8 transition zone tips to finish a faster triathlon

photo by Dustin Williams

It’s like something out of a bad dream:

You have the swim of your life, rushing out of the water with tenacity and focus, peeling off your wetsuit as you run into T1. As you prepare to mount your bike exiting the transition, you realize something really, really important: You left your bike shoes at home that morning.

As a triathlete, you probably prepare for your swim, bike, and run portions diligently for each race, but it’s likely the transitions aren’t even thought of until you actually get to the race itself.

Don’t make this first mistake when you’re competing in your triathlon. There are many common mistakes triathletes make when it comes to transitions, and each mistake adds to your overall time. Quit sandbagging yourself by taking these tips to the transition zone:

Tip #1: Plan ahead.
The night before a triathlon, you pack your bags. It seems easy enough. After all, you use this equipment in your training every day, so you should know by now what you need – right?
It’s very common to see triathletes, especially newbies, forget one or more essential items for their race and not realize it for race day. Before one of my first longer-distance triathlons, I realized during the race I forgot my race nutrition, heart rate monitor, and sunglasses to wear on the bike. That was a miserable race, and an even more miserable lesson learned.
Avoid this mistake by actually running through your transition the night you pack your race gear. Physically put on your wetsuit, goggles, etc., then pretend like you’ve just come out of the water. Transition into everything you need for the bike, actually sit on your bike, ride a little, dismount, then physically transition into your gear for the run.

Tip #2: Less is more.
While it’s important to have all the essentials, it’s also important to note that the essentials are just that – essential. You can’t perform in a race without them. There ia a huge difference between what you need to have and what you’d like to have.
There’s no need to bring in multiple changes of clothes, a seven-course meal, your dogs, and an underwater camera. Keep your necessities to a minimum.

Tip #3: Consolidate in the transition area to conserve space.
If you plan accordingly, you should be able to fit everything you need for your race either on your bike or on a hand towel directly under your bike. If you can’t accomplish this, revisit tips #1 & 2.
There’s hidden storage in everything – use a bento box for your gels, rest your helmet on your aerobars and use it to store your sunglasses, race belt, and anything that goes in the pocket of your tri-suit, and stick a couple gels in your running shoes so they’re waiting for you when you’re ready to go out on the run. Think creatively – not everything needs to be laying out in plain view.

Tip #4: Show up early to stake your land.
At a race, transition space is at a premium. When you show up late to a race, your fellow racers have already racked their bikes, set up their gear underneath, and are content with their race preparations. When you swagger in twenty minutes before the start of the race and discover all the bike racks are full, no one will be enthusiastic about moving their stuff to make space for you. Don’t be surprised if you get more than one eye-roll and heavy sigh when people begrudgingly make space for your gear shortly before the starting gun. Avoid this by showing up at least one hour before race start; if it’s a larger race, arrive even earlier.

Tip #5: Count.
You’d be surprised how often you’ll get lost in the transition zone. Before the race, count how many rows you pass on your way from the swim exit to your bike and mark it on your hand. When you’re disoriented coming out of the water, this can help tremendously.

Tips #6: Don’t dawdle.
It’s completely fine if you want to take your sweet time, but remember two things: 1) Your transition time counts in your overall time; and 2) There’s likely someone behind you. If you’re going to walk or slow down at any time in the transition area, move off to the side so that the racers who want to rush can maneuver around you.

Tip #7: Take the right shortcuts.
Though triathlon is made up of three different sports, it’s still a unique endeavor with unique products available to its athletes. Take advantage of this gear, such as tri suits which are created to wear in all three disciplines (therefore cutting down on the need to change clothes in transition) and speed laces (elastic laces to put in your running shoes so you don’t have to tie them when you go from the bike to the run).
Depending on what you’re OK with, cut corners where you’re comfortable. Use wetsuit strippers at the swim exit instead of wrestling your own wetsuit, leave your bike shoes clipped in to the pedals, and skip the socks (especially in shorter-distance triathlons).

Tip #8: Don’t wait until race day to execute.
All the fixes suggested above mean nothing unless you practice them in advance. If you leave your bike shoes clipped in to your pedals, for example, you’re going to crash the first few times you try to mount and dismount. Avoid embarrassment by practicing this skill on a grassy surface long before race day.
Here a real pro tip: if you can get onto the race course the day before the race, walk through the transition areas to get a feel for how things will work on race day. Practice those transition skills until you have them down without fumbling. Then, try to get faster. Just like with your swim, bike, and run training, you’ll find increased efficiency in your transition the more you practice.

Whether you’re a novice or a pro, chances are you can benefit from these tips throughout your triathlon career. Though the emphasis is still on the swim/bike/run combo, don’t neglect this important part of your race or you’re sure to have a bad dream come to life. No one wants to see that happen.

See you at the races!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Susan Lacke does 5Ks, Ironman triathlons, and everything in between. She serves as the Resident Triathlete for No Meat Athlete, a website designed for runners, triathletes, vegetarians, and all-around cool people. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanLacke.

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