Improving Your Transitions

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This excerpt is from the book, Complete Triathlon Guide. It’s published with permission of Human Kinetics

Most triathletes spend the majority of their training hours on the three disciplines of the sport; few spend sufficient time practicing the actual mechanics of transitions and preparing for the subsequent segment while still competing in either the swim or bike portion. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is to discuss what some have called the fourth discipline of triathlon-transitions-including how to minimize the amount of time spent in T1 and T2 and how, from an exercise physiology aspect, to improve overall triathlon performance by taking advantage of recent advancements in pacing and drafting strategies across all disciplines.


Various studies have shown that the transition from one event of the race to another has important implications for physiological and kinematic (movement of the body) measures that affect both perceived effort and performance in the remaining events. One study found that athletes do not bike or run as economically after swimming and do not run as economically after the bike segment. Part of this lack of economy may in fact be due to an athlete’s inadequate technical ability or fitness level, which in turn leads to an increased metabolic load. This, then, emphasizes the need for transition training between each discipline and specific physiological training that will help triathletes switch between disciplines quickly and more efficiently-thus biking faster out of T1 and running faster out of T2.

Transition Layout

One of the key factors in having a successful transition experience is knowing the layout of the transition area, including its entry and exit points, and also the layout of your own equipment. Many triathletes bring far too much baggage into the area and clutter it up, not only for themselves but also for those sharing the rack, so bring only what you will be using during the actual race. You should also note that in accordance with USAT rules, you “own” only the piece of real estate where your wheel touches the ground, so do not spread your equipment in too large an area.

Most athletes rack their bikes by the seat so the front wheel is touching the ground. This can make for a faster exit from the bike rack than, say, if the bike is racked by the brake levers, which makes it more difficult to remove. Most races have a single transition area, so according to USAT rules, athletes must return their bikes to their assigned positions on the bike rack, and failure to do so may result in a penalty.

Remember that others will be in close proximity to you, and thus you should be considerate and keep your equipment in a tight and logical order. Lay your equipment out in reverse order, meaning the items that are farthest away are those you will be putting on last. For example, if you are looking down at the ground from farthest away to nearest, you would lay out your gear next to your bike in the following order:

  • Running shoes with lace locks or similar
  • Hat or visor
  • Socks (although many think they can race without them, the time spent putting them on for the run may be well spent rather than getting a blister)
  • Bike shoes (see later section on cyclo-cross mount and dismount)
  • Race number, which is usually attached to an elastic race belt so it’s easy to put on (check with the race director on local rules because some require you to wear your race number on the bike and some only for the run segment; if you have to wear it on the bike, in order to stop it flapping so much in the breeze, scrunch it up and wrinkle the whole race number, then spread it out and attach it to your race belt to limit the “sail effect” behind you)
  • Helmet and sunglasses, which may be on the ground or hanging on the front of your bike, but remember your helmet must be on and securely fastened before you leave the transition area; if you do not fasten your helmet before mounting your bike (outside the transition area), you could be disqualified

It is worthwhile to lay out your kit the same way for every race and have a set routine of what you put on first so you have less to think about in the heat of the race.

Swim to Bike Transition (T1)

It is well known that swimming has an impact on subsequent cycling performance, with some studies demonstrating that overall cycling performance may be hindered by short-duration, high-intensity swimming, such as a sprint triathlon when the distance is much shorter (usually 750-meter swim, 20K bike, and 5K run), thus many athletes try to swim this leg much faster than normal. One method of countering the detrimental impact of high-intensity swimming is drafting.

Drafting is the act of swimming very close behind or at hip level to another swimmer. It reduces passive drag, thus decreasing the effort to swim the same distance. Also drafting usually improves stroke economy and efficiency, therefore potentially improving the subsequent cycling performance. To take maximal advantage of drafting, swimming behind another triathlete at a distance up to 1.5 feet (.5 m) back from the toes is the most advantageous; in lateral drafting-in kayaking this is termed “catching the bow wave”-a swimmer’s head can be level with another swimmer’s hips. You would do this when there isn’t physical room to get behind another swimmer’s toes or there are other athletes all around you, preventing you from moving.

Also, many triathletes are aware of terms such as blood pooling and orthostatic intolerance but don’t actually know what they are. Orthostatic intolerance is characterized by impaired balance, dizziness, blurred vision, or even partial or complete loss of consciousness. This may occur postswim in athletes with normal blood pressure because of gravitational stress and the removal of the muscle pump. In fact, one study showed that severe dizziness after swimming when exiting the water and standing up for the transition section is a common occurrence for many triathletes, but it is more prevalent in highly trained endurance athletes. If this happens to you frequently, you should seek medical advice. However, the good news is that most athletes who get checked out by their doctors discover that severe dizziness is usually benign.

To counteract the effect of gravity and maintain blood pressure and venous return, one study suggests continuing to keep moving rather than stopping abruptly. This is especially important when removing the wetsuit upon exiting the water, stopping to walk up wet steps or noncarpeted transitions, bending down to put on cycling shoes, and so on. One way to offset dizziness as you leave the swim is to start utilizing the muscular pump by working the calf muscles as soon as possible, meaning you should take short steps at a higher cadence than normal as you make your way to the transition.

Ultimately, this will improve your ability to maintain venous return and blood pressure, maintain mental concentration through the transition, and execute pacing strategies for the start of the cycling discipline-thus going faster out of T1.

Bike to Run Transition (T2)

A debate exists regarding the metabolic cost of running at the end of a triathlon compared with running the same distance in isolation. However, the vast majority of research suggests that high-intensity cycling will have a detrimental effect on subsequent running performance, with the effects dependent on the fitness level of the triathlete; the greatest decreases in performance are observed in recreational triathletes, and minimal effects are seen in elite triathletes.

To offset the impact of cycling on running performance, researchers have come up with a few practical strategies; see Bentley et al. (2008) for further details. In summary, triathletes may be able to improve running performance by (1) drafting behind as many athletes as is practical (in draft-legal events); (2) adopting a cycling cadence of between 80-100 rpm (note, however, that cadence is a very personal matter-just consider the cycling cadence of Lance Armstrong (above 110 rpm for several hours at a time), for example-but many in triathlon will find a slightly higher cadence is acceptable); and (3) concentrating on reducing the effort during the final minutes of the cycling stage to prepare for the run. Points 2 and 3 really strike home for many coaches and physiologists. Pro cyclists will of course state the physiological benefits of spinning at greater than 110 rpm, but all too often, triathletes will trash themselves on the last 5K of the cycling discipline when coming in for the home stretch. However, the global performance time of a triathlon is the most important aspect, not the bike time. As such, establishing optimal pacing strategies for the start of the bike, the end of the bike, and the start of the run is an individual task and should be done in training on a regular basis. To put it as simply as possible: Don’t leave your run on the bike! And spinning is better than crunching big gears.

To emphasize this point, various studies tried to determine the best pacing strategy during the initial phase of an Olympic-distance triathlon for highly trained triathletes. Ten male triathletes completed a 10K control run at free pace as well as three individual time-trial triathlons in a randomized order. In the time trials, the swimming and cycling speeds imposed were identical to the first triathlon performed, and the first run kilometer was done alternately 5 percent faster, 5 percent slower, and 10 percent slower than in the control run. The triathletes were instructed to finish the remaining 9 kilometers (5.6 miles) as quickly as possible at a self-selected pace. The 5 percent slower run resulted in a significantly faster overall 10K performance than the 5 percent faster and 10 percent slower runs, respectively (p < .05). Of note, the 5 percent faster strategy resulted in higher values for oxygen uptake, ventilation, heart rate, and blood lactate at the end of the first kilometer than the two other conditions. After 5 and 9.5 kilometers, these values were higher for the 5 percent slower run (p < .05).

This excellent and well-controlled study demonstrates that contrary to popular belief, running slower during the first kilometer of an Olympic-distance triathlon may actually improve overall 10K performance. With the recent advances in global positioning system (GPS) watches, split times and distances are easily available for triathletes to take advantage of even if no distance markers are provided during the triathlon. This technology is best used only if the triathlete has previously established performance standards for that particular event. Thus, for these data to be most effective, the triathlete must know what split time equals 5 percent slower than his maximal effort.