How to understand and remedy challenges of the swim-to-bike transition
Among the unique and exciting challenges of triathlon are the transitions from one discipline to the next. When you’re trying to shave time from your total race time, transitions can account for a lot of extraneous seconds or even minutes. More importantly, what happens in the transition interval itself can reveal deficits in energy as you attempt to adjust to the completely different demands of the next leg of the race.
Let’s look at what is going on in the transition from swim to bike.
Challenge: Position Change from Horizontal to Vertical
Much of the discomfort can come simply from the postural changes from exerting yourself in a horizontal position in the swim to jumping on your bike. A lot is going on here, starting with the vestibular adjustment in your inner ear. Finding your equilibrium relies on the agreement between your visual feedback, your awareness of the position and movement of your body (proprioception), and your brain. Add to this the continually changing position that comes with swimming in chop and doing so within a crowded pack of frenzied triathletes to a narrow chute on the beach.
It’s no wonder that you may feel unsteady, wobbly, or even momentary vertigo when you stand up. In your training sessions in the pool, you can incorporate elements that challenge your sense of equilibrium to better cope with this transition.
What to practice:
From a race pace, stop short of the wall in the deep end to vigorously tread water for at least 30 seconds, and then resume swimming. Do this as much as necessary until you can do this with ease. And then do it some more.
Add no-wall turns to a set of long repeats that are at least 200 yards or meters, and rotate yourself under the flags instead of at the wall. Try executing these rotations as quickly as possible without much loss of momentum in your swimming pace. Again, repeat this as much as necessary.
Between repeats or in between sets, pull yourself out of the water onto the pool deck as soon as you touch the wall and stand upright to get a sense of your position before getting back in the water.
The idea is to repeatedly subject yourself to a stressor to improve your natural response to it when the time comes—such is the rationale for endurance training in the first place!
Challenge: Swimming is a Totally Different Kind of Exercise
Whoever masterminded the sequence of a triathlon to make it as difficult as possible had to have done so with the idea that it would be most physically challenging to begin with the swim. Starting with the fact that you’re only able to breathe when your face isn’t in the water, swimming is a full-body cardiovascular endeavor that utilizes many muscle groups in your arms, legs, abdominals, and back to work in harmony with one another. Incidentally, you’ll need some reserve energy for the transition and latter two legs of the race when you’re finished.
If you’re feeling depleted as you round the last buoy, start preparing yourself for the transition while you’re still in the water. Since you’re about to shift more of your effort to your legs, get blood pumping down there by kicking harder in the last 50 to 100 meters or so. You’re literally stepping on the gas and forcing your body to send the fuel where it’s needed most.
What to practice:
You can easily incorporate this into your workouts by varying the intensity of your kicking.
As you approach the end of a repeat, kick hard for the last 15 to 20 yards/meters into the wall. When you get there, stand up and jog in place in the water.
During a kick set, periodically rotate your kickboard 90 degrees from flat on the surface to submerged at least halfway like a bulldozer or tombstone. You’ll sense an instant requirement to increase the tempo of your kick in order to maintain the same pace.
Challenge: Logistics for Realistic Training
Setting up swim-to-bike “brick” exercises that focus specifically on the movements in the transition itself can be a logistics challenge because of the necessity to quickly move from a pool to a bike, and varying water and weather conditions may thwart the triathlete trying to replicate as closely as possible the conditions during an actual triathlon.
What to practice:
When you can’t do an actual swim-to-bike brick workout, practice in the pool by treading water and walking or running in the water between your regular sets. This will also help with the final approach to the transition, when it’s necessary to stand up and run through 1 or 2 feet of water. Sensing the resistance of water and understanding how to overcome it with the amount of force appropriate will make every transition that much simpler and help you deal with any surprises going into T1 on race day.
Each time you practice these exercises to improve efficiency of your swim-to-bike transition, you’re making physiological gains that’ll make you a more complete triathlete.