Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Triathlon is simply a swim, a bike, and then a run, right? Like everything multisport, it’s not that simple. There’s nutrition in the mix, equipment you need (and maybe just want), and, of course, the fine (dark?) art of a fast triathlon transition from swim to bike and bike to run.
It might sound easy: Just get on your bike and ride, right? Just throw on your run shoes and go. Nailing that swim-to-bike transition (T1) and that bike-to-run (T2) can make or break a race—especially in short-course triathlons where time is of the essence and minutes matter.
As Team USA prepares for its journey to the 2021 Olympics, where they’ll race in a few weeks in both solo and mixed relay competitions, some members of the team and their coaches took time to share their top transition tips with us.
Olympian Tip #1: Incorporate Fast Transitions Into Your Triathlon Training
All of the Olympians and Olympic coaches we spoke to drove home one major point: In order to nail fast triathlon transitions, they must be practiced as regularly as swim, bike, and run training.
“I practice transitions in a few different ways,” said 2016 and 2021 Olympian Katie Zaferes. “Sometimes I’ll practice transitions after a solo session by setting up my run shoes and a ‘transition area’ and recreating a transition by quickly dismounting, getting my helmet and bike shoes off rapidly, and heading into a hard run off the bike for anywhere from 10 seconds to three minutes.”
Zaferes also noted that she and her training squad (The Joel Filliol Training Crew) will do more elaborate transition practices a few times a week.
The crew will start by using their legs as bike racks (holding the front wheel between their calves) and placing their helmets on the bike handlebars. Then, their coach will yell, “Go!” and the team will race to get their equipment on, mount their bikes, do a short bike effort and dismount and finish by handing off their bike to the coach and then moving straight into a short, hard run.
“My biggest tip is to practice anything that you want to do in a race in training,” said Zaferes. “Rehearse transition exactly how you plan to do it in a race, even if that means getting your shoes on/off a bunch of times while sitting in your hotel room pre-race. Figure out what works for you.”
Olympian Tip #2: There’s No Such Thing As “Small Stuff”
Coach O’Brien stressed that details are important, especially when there are medals on the line.
“The difference between perfecting each element of T1 and T2 can mean the difference between winning a race or spending seconds or minutes trying desperately to catch up to the lead pack,” said O’Brien.
Although it may seem insignificant, doing things like walking through the transition area—from swim in to bike out, and from bike in to run out—can save you seconds, if not minutes, come race day.
O’Brien also notes that no detail is too small to be overlooked.
“Notice what works for you—is it putting a rubber band to secure your shoe to the bike on the front derailleur, or is it better for you to hook it to your water bottle cage? And what type of elastic band do you want to use?” said O’Brien. “These small details are likely to be different for everyone, and that’s okay. You need to make these choices with confidence so that you can execute them with control on race day.”
O’Brien suggested thinking through other triathlon minutiae as well for fast transitions.
- Thinking through where you place your helmet—is it on your bike or in a transition bag (for longer distance races) or next to your bike?
- Practice buckling and unbuckling your helmet multiple times in a row.
- Practice running with your bike. You can set up cones to create a “course” of sorts and practice smoothly moving with your bike through the cones.
- Practice slipping into your running shoes quickly. If they’re difficult to get on, try putting a smidge of baby powder directly into the shoes.
Olympian Tip #3: Fast Triathletes Keep Transition Clean
In longer events, it’s pretty hard to get a penalty in a transition area. But in ITU and Olympic triathlon, where fast transitions are crucial, the transition area is one that course marshals watch very closely.
“All discarded equipment has to go in your assigned transition bin,” said five-time ITU World Triathlon Series medalist and first-time Olympian Summer Rappaport. “If you, for example, don’t place your entire wetsuit—no arms or legs sticking out—goggles, and cap in the bin, you can receive up to a 15-second penalty, which has to be served on the run.”
Same goes for the bike—if a bike falls over in an ITU or Olympic transition area, its owner is penalized.
This is nearly the exact opposite of long-course (and most local short-course) triathlons—where wetsuits and other swim paraphernalia are often found strewn about transition area like some aquatic battlefield.
Still, though, it’s a good lesson to be taken to heart: Keep your transitions clean and quick to avoid tripping, knocking into your other equipment, or disturbing another athlete’s transition.
Team USA Olympian Kevin McDowell offered the following tip to make getting out of your wetsuit easier (i.e., less dancing around in T1): Put a little bit of baby oil on your wrists and ankles to make for a smooth removal, but just be sure you don’t get any on your goggles.
Katie Zaferes took that advice one step further and proposed cutting the bottom 2-3 inches off your wetsuit legs to prevent them from getting stuck on your heels when throwing off your neoprene straightjacket.
Olympian Tip #4: Visualize A Fast Triathlon Transition
So much of finding success in triathlon has to do with what goes on between our ears. The mental aspect of triathlon can mean a shiny new personal best or a DNF (did not finish).
This not only applies to our standard swim, bike, and run, but to T1 and T2, too.
Coach O’Brien shared this mentality: “Be bold in training and racing. Repeat being bold. Repetition creates belief. Belief creates confidence. Confidence enables control. Control creates capability.”
O’Brien is a big advocate for visualization with his athletes. He encourages them to tap into all five senses and how each might feel come the varying situations they’ll encounter on race day, including the chaos and rush of transition.Then, come actual race day, athletes will feel as though they’ve been in this situation before and are better-equipped to move through it well.
Every single Olympian we spoke to for this article mentioned visualization as a critical tool they employ to prevail in transitions.
Katie Zaferes advocated that athletes write down each step of their transition process to help better commit it to memory. Summer Rappaport recommended thinking through what the phrase “carefully hurrying” might mean to you. For Rappaport, it means knowing each step she will deliberately take to ensure a fast—but purposeful—transition.
Setting aside time to visualize and train the mind the same way you would for a physical workout can often yield more benefits than cramming in another training session. Make sure to include T1 and T2 mental “workouts” so that you cover all facets of the race in your visualization practice, and be sure to tune into the Olympic tri events in Tokyo to see some of the fastest transitions in action!