Before any given race, take a look around the transition area, and you’ll find as many strategies for setting up equipment as there are participants in the triathlon. Gear overflows the set confines of a beach towel, 5-gallon buckets serve as both container for gadgets and seats for tired athletes. Trays full of water slosh around and crowd the aisles between the bikes. In short: madness reigns.
Given the incredible diversity among transition strategies, it would be utter foolishness to name one method as the only proper way to do things, right?
The only proper way to do things
The ideal transition layout may vary from race to race, depending on factors such as weather, terrain, and starting time, but it will always have a handful of key attributes that will contribute to race-day success.
- Simple is beautiful
Take a page from the KonMari De-cluttering Method and ask yourself, “does this object bring me speed?” Set up with an eye towards minimalism – if an item on your transition mat doesn’t serve a specific task, it will most likely just get in the way. The transition mat is not a place for extras, spares, or it-might-come-in-handies. If you want the security of some extra tubes, nutrition, clothing, etc., keep it tucked away in your transition bag and out of your and your bike’s path, so it’s there if you absolutely need it, but it won’t slow you down when you don’t.
- Oriented and Organized
Lay out your gear in the order you’ll need it and facing the way it will be used. Shoes should be pointed forward so you can slip them right on. Helmet should be on the ground, straps out, and ready to flip right onto your head. Visualize how you will reach your transition area, and the steps you will take. Will you put your shoes on first, or your helmet? When do you need to put your race number belt on? Will there be debris on your feet after you run up from the swim exit? Imagine yourself completing each step, and the work backwards to lay out your area – making sure that if anything is stacked on something else, the thing on top will be used first.
- Specialization is key
This principle runs counter to “simple is beautiful,” right? Nope! While it may seem more efficient to have multi-purpose equipment that can be used for a number of things, those items are always going to be less efficient, with a higher probability of slowing you down. Skip the beach towel and go with a transition mat (the mat won’t blow away and the smaller footprint will reinforce your minimalism). Replace your standard laces with elastic quick-laces so you can just slip them on. Consider tri-specific bike shoes that go on with one strap, can be left on your bike* without getting caught in the drivetrain, and can be worn sockless (eliminating another time-consuming step).
*Some races won’t let you leave your shoes clipped in to your pedals for safety reasons – tri shoes still go on faster in those cases, however.
- Practice, practice, and (you guessed it) practice
Race day is going to be chaotic, which is why it’s important for you to drill the steps you’ll need to take. Weeks before your event, set up your own mock transition area to pare down your gear to what you truly need. If you’re trying advanced techniques like a flying mount/dismount, practice them until you have the motions down cold, and then practice again. Also, remember that you’re going to be out of breath, bleary-eyed, and disoriented when you’re coming out of the water, so it doesn’t hurt to simulate that effect by spinning around to make yourself dizzy, and doing some pushups or equivalent to get you into the proper space for some really good practice.
Our annotated cheat sheet:
Here’s our favorite gear, with a few notes on choices:
- Race Number Belt: You’re not really going to use safety pins on your race kit, are you? Some races require that you have your race number on in the bike (with the number in back) and all require that you have your race number on for the run (number in front) – know this in advance so you know where to stage this crucial equipment.
- Tri Bike Shoes: clipped onto your pedals with the straps completely open and a rubber band attaching one to the chainstay to keep them level, or laid out on your mat with nothing behind them.
- Anti Chafe/Sunscreen: Body Glide (or equivalent) is crucial for all 3 disciplines – have it handy and accessible. Sunscreen is sometimes provided, but volunteers can miss spots, so you should always have your own.
- Water Bottle for Cleanup: You may need to clean gravel or debris off your feet before the bike – keep a full water bottle on your mat for this purpose.
- Microfiber Towel: use a small quick-dry towel to clean or dry off as needed – takes up less space than a full size towel, and you won’t mess up your organization by disturbing stuff that would have to lie on top of it if it were larger.
- Sunglasses: Some athletes prefer different sunglasses for bike and run. Whatever you choose, lay them facing forward and easy to grab.
- Visor/Hat: Sun protection, sweat management, and classic triathlete looks. Consider a hat for really hot days (you can stick ice under it).
- Transition Mat: Neoprene transition mats don’t blow away like towels, and are a more elegant solution to transition layout questions.
- Running Shoes: Leave these facing forward and use elastic laces. Some choose to wear socks for the run, even if they went sockless for the bike (socks are easier to get on after the bike than after the swim).
- Helmet: not just a good idea – it’s the law! This can be laid out on the ground or on your aerobars – just make sure it’s ready to go, and don’t forget to buckle the strap before you leave the transition area.
The keys to success
While fast, effective triathletes may have individual items that differ from one another, you’ll find these principles hold from person to person. Transition times can make or break your attempt at the podium or a personal best, so it always pays to have an effective strategy. Happy racing!