Don't let the name fool you: There are more than three events in a triathlon.
Yes, the big ones are swim, bike, and run. But as anyone who's ever missed their goal time by sheer minutes or seconds will tell you*, there are two other important parts of a triathlon that don't get talked about (or practiced) nearly enough: Transition 1 and Transition 2.
So today, with our own Team Whole Living triathlon just days away, I'm giving you a walk-through of both transitions, also known as T1 and T2: How you should set up, what you should be thinking about, and when you should be doing what between the swim and the bike, and then between the swim and the run.
Much like changing a tire, though, you can't just read this and look at the pictures and think that you're good to go. Practice this yourself—physically and in your head—before race day, and work out any kinks beforehand.
In the hour or two before your race starts, you'll need to get your bike and all of your gear set up in a small designated area, generally about the size of a bath towel.
Rack your bike: Depending on the types of racks your race is using, you'll either hang your bike by its seat or slide one wheel into a slot on the ground. Either way, double check to make sure yours is facing the right direction; bikes typically alternate back and forth, so if your handlebars are on the same side as your immediate neighbor's, one of you is probably wrong.
Set bike gear near the front: The first thing you'll do after getting out of the water and taking your wetsuit off is suit up for your bike ride. Stash anything you're wearing or taking on the bike—sunglasses, race belt, and energy gels or snacks—in your upside-down helmet. Next to your helmet, place the shoes you're wearing on the bike—with socks, if you're wearing them—open and waiting for your feet.
Set running gear toward the back: Behind that, keep anything you'll need for your second transition, including running sneakers and socks (if you're also wearing bike shoes), a hat, and any extra nutrition you'll want for the run.
Keep these extras handy: No well-stocked transition area is complete without sunscreen, lip balm, a towel to wipe your face off, and an extra water bottle to squirt off your bare feet.
Remember your spot: Most triathlons don't allow you to use any obvious markers, like balloons or neon signs, to remember where your transition spot is among the other hundreds or thousands out there. But make a mental note of any built-in landmarks—like signs hanging on a nearby fence—or count the number of rows back you are. (Rows will be numbered, too, if all else fails.)
T1: Swim to Bike
When you climb out of the water, take a deep breath and take a moment to celebrate your accomplishment. You're one-third done! Now, moment's over. Time to focus on transitioning like a pro.
Unzip while you run: As you make your way toward the transition area, reach behind you and yank down the zipper on your wet suit. You can run, walk, or jog into your spot with your wet suit pulled down around your waist. Then, when you get to your bike, pull it down the rest of the way and step, knees high, all the way out of it.
Swap your suit for your bike stuff: Toss your wet suit, goggles, and swim cap, neatly but quickly, somewhere near the back of your transition area where it won't be in your way or anyone else's. Then get to work suiting up with your bike gear and shoes. (Helpful hint: Your face will be wet, so you may want to to towel it off first to avoid your sunglasses fogging up on your face!)
Clip your helmet: After putting on your sunglasses, race belt, and shoes, make sure your helmet is on tight and clip it in place. Don't forget this: If you're caught on your bike without a clipped helmet, you could be disqualified.
Make a run for it: Don't worry about eating anything or drinking anything during transition; there will be plenty of time to do that on the bike. Once you unrack your bike, walk or run with it—steering it by the handlebars or, if you've practiced, by the back of the seat—to the end of transition. Climbing on your bike too early can also result in a DQ, so make sure to wait for the "mount bikes here" line. Once you're there, go go go!
T2: Bike to Run
For most triathletes, this transition is the fastest by far. There's no wet suit or complicated bike gear to worry about, and if you don't wear bike shoes, you don't even have to change sneakers!
Be ready to dismount: Don't try to make up for lost time in the last quarter mile of your bike ride: You may be faced with twists and turns or a crowded dismount area, so keep it slow and be ready to hop off at the specified spot.
Run and rack your bike: Trace your steps back to transition and rack your bike back the same way you found it.
Ditch your helmet; change your shoes: Don't be one of those people who heads out on the run course still wearing their helmet! Exchange it for your hat or visor, if you're wearing one, and—if you wore different bike shoes—swap them now for your running sneakers.
Make sure you have your race number: If you put a race belt on before the bike ride or pinned your number to your jersey before the race start, you won't have to worry about this. But if for some reason you're still not wearing your race number, make sure it's on before you hit the road.
Grab your stuff and go: This is the secret to making your T2 even faster: You don't need to fit your hat just right, or stash your extra sports gels in your back pocket at that exact moment. Get out on the course and fall into a slow jog before you start to make minor adjustments. Once you've got yourself settled, you can pick up the pace and settle into a groove.
Finally, look around and enjoy it: Yes, the whole point of this blog is about getting faster during transition, but part of the fun is also taking it all in, even if just for a moment. Transition is one of the craziest, silliest, and most intense parts of the race, and you can learn a lot—and gain a whole new appreciation for the sport—by being aware of what's going on around you.
No idea what to expect in transition? There will likely be lots of energy, music, and excitement the morning of—and it may still be dark; I've known athletes to bring head lamps to help them set up! For a quick peek inside transition, check out this video I shot while getting ready for the Lavaman triathlon in Hawaii earlier this year.
Good luck and have fun! And for those of you joining us this weekend at the Danskin tri in New Jersey, look for Team Whole Living at the expo and on race day, both on the course and cheering in the crowd. After all these months of training, it's finally here. We can't wait!
*A personal note about my comment above: During my first triathlon back in 2008, I missed my goal time of three hours by about five minutes. I was thrilled with my swim, bike, and run times—but my first transition was a pathetic 11 minutes long. What was I doing in there? Getting flustered, second guessing myself, and who knows what else! But this year I finally beat my three-hour time goal, thanks mostly to a much-slimmed-down T1 time. I've since heard from many triathletes that getting faster during your transitions is the easiest way to improve your overall time!
Amanda MacMillan is a freelance writer, currently blogging at LeanGreenBride.com. She has done four Olympic-distance triathlons and is looking forward to her first sprint tri THIS WEEKEND (!) with Team Whole Living. Her triathlon training blog runs every Thursday on Whole Living Daily.