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Transitions: Race within the Race
You know the scene… people running out of the water, desperately trying to rip off their wet suit… bikes falling over… people tripping over each other. Isn’t it enough just to survive transition? Who has the fore site to think about having a fast or “clean” transition? You can’t actually improve your time from what you do in transition can you?
As a triathlete, I put a lot of thought into fast transition times. Why? You might be wondering, what all the hub-bub us about… why worry about those little parts of the race, they aren’t really physical activity right? They aren’t a measure of fitness, right? Well, if your goal is to race, then don’t ignore your transitions, because there are valuable seconds (minutes) and places in the rankings to be gained in transition.
Here are some of my tips for fast transitions…
First of all, it’s important to note that equipment choices, fueling, clothing, medical needs, etc, are all very personal, and therefore you should never read an article like this and try to use exactly the same techniques that the author is documenting from a particular racer. Instead, a much better technique is to think about your needs, and use a process of reduction, refinement, parallelization, and practice to speed up your transition tasks. It’s best to develop a system that applies the principals of process refinement to the concept of speeding up a transition. This approach is particularly powerful because it asks you to evaluate your own transition technique and look for areas of improvement.
There are some basic concepts I have used in my triathlon experience (limited as it is) and have developed a streamlined transition technique that works for me, This has served me very well in my races.
What is to be Gained?
Here’s some examples of why you may want to consider refining your transition techniques:
A 9 second T2 in a sprint triathlon. - There’s not much faster you can be then that, and I pulled it off this weekend. Although the race wasn’t chip timed and so I can’t verify this, I am confident that every competitor in the field (even some of the relay teams) lost time to me in this race.
What about a long race? Do transitions matter in Iron-distance? Well, in my Ironman last year I picked up 2 places in T1, and 2 more places in T2. That’s 4 overall places I gained simply by executing fast transitions. For my Ironman race I had the 3rd fastest T1, and the 6th fastest T2. My T2 time was only 2 seconds slower than the 3rd best time.
Here’s something of note, the competitor who finished behind me, was off my overall pace by 4 minutes, 12 seconds… sounds like I beat him handily, right? Well, his T1 was 4:27 slower than mine, his T2 was 1:13 slower. Had he matched my transitions, he would have easily beaten me.
Would you like 10secs/mile faster run split?
Well, gaining the fitness to trim 10secs/mile off of your run pace may require a lot of training. But 30 seconds saved in T2 in a sprint triathlon (let’s say a 3 mile run) would be the equivalent of running 10 seconds/mile faster. Wouldn’t you like the benefit of running 10secs/mile faster?
Hopefully I’ve convinced you there’s value in improving your transition times, so how can you do it?
The first step to improving any process is to eliminate any steps that you absolutely don’t need to do. For me, this means don’t waste time on things that really don’t matter. For T1 for example, this means wearing a Triathlon suit, instead of shorts and a bike jersey/shirt. A Tri-suit is all the clothing I need for a Sprint to Olympic distance triathlon. A bike jersey doesn’t really add any value for a short distance… what else am I going to carry that I can’t fit on my bike? Another example: Gloves, do you need them? If not, then get rid of them, don’t waste time with them, they are non-essential.
If you can do two or more things at once, then do those things in parallel instead of doing them in serial. A really simple T1 example is removing your wet suit while you run from shore to your bike. Even with a short 100ft or so, you should be able to get your wet suit off your shoulders/arms and down to your waist by the time you get to your bike. Another great example of this concept, is to find a way to put your shoes on, while you are already riding your bike down the road. Yes… you read that right. It can be done.
Move as many tasks as possible to before or after transition, preferably while you’re not on the race clock. Sometimes this means doing something like parallelization (the shoe trick), but sometimes it also simply means setting up your gear correctly. For example, if I am in a wet suit race, I wear my race belt with number inside my wet suit, this means, I don’t have to worry about putting it on during transition. Note: there is a trick to this.
Of course these concepts also mean setting up my gear to support this minimalist attitude.
An example Transition Strategy
So, specifically, what do I do? Here is an inventory of my setup:
- Bike is racked with all of the following equipment: food, drink, helmet, shoes, gloves, sunglasses, computer, emergency tools.
- I am wearing all my clothes (a tri-suit) - except my socks.
- Socks are “rolled” and ready to be put on quickly.
- My T1 “transition area” really only includes my helmet and my bike. See my special note below about “bag format” transitions.
- My T2 “transition area” really only has my shoes, and a running hat (I prefer a hat, rain or shine).
- I am wearing my race number, on my race belt, under my wet suit.
- I “lube up” with olive oil on my skin to make my wet suit easy to put on and take off… of course it doesn’t matter that it be easy to put on (you have plenty of time to get dressed) but you want it to come off easily.
Bike is setup as follows:
- Sports drink in water bottle in cages.
- Shorter distance: “Gu” and gels, taped to my top tube for easy access.
- Longer distance: Bento box with solid food, gels, extra Nuun.
- Sunglasses taped to handlebars with electrical tape.
- Gloves velcroed to shifter cables.
- Helmet hanging on handlebars.
- Computer mounted, ready to go. If it’s a shorter race, the computer is on, longer race it’s off to conserve battery.
- Shoes are clipped in to pedals, and held horizontal with rubber bands. Use a rubber band or dental floss to mount your shoes in an upright horizontal position on the bike. They will stay this way as you run through transition, until you jump on your bike. This will prevent the shoes from banging on the ground, slowing you down, and possibly falling off. I attach my left shoe (the front most shoe/pedal) to my bottle cage, and my right shoe (back most) to a small screw on my rear derailer. If you have a chain hanger or some other hook or bolt on your frame those may be a better choice.
- As I come out of the water, I take off my swim mask and cap. I want to have great visibility so I don’t trip or get lost.
- I am unzipping my wet suit and pulling it off my shoulders and arms. No further than my waist so I don’t trip.
- When I get to my bike, I pull my wet suit off my legs and drop it in my transition area. If this is a long format race with a changing tent and a bag format transition, then I do this in the tent and place my wet suit in the bag. If I am racing long format, then my socks are in my bag, and I put them on my feet before I put my wet suit in the bag.
- At my bike I immediately grab my helmet put it on and snap it. I don’t touch my bike until my helmet is in place. If this is short format, I grab my socks and put them on after I put on my helmet.
- If I need to start my bike computer I probably hit start as I grab my bike and start running to the exit.
- If I have a long distance from my bike to the exit, I carry my bike. It is much faster and easier to carry your bike than to push your bike. Trust me, try this out, you’ll see. If it’s a short distance than less than 100 feet, then I will roll it.
- As I get to the “bike mount” zone, I place my left foot on top of my shoe attached to the left pedal and throw my right leg over the bike mounting the bike, and begin pedaling.
- At this point I am riding and out of T1. For a short distance race, this should take me about 60-90 seconds depending on the distances from the water to the T1 exit/bike mount.
- The first thing I do once I am rolling is I put on my glasses. I have corrective sunglasses, so I need them to see well, and I also just don’t like stuff flying in my eyes.
- What about your shoes?
Well, technically I don’t put on my bike shoes in T1… I put them on while I roll down the road after leaving transition.You need to have triathlon designed bike shoes to do this effectively. The biggest design difference in a triathlon shoe is that a triathlon shoe usually only has one piece of velcro strap to hold your foot in. This makes them easy to attach while riding. On my Shimano Tri shoes, the velcro strap also has a nice notch in it, that allows you to “open” the shoe to easily slip your foot in while pedaling or coasting.The technique for doing this can be described as…
- You start with your foot on top of the shoe, like a platform pedal.
- Once your safely away from transition (no traffic jam) and your have good speed up and a safe stretch of road; stop pedaling for a second and let your foot up off the shoe, this will make your shoe drop and move into a vertical position.
- You should be able to slide your toes into the opening of the shoe and then press your foot forward as if to do a pedal stroke.
- As you do this your foot should slide into the shoe.
- Now, reach down and fasten your velcro strap.
- Repeat on other side.
- After I have my shoes on, I will take my gloves off the shifter cables and put them on.
Pre-transition: A key to a fast T2, is to be out of your bike shoes before you even get to transition. Then your only remaining task is to take off your helmet, put on your running shoes and go man go! Here’s how I do this:
- About .25 to .1 miles from T2, I will reach down and loosen my shoe straps.
- Then I will slide my feet out of the shoe and place them on top of the shoe like a platform pedal. This is the same position I used when I first got on my bike coming out of T1.
- Depending on how long I’ve been riding my bike, I’ve also been standing up, in a big gear trying to get my legs ready for running.
- About 100 yards to 100 feet from the dismount zone, I will take my right leg and bring it over my bike to ride side saddle coasting into the dismount zone.
- When I reach the dismount zone, I jump off my still rolling (albeit slower) bike and immediately pick up my bike and run it to my bike drop off point. In a short race, this means where my transition area is setup.
In Transition: When I reach my transition area, I take the following steps:
- I remove my helmet.
- I usually wear a running hat, which in a short race will be sitting on top of my shoes. I put on the hat.
- I slip on my running shoes.
- I have elastic laces, so there is no tying of my shoe laces, once my feet are in, I’m ready to run.
Here are things I don’t do:
- For short distances, I don’t put on any extra clothes - for short distances, I am wearing a tri suit, that’s all I need.
- Mess around with race numbers - I was already wearing my number under my wet suit. How you ask? Well, I fold/wrap the race number around the race belt so that it is nice and compact inside my wet suit. Kinda like wearing a heart rate monitor strap. Since most races don’t require you to wear your number except on the run, I will leave it folded like this until I am running out of T2, and then I will unfold it as I run.
Things I could Improve:
Although I think it would be hard to improve on a 9 second T2, I could improve on my T1 time by eliminating socks. I also believe that I could have reduced transition times for “bag format” races if I spent some time practicing this format, and taking time to rethink my long format race gear and equipment.
For example, I did wear a bike jersey and tri-shorts instead of a tri-suit for my long distance race. My reasoning was that on a long format race, I expect to have to take at least one bio-break, and therefore I didn’t want to be wearing a singlet. But, I could opt for a two piece with a tri-shirt that would work under my wet suit. And this would eliminate an extra step of putting on a jersey in T1.
Practice Makes Perfect:
It’s also very important to practice your transition techniques. I practice my shoe donning and doffing process regularly. Any time I’m doing a slow ride, maybe an active recovery ride, I will take a stretch of road and just practice taking my feet in and out of my shoes while rolling down the street.
I also practice my wet suit removal every time I do an open water swim. I have even done “swim exit repeats” at a local beach. I figure people already think I’m crazy when I’m swimming at the swim beach in a wet suit, how much worse do I look when I come running out of the water tearing off my wet suit, only to return to the water and repeat the process over again. I may look silly but it helps me refine my technique.
Anyway, that’s how I do it. Please feel free to share any of your special techniques.