What Happens in Transition?

By Neil Melville

Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most frequent questions which comes my way from first triers: If heading for your first triathlon you know the basics of how to swim, bike and run but what happens in between is a more daunting mystery and could cost you more time than a bad swim or run. On the other hand, a bit of thought and practice can gain more minutes in a race than hours spent training so here is my guide.

Setting up transition

Cyclists You will normally be allocated a numbered position on a scaffolding bike rack. I prefer to hook my saddle over the rack but others hook brake levers. You only have a small amount of space so a small plastic tub or holdall is a good idea to keep your kit together and mark your spot. Lay your run/bike shoes out in front of your tub, perhaps on top of a small towel which you can use to wipe any grit of your feet before putting on shoes. Helmet goes on top of my tri bars and glasses go inside helmet but if you don't have tri bars then put them on top of your shoes. Finishing touches: talc inside shoes to prevent blisters; a spare water bottle with plain water by my shoes; a dollop of non petroleum based lubricant under my saddle to treat any chaffing. Next, walk through the transition route making special note of where you are allowed to get on and off your bike and how to find your stuff; "third rack down, next to the tree". Some use a brightly patterned towel to help them spot their rack position.

Here's my transition routine

  • Leave the water. Stay calm! Breathe easy!
  • Put goggles on head but don’t take them off until you…
  • Unzip wetsuit and pull top half down
  • Now remove goggles and cap and continue running to your allocated transition position

TIP: For pool swims the only difference is removing goggles and cap on exiting the water because there is no wetsuit to remove but in wetsuit swims only remove caps after passing the time keeper (if there is one) – your number is on your head! Know your number and shout it out.

At first transition

  • Throw goggles and cap in tub/holdall
  • Remove rest of wetsuit and throw it in tub/holdall
  • Put on bike helmet and glasses (you must not unrack your bike without helmet both on your head and fastened)
  • Wipe off grit on towel
  • Put on bike shoes
  • Unrack bike and run to bike mounting point. GO!

TIP: the easiest way to get a wetsuit off fast is to peel the suit down your legs and then stand on the suit one leg at a time to get it over your feet. Plenty of lubricant like KY or baby oil around your ankles, wrists and on all joints will help the suit to peel off. Experienced triathletes often start with shoes clipped to the pedals and slip their feet in while riding – don’t feel that you have to do this unless you have dedicated a good amount of practice.

At second transition

  • Rack bike – you must do this before taking off helmet
  • Take off helmet
  • Swap shoes. GO!

TIP: If you use clipless pedals it is worth practicing removing bike shoes and cycling with bare feet on top of them in the last few hundred meters. When it comes to getting on your running shoes, elastic laces are a cheap and invaluable investment – you can just pull on your shoes and go but don’t pull the laces too tight; they feel different to normal laces so it is worth doing some training runs using them.

What clothes to wear?

For your first event it is certainly important that you feel comfortable with what you wear. Of course you can change or add clothes but you will be watching others go past you as you struggle to get clothes off and on a wet body!

IM UK finishers Specialist tri clothing is tight fitting and quick drying so you can swim in it and, unless its a very cold day, you can bike and run in it too. Your own clothing choice should reflect these properties. For example, you could bike and run in your swimming costume but if modesty or comfort prohibits this then you may prefer to put on cycling shorts; but choose shorts without thick padding because they are harder to run in. Wet kit dries quickly but a blob of KY jelly (or other not petroleum based lubricant) under the saddle can be used to treat chaffing.

Socks or no socks? Easy! If you need socks, wear them but it costs a surprising amount of time putting them on. Those around you will have put talc inside their shoes to prevent blisters but try this out first to make sure it works for you. Bodyglide or similar lubricant works well on danger spots like the underside of the tongue and back of heel.

Numbers are attached both front (for the run) and back (bike) but if racing in a crop top or in a trisuit where you might want to undo the zip for ventilation then use a race belt: this is a piece of elastic that you attach one number to and pull the number round back or front depending on whether you are biking or running, you can buy one for a fiver or make one yourself.

Nudity is not allowed in transition so women will wear sports bras under whatever you swim in unless sufficiently supported by the built-in support of your tri clothing or swimming costume. Obviously it is important that the sports bra is made of quick drying material.

One last word: practice!

You can learn a lot just by getting to the race early enough to see what others do, but there is a lot to remember so practice your transition routine and clothing choices before the race. Serpentine often run 'brick' training sessions throughout the summer where you repeatedly practice some of the skills of transition. When it comes to race day, mentally rehearse your own transition routine as you reach the end of each leg. Relax and enjoy!

See also: Quintin's raceday checklist (pdf) and Serpentine tri kit