You can figure out the swimming, biking, and running – but transitioning between them in one event? How do you do that? What does a typical setup look like? What should you bring?
Here is a basic rundown of what you will find at most races when you show up race morning, how to set up, and some simple tips about what you may want to bring. This is geared towards races where you set up transition on race morning in a fairly small space – generally Olympic and Sprint distance races and some half-Ironman distance races. For longer races the set up is usually quite different (for an example of an experience setting up at longer races, see this post).
- T1 is the transition between swim and bike
- T2 is the transition between bike and run
- Usually T1 and T2 are in the same place. Sometimes they are not which requires a lot more preparation on the part of the race coordinators and they should offer a good explanation of what to do.
- Usually only athletes are ever allowed in the transition area, with a possible exception for bike pickup. There are a lot of expensive bikes that the race organizers do not want to get stolen (and you don’t either), and you don’t want people wondering around when you are trying to quickly transition from one thing to another.
- Usually the transition area will close at some point before the race, even if there are multiple staggered starts. I have had to wait 2 hours before – from transition closing to the race start – because there were so many groups before me, staggered every 15 minutes.
Racking your bike
When you arrive on race day, there will likely be racks set up for bikes. (I have heard of but never experienced races that have you bring your own or have racks that are on the ground – this doesn’t apply to those). For larger races the racks will likely be numbered – you can just find your spot. If they are not numbered, then you can choose your spot (possibly with some limitations – look for signs or ask a volunteer). If you have the opportunity to choose – consider:
- What will be easy for you to remember so you can find your spot easily when tiredly approaching transition
- Positioning within the line of bikes – do you want to be as far towards one side as possible?
- Positioning within the overall layout – would you rather have farther to go to get to your bike or with your bike?
- You could also consider people. Is there a buddy you want to be near? Do you want to avoid really serious people? Or be near them for the energy boost? etc…
When you have your spot, it is very likely that you should rack your bike so that it is hanging (or at least secured) by the seat, and facing towards you. Some races have you alternate bike directions, which also makes it easier for people to alternate which side of the rack they are on so you have a little more space.
Prepping your bike
Once your bike is racked, you can set it up for your ride. Load any water and other drinks you will want. If you want snacks, you can put them in a bag or tape items such as a gel to the center bar. I often then hang my helmet on a handle bar or set it between the aero bars. In the helmet I will put my sunglasses, a beanie if I’m wearing one under my helmet, and a snack or tools if there is something I wanted to carry in my tri suit or bike jersey. With this set up, you could potentially have everything you want for the bike portion on the bike itself – except your cycling shoes unless you clip them in (see below).
Layout options for items on the ground next to your bike
Most likely, you will have quite a small amount of space to set up your other items next to your bike. A good way to arrange your space is to use a small towel, or to fold a larger towel – very roughly about 1 X 2 feet in size. This is mostly to claim your space and to organize on, though it’s possible you would also want to use your towel.
Items to consider putting on the towel are:
- Water bottle (to rinse feet after the swim before bike socks)
- Running number (if not required on the bike)
- Running shoes
- Food if you want anything for the run – to throw in your pocket as you get started
- Hat or visor for running
- Socks for running if changing socks at T2.
- Cycling shoes (some people put these on their bike and are able to put their feet in them once they are riding. Nice idea for some, I don’t think I’m even flexible much less coordinated enough, but if you want to learn the skill, make sure you have mastered it first! Don’t try this one for the first time on race day).
- Sunscreen if you will want to reapply in between events
- Something for anti-chaffing. You probably want to use this when you put on your wetsuit to avoid neck rubs, but perhaps you also will want to reapply to areas vulnerable on the bike and run.
After you exit the transition area
When you are set up, grab your swim stuff and head to the start. Make sure you have everything you will need if the transition area will be closed off, such as wetsuit, cap, goggles, earplugs, and possibly shoes to wear. You may want shoes on to get to the start and could leave them with a friend before the start if you have a spectator, or even wear super cheap shoes that you throw away.
After the swim, leave everything you don’t need for the bike at the transition area. Put them definitely within your area so that you do not encroach on the space of others. Under your bike location is probably a good bet, or behind your towel area.
Grab your bike stuff, make sure you buckle your helmet, and you’re off on the bike.
When you return, go back to the same area and rack your bike. This time you can put it in the opposite way (at least that seems to be fine at most races and feels a bit quicker).
Change as needed and you’re off again. The second transition is usually quicker, and once your running shoes are on, most of the other items can be dealt with as you are moving. For example, if you have a race belt, you can grab it and clip it in place while you are moving.
You can practice transitions in your training. I think the most important part (and recognizing that I’m not speed demon) is to think through what you want for each leg of the race and to make sure it is easily accessible. Most likely you are prone to want to have more available than you will actually use or need. If it seems like you have a number of ‘oh, I may want this’s’ around, then cut them in half and you will probably not notice (ie, sunscreen, anti-chaffe, etc – you probably will not want to take the time for such things).
Most important, in my opinion, is just to have fun with it and get faster over time, if that’s a goal. I think transitions are what make triathlon’s so fun – it is the most ridiculous part of the whole ordeal AND it means you are done with the prior portion and on to the next!