pre-organized location.

Swim to Bike

Normally my tall husband is how I find my stuff, but transitioning at different times made having the balloon on our rack the best way to find my bike.

Normally my tall husband is how I find my stuff, but transitioning at different times made having the balloon on our rack the best way to find my bike.

I got very excited about the race and was stripped down to just my suit, goggles, and swim cap a good hour before I needed to be in the water. It was relatively cool that morning and because of how close the crowd was allowed to be to the start it would have been a piece of cake to have kept on my flip flops and long-sleeve shirt until the last second and hand them off to my family. Instead I jumped around in the grass and rocks and dirt barefoot to keep warm. Next time, I would prefer to keep my flip flops on as well as an extra layer if necessary, until the last second, so long as it can be handed off to someone. I know there are people out there with layers and shoes they’re willing to just toss and if they never get them back they’re ok with it–I am not one of those people.

Running barefoot from the swim to the bike was fine; the race organizers had mats down leading up the hill to the transition gate which helped with traction as well as keeping our feet kind of clean. When I got to my bike (which I found thanks to the balloon!), I grabbed the towel that was on top and quickly wiped my face before setting on the ground and standing on it. While the towel soaked up some water from my feet I got my sunglasses on and my helmet on. Then I gave my feet a quick wipe and pulled one sock on as quickly as possible and then my Shimano bike shoe. My bike shoes have two Velcro straps and one binding strap (like a ski boot) which are fine for normal biking days but if I decided to get heavy into triathlons I may look for shoes with less involved buckling systems. Second shoe on, towel out of the way, and I pulled the bike off the rack and headed out the gate. My swim to bike transition was 1:50.

As a side note–my brother-in-law practiced biking and running without socks and swears by it. He shakes talcum powder all through both sets of shoes and says it works fine. I love the idea of not having to ski

Awesome volunteers were standing by to hold the backs of seats as we clipped into our pedals which I was grateful for. During the morning’s information meeting, the race organizers advised being in a low gear for the bike start. I thought I was in a low enough gear but wish I would’ve taken the time to go even lower. My brother-in-law put his bike into a lower gear by spinning the pedals while it was on the rack and ended up having his chain pop off when he started the bike. I’m not sure if it popped off because of changing the gears without riding, but I think if I’m going to make a pre-race gear change that I will get on the bike and ride it to make the change.

Coming back into the transition area after the bike there was a slight downhill and volunteers were telling everyone to slow down. Again, I thought I was going slow enough, but when I unclipped and hopped off my forward momentum had me going much faster than I anticipated and it’s a wonder I didn’t fall down. It’s hard enough to get around in clip-in shoes, let alone when your body is in “go” mode. I’d love to get to the point where I can unclip and swing a leg over the bike before getting off but I think that will take some practice.

Bike to Run

It's definitely ok to be putting gear on while long as you're going in the right direction!

It's definitely ok to be putting gear on while long as you're going in the right direction!

My bike to run transition was a rushed mess, or at least that’s how it felt. I was so focused on getting through the transition quickly that the first thing I did was put my bike on the rack in the wrong spot. Granted, I only took my brother-in-law’s spot rather than a stranger’s but it felt like bad triathlon etiquette to steal someone else’s rack space. As soon as my bike was on the rack I struggled to get my helmet unclipped and by the time I did I yanked it off so quickly that it went flying. In hindsight, I could have gotten it off faster if I had just slowed down a second to focus but my adrenalin was pumping.

Getting my shoes off did not go so quickly either. Undoing the Velcro was fine but my hands were shaking from adrenalin and it took me longer than normal to get the bindings undone. I also took off both biking shoes before putting on my running shoes and I think next time I will do one foot at a time. Bike shoe off, running shoe on. I normally double knot my running shoes but again, because of adrenalin and shaky hands I skipped this step. It didn’t end up mattering but for the next tri which has a 10K I want my shoes tied the way they normally are so I will need to slow down to make this happen.

Once my shoes were on I had my race number belt in my hand and was strapping it on while running toward the exit gate. However, I was running toward the wrong gate and had my family yelling to me that I was going the wrong way. Even though I had noted earlier that the run exit was in the opposite direction than the bike exit I still went the wrong way. Amazing what a little excitement will do to your focus! Turned around toward the run exit I finally got the belt buckled and was on my way with a bike to run transition time of 1:12.

Perhaps the biggest lesson from my¬† first triathlon transition experience is to try to stay calm and focus. While I know it’s possible to go from swim to bike and bike to run during training, and while I think that’s worth doing, the added components of race day like adrenalin, cheering crowds, and other triathletes are hard to factor into training. I loved the first triathlon and I actually think the transitions were a big part of the fun. It’s a chance to see the crowd and it’s a time when excitement builds because you’re moving on to the next sport. The key is to do so as smoothly as possible.

If you have triathlon experiences, tips, advice, words of caution, or thoughts you want to share, please feel free to do so. We can all learn from each other. And, remember your balloon!

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