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Triathlon

From Water to Wheels

How to execute a speedy swim-bike transition

Terry Heggy | July 2, 2015

In triathlon, a quick transition not only lowers your total race time, but also puts you in a good mental state for the next leg of the competition. When your transition is efficient and smooth, you feel energized and focused to race even faster. Here are some key transition considerations, and tips for getting onto your bike quickly after the swim.

Prepare Your Gear

Think about the things you’ll need during the race.

Ramp shoes (optional)

If the run from the swim exit to your bike is especially long, the surface rough, or your feet tender—and if the course allows it—it may be worthwhile to wear shoes for the run up to the bike pen. If you think you can make up more time by running faster than it takes you to put the shoes on, you can set a pair of slip-on sneakers right by the water’s edge to grab when you come out. Your feet will also tend to be less damp and dirty when you reach your bike.

Towel (optional)

Sand in your shoes is miserable, so if the race provides a transition water bath, run through it to clean your feet. If it’s a salt-water swim and showers are available, rinse your body quickly but thoroughly. Use a small towel, chamois, or brush to clear any remaining debris. Don’t waste time drying anything that doesn’t need it.

Seating (optional)

If you do anticipate sitting down during transition and the rules allow it, you can use a small campstool or overturned bucket. If you plan to sit on a towel, bring two; don’t try to dry off with the same one.

Sunscreen and anti-chafing products (optional)

Base your choices here depending on weather, race duration, etc. If you do apply anything after the swim, pretest the dispenser to ensure that it’s set up to go on quickly.

Bib number, shirt, shorts, socks, gloves (optional)

It’s fastest to race in a tri suit that requires no additional clothing, but if you don’t have one, choose clothes that slip on easily, even when you’re wet and breathing hard. It’s frustrating to have socks or a shirt get stuck partway on because they got damp. Don’t leave any clothing folded up, and unzip your jersey for easier access. If you have a bib number pinned to a shirt or on a separate belt, pre-test the process of putting it on to make sure it goes on smoothly.

Racing without socks or gloves definitely speeds up the transition, but determine in advance if you’ll be comfortable doing the ride without them.

Helmet (required), sweatband (optional), and sunglasses (optional)

Before the race, put your glasses in the helmet, and leave the helmet straps unbuckled. Glasses go on first, then the remainder of your headgear, snugly secured.

Cycling shoes (required)

Some racers prefer to clip the shoes onto the pedals and insert the feet into them as they mount the bike. This is very fast, but requires practice, as well as shoes that enable the technique. It also requires you to run out of the transition area without shoes, which risks getting additional debris stuck to your feet. If your shoes are hard to slip into, a shoehorn can speed up the process. In any case, when you set up your transition, verify your shoes’ straps are open so your feet can slip in easily.

Hydration and fuel (optional)

For a longer race, you may want to have additional fluids or food in the transition area. You can eat and drink faster with open packages and wide-mouth containers that wouldn’t be usable on the bike.

Running gear (required)

Keep your running gear separate from your cycling stuff. Pick an arrangement that is likely to survive the chaos of the swim-bike transition.

Bike (required)

In addition to normal bike prep (tire pressure, water bottles, race numbers, etc.), be sure it’s in the correct (low) gear for starting your ride. Know what position your pedals need to be in for mounting.

Plan your approach with efficiency in mind. Arrange your transition elements beside your bike in the sequence you’ll access them during the race. If it could be windy, determine how to keep your gear anchored. Also, plan where to put your discarded cap, goggles, and wetsuit so that they won’t interfere with your bike-run transition. (Same with helmet and cycling shoes when you finish the bike ride.) You don’t want to have to think about anything—just grab and go.

Know the Course

Veteran triathlete Reynold Kalstrom’s quick transitions helped him to be first in his age group to get on the bike in both the IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 World Championships in 2014. He says, “Having a swim exit plan is a critical part of a fast and stress-free transition.” He recommends reviewing the course carefully, and pre-planning every motion within your transition. “Count the rows of bikes, and know what your bike’s position looks like from the swim exit area.”

Find out everything you can about the entire transition landscape, including the location of showers, wetsuit assistance, possible traffic bottlenecks, bike mount/dismount lines, etc. Kalstrom also recommends checking the water depth and footing at the swim exit so you’ll know when to stand up. “On a smooth or sandy beach, swim until your hand touches the bottom,” he says. “If it’s too rocky to run on, swim until it’s too shallow to swim anymore.”

Race Smart

When you finish swimming, stand up carefully, but don’t try to sprint right away. Just move quickly and deliberately without wasted motion. After a wetsuit swim, strip the arms off and pull the suit down to your waist as you run to transition. If the race provides wetsuit strippers, select one and sit where they can easily pull it off. Otherwise, head to your bike and drop your cap and goggles, and then pull the wetsuit off. Because you have planned and practiced your transition so well, you’ll be able to put on your biking gear and run to the “bike mount” line without losing momentum.

Above All, Practice!

Was it Lao Tzu who first said, “Don’t do anything for the first time on race day”? Maybe not, but it remains good advice today. Practice everything under near-race conditions so you know it’ll work when it needs to. Especially:

  • Train in the shoes and socks (or no-socks) configuration you’ll use on race day. This might include running in your cycling shoes while rolling a bicycle across a field.
  • Test your tolerance for sand and dirt on your feet, and develop a cleaning or wiping method that’s as fast as possible within that tolerance.
  • Time yourself with different sequences and transition area layouts. Minimize where possible—Don’t wear anything you don’t need, and don’t do anything that isn’t absolutely necessary.
  • Practice every transition element when you’re wet and panting vigorously from a hard swim. Putting on shoes (or a shirt, or bib number belt) is easy when you’re relaxed, but becomes exponentially more difficult when your heart is pounding and your chest is heaving.

By preparing properly, you’ll ensure that you’ll be out of the water and onto the bike quickly and easily for your best race ever!

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About the Author—Terry Heggy

Terry "Speed" Heggy has been swimming for more than 50 years. He won his age group in the 10K Open Water Championship in 2006, competed in the National Championship Olympic Distance Triathlon in 2014, and qualified again for USAT Nationals in 2015. He's the head coach of Team Sopris Masters in Glenwood Springs, Colo., and is a USMS-certified Level 3 Masters coach and an NASM Certified Personal Trainer.

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