The Fourth Discipline – Getting Set For Triathlon Transitions

Much of the training we do as triathletes and duathletes involves honing our skills in the individual disciplines we need to participate in. Great improvements can be achieved by picking on your weakest one, and working hard to perfect your technique, and usually it is easier to see larger benefits by doing this than trying to improve on your best event. If you’re really serious, you’ll even be training hard on your brick workouts – adapting your body to keep going from one event to next with fatigued muscles. But the one activity ignored at your peril is transition – from swim to bike (T1) and from bike to run (T2) – the Fourth Discipline of triathlon.

So imagine how much work you would have to put in to squeeze an extra minute out of your body on the 5K run of your sprint triathlon. Then imagine how much time you could lose by having a really sloppy, undisciplined transition, just because you used regular laces in your running shoes, and perhaps you forgot to untie them, or they got knotted. All that training would be for nothing as you fumble away at your shoelaces in T2 wasting precious seconds. It really does pay to think through every single detail of what you need to have at each transition area, what exactly you need to do, and when. Planning is vital!

Reading The Rules – Packing The Right Gear

The first thing you need to be clear about when you enter a triathlon is what kit is allowed. Depending on the time of year, the water temperature and the distance, wetsuits may or may not be allowed. Make sure you find out beforehand. If a wetsuit is allowed, you are best off wearing one because modern triathlon wetsuits can provide a few advantages that you’ll be missing out on if you decide against it. And you can bet your fellow competitors will be wearing them, and gaining from extra buoyancy and a friction-free swim, while you struggle.

Safety equipment needs to comply with certain industry standards and the competition organizers check to make sure your cycling helmet complies with safety standards – don’t get caught out by this as they’ll disqualify you for any breach of safety rules.

Also, if you are expecting to get a time for your endeavors, make sure you remember to pack your timing chip (sent to you by the organizers with the rest of your race pack) and your race number. Make sure you know where you need to display your number, and if you are unsure, ask one of the volunteers at the event before the start. You will get time penalties for not correctly displaying your number, and you can even get disqualified for multiple infringements.

The Early Bird Gets The Best Position In T1

Kalmar Ironman Triathlon 2009 - T1 (photo by Magnus Johnsson)

Unless the organizers assign you to a particular place in the transition zone, it pays massive dividends to get to the venue early and grab yourself a spot as close as possible to the exit of the transition area. This means less distance to run with your bike, and therefore less other people with bikes to run past as you exit – and less chance of a collision or other mishap.

Once you have your spot, rack your bike facing out forwards for a quick getaway. Lay out all your gear in three neat piles: swimming gear, cycling gear and running gear.

Swimming Gear

Obviously you’ll be wearing the swimming kit at the beginning of the race. You will have your trisuit on, and will need to wear goggles and swimming cap. Make sure you put on your goggles first, so that the cap secures them in place. That way, if they get kicked off your face in the melee at the start, you won’t lose them.

The main thing to remember for the swimming gear in triathlons concerns the wetsuit, if one is allowed. Use Bodyglide or baby oil or Vaseline to lubricate your ankles and wrists, as well as any other parts of your body prone to chafing. This will protect you from friction burns as well as making it easier to pull on and take off the wetsuit.

Cycling Gear

You will need to decide ahead of time what plan of attack you are going to use in T1 for the transition from swim to bike. For example, some competitors like to lay out a towel so they can dry their feet after the swim and before putting on their cycling shoes. But in truth, your feet will dry off fairly quickly without paying too much extra attention to this. For longer races like the Ironman events, you might want to wear socks to prevent blisters; for shorter races, where extra seconds in transition can count more against you, socks are not generally considered. If you do opt to wear socks, roll them down to the toe and keep them in your cycling shoes. Then, after the swim, you just grab them, slide your toes straight in, and roll the socks up over your feet and ankles – far faster than tugging away trying to pull them on over wet feet!

In transition 1, you will also need to make a judgement call, based on your experience and tons of practice, as to whether you are going to pull on your cycling shoes and make a dash for the ‘mount cycle’ line. The alternative for experienced triathletes is to attach the shoes to the bike pedals before the race, so they can run barefoot to the line and then pull on the shoes while cycling. The latter can be much faster, but also much riskier.

What you will also need is your cycle helmet, and generally a pair of cycling glasses. Lay the helmet across your handlebars with the sunglasses inside where they are easily to hand for a quick transition.

Also make sure you have your water bottles and gels attached to your bike, as you’ll need to rehydrate, and perhaps refuel while on the cycle leg.

Finally, set your bike up optimally. Consider any safety concerns, so make sure and bike bars haven’t lost their plugs, as open metal can cause bad injuries if you crash into another competitor and take a large chunk out of them. Also ensure the brakes and gears are working okay, and that the brakes don’t rub against the wheel rims. There are two schools of thought about which gear to leave your bike in pre-racing. The first school says to put your bike into the best gear for the initial part of bike leg, and that will depend on the terrain, whether it’s an uphill start, etc. However, the other school of thought is to recommend using a high gear in T1 because this keeps the chain tight, and therefore less likely to bounce off while bumping along towards the exit to the transition zone. Once you mount your bike, simply shift down the gears and you’re away. It’s up to you to practice both methods and see which works best for you.

Don’t forget to stick your race number onto your bike! Different races have different rules about placement of numbers so check beforehand. You might need to stick your number onto your helmet, or wear it on your back for the cycle leg.

Running Gear

For T2 you will need to remove any cycling kit you don’t need, and get prepared for running. So you will need to lay out your running shoes, and maybe a cap or visor if you are competing somewhere hot. If you didn’t need your bib number for the bike leg (where you wear it on your back), you will need to have this ready to wear at T2. For the run, you wear your number on your front. So there’s not a great deal of extra kit for your run leg. Just the shoes. Make sure you have the laces loose and the back of the shoes lubed with Bodyglide or Vaseline so your feet slip into them effortlessly. Many triathletes use elasticated laces, so they can keep them tied, but they stretch as they put their feet into them. Again, test literally everything, including all your kit, over and over again in practice. You should never be trying something new out in T1 or T2 on the day of a race.

How To Do Transitions In Triathlon Races

Okay, so you’ve laid out all your kit in the transition area, and you are wearing a wetsuit because you have a cold open-water swim to do first. Let’s go through the routines you need to have practised ad infinitum.

Leaving The Water And Approaching T1

  1. As you are leaving the water, you might want to ‘gulp the suit’ by pulling the neck of the wetsuit out to let in some water. This can assist with removal, but remember you should also have Bodyglide or baby oil on your wrists and ankles to help you get it off in transition.
  2. Pull down the zipper on the back of your wetsuit
  3. Take off your cap and goggles, and while holding them in your hand, pull your arms out of the wetsuit. Leave the cap and goggles inside the sleeve so you don’t lose them.
  4. Roll the wetsuit down to your waist as you approach your bike. Pull the wetsuit down as far as you can, and then don’t be afraid to be rough. Either kick hard with one foot while standing on the suit with the other foot. Or pull your foot sharply upwards, assisting with your hands if necessary, also while standing on the rest of the suit with your other foot.
  5. If you opt for cycling glasses – which protect you from flying debris as well as bright sunlight – put them on first.
  6. Then put on your cycling helmet – DO NOT touch your bike until you have your helmet on and the strap fastened.
  7. If you need to wear your number for the bike leg – read the race rules – put on your number belt here in T1, with the number showing at the back. (Some races give you number stickers for your bike and helmet. If this is the case, you can leave your number belt for T2.)
  8. If you are a beginner, put on your cycling shoes, and grab your bike – DO NOT get on your bike until you reach the mount line.
  9. At the designated line, get on your bike and clip in, and you are away!
  10. If you are more experienced, you will have your cycling shoes attached to the pedals of your bike at T1. In this case, after 6 (fastening your helmet), grab the bike, run it to the mount line, get on and start pedaling with your feet on top of the shoes. Once you are on the road and have built up some speed, slide your feet into the shoes and adjust them as necessary.

Here are some great tips courtesy of MySportingTimes Youtube channel:

Approaching The Dismount Point And T2

  1. As you approach the dismount line en route to T2, pull your feet out of your shoes, leaving the shoes clipped into the pedals. Don’t let the pedals spin as you do this; hold the back of the shoe with your hand, pull your foot out while still holding the shoe, and then place your foot on top of the shoe. This enables you to keep pedaling if you need to while attending to your other shoe.
  2. Dismount carefully at the line, and run the bike to your transition area – DO NOT touch your helmet yet!
  3. Rack the bike properly.
  4. Now remove your helmet and store it safely. (This is why at T1 you put the sunglasses on before the helmet. If you did it the other way round, there is a chance the helmet strap would pull off your glasses as you remove the helmet – wasted seconds!)
  5. Put on your visor or cap if you are going to wear one.
  6. Pull on your running shoes. Hopefully you remembered to lubricate them so your feet slide in easily – another alternative is to use talc.
  7. Tie the shoes securely – did you remember to use elasticated laces?
  8. If you didn’t need your number for the bike leg, because you had a number sticker for your helmet, now is the time to attach your number belt, with your number showing at the front. If you used your number belt for the bike leg, you should have attached it at T1 showing at the back. In this case, simply slide it round to the front.
  9. Now run, run, RUN!

And here are some more quick tips from MySportingTimes about T2:

If you practise your transitions as diligently as the other aspects of your triathlon, you might even surprise yourself, as you knock perhaps a minute or two off your personal best times. As I tried to emphasise above, always practise everything multiple times during your training, and do not try anything new during a race, in case you mess it up and it costs you. Also be careful if you attempt some of the more advanced moves, especially the ones involved with mounting and dismounting your bike.

Here are a few more tips to help you along, from Coach Eric Sorensen of Principle Fitness, during a coaching session with triathletes at the Annapolis Tri Club:

Like many things in life, people argue about the pros and cons of using the ‘elastic band trick’ for securing the cycling shoes in place so you are not fumbling around with your feet trying to get them the right way round. Some triathletes like it, and others suggest it has no speed benefit at all. If you want to try it in practice – and you should always try these things out for yourself rather than believing what others say – then here’s another quick clip by TriGuyBrendan showing how it works:

Don’t forget to experiment for yourself, and figure out what works best for you, what is fastest and what you feel most comfortable with. The rest is up to you. Good luck with your training, and here’s hoping you smash your personal record on your next outing!


Neil (nickname Ironman) is an avid runner and sports fan, who writes about all things triathlon-related, especially running and cycling. He also writes about sports injuries and regaining fitness - mainly from personal experience rather than academic knowledge - although he does study that too!

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