26 June 2014 0 Comments

The Fourth Element

Two weeks ago I failed to hit my PB for an Olympic Distance triathlon, not because my run wasn’t up to scratch, my bike didn’t pass muster, or even because my swim lagged behind. No, I lost just over the 20 seconds I needed in transition 2 between bike and run when the tongue of one of my trainers got twisted up as I tried to put it on. I had forgotten to put a dab of Vaseline on heel and tongue to make slipping on my trainers super quick and saw my PB disappear in a last frantic kilometer’s extended sprint for the finish line as I desperately tried to make up for lost time.

Triathlon is always seen as 3 disciplines, but it’s commonly argued that transition should be regarded as a separate element in the sport. Indeed, simply by making transition efficient you can save yourself large chunks of time. For instance, in my first ever half-ironman I spent a total of 11 minutes in transition compared to a mere 3:40 at Bala a few years later. While it’s difficult to compare races directly due to the differing distances between swim exit and transition (there is a few hundred metres of uphill grass to contend with after exiting the water at Wimbleball) it’s clear that a speedy transition can make a real difference to your race. I certainly use it to help make up deficiencies on my swim. At Southport I was 8th fastest through 1st transition out of 190 or so athletes and overtook not an insignificant number of people in that short period alone.

How do you get through transition quickly?

The short answer is: have a plan, practice it and stick to it.

Planning for transition begins before the race by working out exactly what you will need for each phase. To some extent this will depend upon the length of the event you are doing but can be generalised as follows. As far as possible I will have all my nutrition, tools and drinks stowed on the bike. I like to have a “bento” box on my top tube with gels in and spare tabs for drinks (I drink either water or use calorie free sports drink tablets), my bottle in place on the downtube and spare inner tube and tools stashed in a saddle bag. I’l also put on any race stickers for the bike and helmet prior to taking my bike to rack it. Having got all this ready in advance it will be on the bike as I bring it in to the transition area (if racking the night before the race I’ll tend to put water and food on the bike in the morning). The last thing I’ll do with my bike is check tyre pressures and that it’s in the correct gear for me to start pedalling – have a look at the bike exit. Is it level? Uphill? It’s amazing how many people you see floundering around in the wrong gear at the start of the bike leg. Again an easy opportunity to overtake a few and get into your stride quickly.

Bike racking at IM Regensburg in 2011

Bike racking at IM Regensburg in 2011

Having racked the bike, perhaps the most important part of transition is planning your route through. Find the swim exit and walk the route you will take to your bike. Count bike racks, look for signs, trees, posts, any kind of landmark to help you find your steed as quickly as possible. Don’t use other people’s distinctively coloured bikes as markers as they might not be there when you arrive. Now walk the route through to the bike exit. Repeat the process for the transition from bike to run. If it’s a complex route do this more than once and visualise your passage through.

Next comes the actual placing of kit for transition itself. Here’s what I do: my helmet goes face up on the tribars with sunglass already open on top. Helmet straps are undone and arranged outside the helmet. If it’s a windy day I’ll put the helmet on the ground rather than risk it blowing off the bars. If it’s really wet and I’m using my aero helmet I’ll place it face down rather than have it fill up with water. Bike shoes will be at the front next to the front wheels of the bike together with socks (if it’s an Olympic or sprint I won’t wear socks). Behind the bike shoes will be my running shoes (with elastic laces – no need to tie) with spare socks, a couple of spare gels, suncream and sun hat if I’m likely to need them. If I’m racing barefoot I’ll put a bit of talc in my running shoes and a dab of vaseline on the heel and the top of the tongue (I will also have a towel handy to stand on so I don’t transfer grit stuck to barefeet into my running shoes . I’ll put on my race belt with my race number ready to go under my wetsuit as it’s one less thing to have to put on (number to the rear ready for the bike ride). It’s worth noting that at Ironman races it’s mandatory for race numbers to go into your transition bag (see bagged transitions below) as you are not allowed to wear them under your wetsuit.

You’ll see many people pre clipping their shoes into the pedals and using a rubber band to stop them bouncing around as they run out. I personally wouldn’t recommend this unless you are prepared to practice it lots. Again, I’ve overtaken lots of people floundering around in the first 100 metres of the bike section trying to get feet in, tighten straps etc. The only time I have preclipped my shoes is where there is an extremely long run from bike rack to the exit point or I have to cross over lots of muddy wet grass. In these cases it’s probably better to pre clip.

Finally, before putting on my wetsuit I’ll use Bodyglide lube on all the bits that are likely to chaff and also put plenty on my arms, calves and shins as this will make the removal of said wetsuit much quicker.

Heading into T1 Ironman Regensburg 2011

Heading into T1 Ironman Regensburg 2011

And so to the race itself. As I near the end of the swim I’ll spend a few moments rehearsing transition in my head: out of the water; cap and goggles off; run as hard as I can; zip on wetsuit down; still running hard; arms out and pull wetsuit down to waist; arrive at bike; step out of wetsuit and make sure it’s stowed out of the way; glasses on; helmet on; shoes on; grab bike and run; stop at the mount; get on, clip in and ride!

I find it helps enormously to mentally rehearse first transition in particular. Visualise, talk it through to yourself; do whatever it takes to allow you to flow through transition as efficiently as possible.

For T2, do the same. As I near the end of the bike I’ll stretch my calves a bit and rehearse what’s about to happen. I’ll ease off the pace on the bike for the last few hundred metres and undo the velcro straps on my bike shoes. I take my feet out and pedal on the tops of my shoes for the last few seconds before dismounting and running into my pit. I’ve seen more people crash approaching T2 than anywhere else on the bike course. Riders are tired; wobbling about as they pull feet out; approaching the dismount line way too fast and having to brake hard. Keep your wits about you and don’t charge at T2. If bike riding isn’t your thing don’t try fancy dismounts, taking your feet out of shoes in advance etc unless you’ve really practiced these in advance. You can easily come a cropper and ruin yours and someone else’s race into the bargain. Once in T2 its’ rack bike, helmet off, running shoes on and go! Don’t forget to turn your racebelt around to the front as you leave. A friendly marshal will usually give you a shout if you have forgotten.

Bagged Transitions and Ironman

Some races, especially the long distance ones, operate a bag transition system. This means that you have two separate bags for transition 1 and 2 (on Ironman races it’s blue bag for swim to Bike and red bag from bike to Run) and a 3rd bag for after the race. The only thing you are allowed on your bike usually is your helmet plus bottles and tools etc that are pre stowed in cages and on saddles. You still need to workout your route through transition and you have to be extra careful in making sure that you have everything that you’ll need in the correct bags (including your race belt with race number). A bonus is that you can easily stash extra clothing, foul weather gear, nutrition, a small drink for while you are in transition, medication etc in your bags. For Ironman I’l put in anti diarrhea meltlets (the ones that melt on your tongue), extra gels, a top to go over my tri suit in case it cools as you race into the cool of the evening.

Bagged transitions tend to be quite a bit slower than normal transitions but there’ll be plenty of helpers on hand, and places to change, toilets etc. For most people undertaking an Ironman for the first time finishing is the most important objective and transition allows you to mentally unwind for a few moments, catch your breath, and get ready for the next part of your adventure. Under these circumstances transition should not be stressful or rushed and you can aid this by again practicing the route through, visualising the order that you are going to change your gear and so on. By practicing this in advance you can save lots of time without it necessarily having to feel like a rush. My total time in transition at Ironman Regensburg in 2011 was 9 minutes faster than at my first Ironman, IMUK in 2009.

The Dark Art

It should be clear by now that transition is a bit of a dark art and success comes with lots of practice. We’ve all made mistakes: I’ve come into T2 and had a complete mental block as to where my running shoes were and lost a few minutes headlessly running up and down rows of seemingly identical trainers. I have forgotten my bike shoes and cycled 25km in trainers on clipless pedals. It’s interesting that these mistakes happened after I’d finished half a dozen or so triathlons and I got a bit complacent about this triathlon lark. Nowadays I take transition quite seriously and will look for my times through transition as keenly as I look for my bike split. When you get transition right you’ll know and you’ll feel like your race plan is coming together.



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