Point-to-Point Triathlons: Manage Split Transitions Like a Pro

Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Most triathlon races follow the typical swim-bike-run format with one centrally located transition area, meaning both T1 and T2 (and all of your gear) are in the same spot. However, a number of races, including the recent Ironman 70.3 World Championship in St. George, Utah, employ the use of a split transition. In these races, the need for a point-to-point course – either logistically or geographically – means the transition for the swim to the bike (T1) in these races is in a different location than the transition for the bike to the run (T2).

At many of these point-to-point races with two transition areas (also known as split transitions), this also means athletes will have two transition gear bags provided by the race and are typically required to drop them off at two different places the day before the race. For athletes who have never encountered this type of set-up before, the prospect can be daunting and confusing! Will you have access to your gear on race morning? What about your nutrition? When you get off the bike how will you find your gear or does a volunteer find it for you?

Take a deep breath. We have all of the answers to help you conquer a split transition race with ease.

RELATED: Triathlon Transition Basics

Providing a few helpful tips is vice president of operations for Ironman, Keats McGonigal, who has served as race director for a number of large Ironman and 70.3 events and helped produce hundreds of races all over the world.

While it might seem a bit confusing at first, McGonigal says a split transition can actually help streamline the process for athletes. “Split transitions can make it simpler for athletes, because they only need to focus on the equipment and gear that they need for the next portion of the event,” he said. “For example, in T2 of a split transition race, there aren’t wetsuits, swim caps, and goggles getting in the way of the athletes putting on their running shoes.” Here are McGonigal’s tips for two transition areas:

(Photo: Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

Expert Guidance on How to Handle Split Transitions

#1: Set up like usual

When you’re used to having everything you need for a race sitting beside your bike, dividing your gear into different bags, that you can only access on race day, can be a frightening prospect. To avoid forgetting an important item, set up your transition area just like you would for a normal race. Then, divide the gear into what you need for the bike (T1) and what you need for the run (T2). If the race has provided you with gear bags, then split those two piles into each bag. If you have to drop off your gear without bags, then separate it into two of your own separate bags. At many races, you will also receive a morning clothes bag or drop bag. This is for personal items like clothing you wear on race morning, car keys, glasses, etc. You will leave this bag at the start of the race, and it will be available at the finish line.

Pro Tip: Use the morning clothes bag as your “swim bag,” since you won’t be taking a regular large transition bag to the race. Because you won’t be finishing the race where you start, you won’t have anywhere to get your gear back—other than what you leave in a morning clothes or drop bag, or if you’re able to give things to a friend or family member. For ease, put your wetsuit, swim cap, timing chip, goggles, and pre-race nutrition in this bag. Once you’re at the race start, put your morning clothes into the bag and drop it off as you head to the swim.

RELATED: Doing Your First Triathlon This Year? How to Handle Transitions Like a Pro

#2: Organization is everything

At a large two-transition race, there will be a bike bag for T1 and a run bag for T2. At many races, these bags often color-coded: for instance, blue for bike and red for run. Don’t just throw everything into the bags. Organize the items for easy access. For example, put your rolled up socks inside your running shoes. If you’re wearing a hat for the run, put your race belt, sunglasses, and nutrition inside the hat to create a package you can run with out of transition. At most races, you’re allowed access to your bags and the transition area for any last-minute checks on race morning—but allow yourself enough time if you need to get from T2 to the race start

Pro Tip: If you plan to carry a few gels, salt tabs, and other snacks for the run, put everything into a Ziploc bag so you can grab and go. Start your run and parcel out the nutrition while you’re on the move. The secret to a speedy transition is not to do anything standing still that you can do while you’re in motion.

RELATED: 10 Things Not to Bring to Your First Triathlon Transition

#3: Stand out

The plastic gear bags provided by the race will have your race number on them, but there could be hundreds or thousands of bags that look exactly the same. Make your bag stand out by adding an identifying marker. Adding strips of colored tape or a few stickers is a great idea. McGonigal confirms that Ironman race officials will not remove any colored tape or markings from transition bags. But don’t hang anything additional from the bag rack, because it’s not allowed and you don’t want to interfere with other athletes. If you’re at a race that doesn’t provide gear bags, then make sure you know what your transition area and gear look like.

Pro Tip: Try shortening the string on your gear bag when you hang it on the transition rack so it hangs a bit higher than all the others. This is a great way to make sure it stands out from the crowd.

RELATED: 4 Simple Tips for Fast, Olympic-Style Transitions

#4: Know the lay of the land

It’s always a good rule, not just at two transition races, to know the flow and ins and outs—commonly called “swim in” and “bike out,” or “bike in” and “run out.” Study the layout and walk through the transition areas from start to finish. Notice any landmarks in relation to where your bags are located. Is there a tree nearby? Is your bag hanging about halfway down the row? Look for immovable objects, because things like trashcans or cars might not be there on race day.   

“I think it’s always good for athletes to walk transition in advance of the race, so they know the flow and how to get where they need to go during the race,” McGonigal said. “This is especially true for split transitions where the layout and flow may be different between T1 and T2.”

Pro Tip: Count the number of rows and metal bars on the transition racks, so you know how many you need to run past in order to get to your gear. That’s something that won’t change on race day.

RELATED: The Role Muscle Memory Plays in Fast Transitions

#5: Prep mentally

Visualize every part of your transition process, from the location of your bag to what you plan to grab first. Imagine running in from the swim. You exit the water and strip off your swim cap and goggles. Run through the bag rack area looking for visual landmarks. Think about grabbing each item out of your bag, in a specific order, and dropping the rest inside before handing the bag to a volunteer and locating your bike. This mental exercise of going through the process, step by step, will solidify your plan, instill confidence, and calm nerves.

Pro Tip: If the worst happens, and you can’t locate your bag, McGonigal confirms that volunteers in transition are allowed to assist. Stay calm and work through solutions.

Triathlon transitions can seem complicated, and even more so when there are two of them, but organizing your gear, knowing the lay of the land, and using mental preparation will help you conquer a split transition race and maybe even shave a few seconds off your finish time in the process.

RELATED: Pretransition? Flying Mounts? How Paratriathletes Navigate the Transition Area

Jan Frodeno Reflects on His Final Ironman World Championship

Immediately after finishing 24th place at his final Ironman World Championships, the Olympic medalist (and three-time IMWC winner) explains what his race in Nice meant to him.