Thursday, July 22, 2010

Tri Coach: Transition Area

One of the most confusing things for new triathletes is the transition area. Since this question came up this week, I thought I'd break down a typical transition area here and give some pointers.

The first thing to know about transition areas is that the space you have will be small. It's best not to make it look like a garage sale with gear and clothing sprawling all over the place. Even if you get to the transition area early and set up with plenty of room, chances are that the racks will get progressively more crowded as the start of the race nears, and your spacious area will shrink to about the size of a decent hand towel. So just bring what you need, and leave the rest in your gear bag. Apply your sunscreen and your glide, your lip balm, hair tyes, and anything else you might need, put them away and just bring the basics to transition.

This is a photo of how I set up my own transition area at most races. I bring my nice bright green towel, and fold it until it's just about as wide as my bike's handlebars. This ensures that it takes up the same amount of space as the bike racked on the opposite side of the bike rack from me. If everyone racks their bikes on alternating sides of the rack, that's as much space as you will probably get.

My cap and goggles obviously go with me to the swim start, so I lay them out right in front. Next are my biking shoes, with velcro straps opened and loose. Note that bike shoes can also be clipped onto your pedals, but new triathletes probably don't need to worry about giving that a try right off the bat. If I choose to wear socks in a longer race, I will scrunch them all the way up until they are very compressed, and lay each one carefully inside a shoe. That way when I get to the shoes I can just stick my toes inside the sock and pull it up quickly over the foot.My helmet is beside the shoes, and I like to keep my sunglasses inside the helmet with the earpieces open and pointing up. That way I grab the sunglasses and put them on, smash the helmet on my head, buckle the strap and I'm off.

In the back of the transition towel is the running gear. My shoes have lace locks on them, and they are pulled open and ready to jam my feet into. On top of the shoes is my running hat, with the bill facing toward me, ready to just pop onto my head. On top of that I've placed a race number belt with my race number already clipped into it. Note that in some races (not very many any more) you may be required to wear a race number on the bike. In that case, I lay this on top of my bike shoes, and put it on with the number on my back. When I get to the run, the number is required to be in front so I just spin it around. In most races though you only need the number for the run. So you can pin it to your shirt or singlet, or you can use a number belt and just put it on for the run. My number belt happens to have some little elastic loops for sticking gels into, so for a longer race I can load it up with a couple of gels ahead of time.

That's it! There's not a lot of stuff in this transition area, which means no fumbling around when I'm in a hurry in T1 and T2 of the race. Before I go to the start line in my wetsuit, I stop and look at the transition area. I go to the chute where I'll be entering from the water and walk towards my rack, noting where it is in the area (it's five racks to the right from the entrance, or it's seven racks on the left). Though you will see it recommended frequently, please resist the notion of bringing a helium balloon and tying it to your rack so that you can find your bike. I was at a windy race this June where several people on my rack had done this. The balloons where all blowing horizontally, getting tangled in other peoples' bikes and gear, and bopping other triathletes in the face as they tried to transition. Trust me, you can remember that you are five racks on the left without a balloon.

As I do my run-through, I mentally see myself running in from the swim. I see myself unzipping my wetsuit as I run (not taking off my cap and goggles first, as that ties up your hands). Once the wetsuit is unzipped and stripped down to the waist, then I take off my cap and goggles and have them in hand as I approach the transition area. Now I approach my own area, and I see myself stripping off my wetsuit, putting on my bike shoes, my sunglasses and helmet, and unracking my bike and taking off.

This is a good time to practice taking your bike off of the rack and make sure that all goes smoothly. Make sure you don't have any brake levers or shift levers that will catch on the rack, make sure you've racked it in such a way that you can get it off easily. I was at a race recently where the woman on the rack next to me had racked her bike by rolling it under the rack and hanging her seat on the rack, but facing the wrong way (away from her own transition area). So she would have to roll it out backwards, catching her handlebars on the rack to get it out. Unfortunately, she could only get it off the rack by turning it almost sideways, a feat that was not possible once everyone else's bikes were racked. I pointed this out to her in the transition area before the race and thankfully she had time to change it. But she would've had an unpleasant surprise if she'd run up from the swim only to find she couldn't get her bike out without knocking over everyone else's!

After I take my bike off the rack, I make sure I know which direction I'm going out of the transition area to get to the bike course. Then I come back and re-rack the bike. I visualize myself making the bike to run transition. I mentally put on my race belt, my hat, and my running shoes. Again, I make sure I know which way I'm running out of the transition area to get to the run course. Learning these things ahead of time saves confusion in the middle of the race (you will almost always see race volunteers having to re-direct some hapless athlete who has tried to bike onto the run course or run the wrong way out of transition).

Phew! That seems like a lot, but by laying out a simple transition area, by making sure your bike is racked safely in a position that you can easily remove it from the rack, and by mentally practicing your transition and knowing where you'll be going, you will be on your way to having smooth and effective transitions in your race with a minimum of panic and confusion.


Kristin (Triathlon Dreams) said...

Nice post!! I Do a Training series every wed and had to show people how to rack their bikes correctly and not bring a basket full of things and take up more than one spot!!! :)

janasmama said...

This article is a must read for all triathletes, especially newbies because there were so many people at my first tri who were taking up too much space and very disorganized. This does affect other people and I know we all want to be good sports.

I followed all of this advice that you gave me here for my first triathlon and my transitions were seamless which certainly help keep the race fun for me.

I was also able to remember how many racks down my bike was when I came off the swim (even though I doubted my ability to do this) and this certainly kept me from feeling lost and I didn't miss a beat.

Thanks for writing all that out!

Robin said...

Yep, you transitioned like a true pro!

liz said...

There are a lot of triathletes (not just newbies) who would benefit from this great, well written article. I will definitely post a link to it on my blog. Thank you so much !

Eager to Tri said...

Hi Ironmom. You make a lot of good points, but 1 thing that I find critical, and I try and pass on whenever I can is the importance of making sure your bike is in the right gear for the start of the bike.

A local race here in Vancouver (North Shore Tri) begins with a short, but steep climb IMMEDIATELY once you've mounted out of T1.

I've seen more than 1 rider in too big of a gear and have to stop mid-hill and adjust their gearing.

Another tip is (if you're wearing a full sleeve wetsuit) to take your cap and goggles off 1st, and when you pull the top of your wetsuit down over your hand, release the cap and goggles. The material of the wetsuit sleeves will hold them in place.

Robin said...

That is a REALLY great point about the gears. I have done races (like the very nice course at Hagg Lake here in Oregon) with a steep hill up out of the transition area.