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Pre-Race Jitters: Transitions

July 10, 2012

In the triathlon, athletes swim, bike, and finally run. But there’s also those transitions between the sports. Swim-to-bike and bike-to-run. Transitions are often called the fourth discipline of triathlon. Smooth transitions are critical to a good race plan. But while everyone remembers to train for the swim, bike, and run themselves, not everyone remembers to train for transitions.

Given that I’m training for an Ironman, transitions are arguably a little less important. In a sprint triathlon, an extra minute in transition could be a noticeable difference in your finish time. In an Ironman, unless you’re racing for a spot on the podium, a few extra minutes in transition doesn’t make as much difference. In fact, like many non-elite Ironman athletes, I will likely be completely changing clothes between sports, applying sunscreen, and taking an extra 3-5 minutes in transitions to make sure I’m good to go. Nonetheless, I still want my transition to be as smooth as possible. And for my half Ironman’s, I want them as fast as possible.

For me, the most critical piece of preparation for transitions is getting into the frame-of-mind that transitions are part of the race. Back when I did the Chicago triathlon in 2008, my transitions were very slow. But not only did my transitions take several minutes each, I also was a bit slow as I started the bike and then the run. I had mentally gotten out of race mode and into transition mode. And it took a while after the transition to get back into race mode. So going into Racine this weekend, I want to be ready to stay in race mode when I go into transition. Even if the transition takes several minutes, I want to leave transition mentally ready to race. I don’t want to get stuck in transition.

Racing through transition is not intuitive for most of us. In our daily lives, we race through work, school, and other activities. Transitions are a moment to slow down, to catch our breath, to think about what we’re doing next, to ponder, to be lazy. And the same for athletes as we train. I push my limits when I’m doing intervals on the bike, when I’m swimming distance in the lake, when I’m running along the shore. But in most of my workouts, when I get out of the lake, I go slow. I take my time as I get myself ready to get back on my bike for the ride home (admittedly, I often don’t think of that short 4 mile bike to/from the beach as part of the workout even, except as a warmup and cooldown). So to make my transitions smooth, fast, and precise will take a lot of planning, and yes, practice!

As a practical matter, this means having everything laid out in my transition area in exactly the order I will need to grab it, and anything extra (e.g., a spare water bottle I don’t plan on bringing on the bike), either not in my transition area at all or at least back and out of the way. I don’t want to have to think about what I have to grab and what I don’t have to grab. For swim-to-bike, this means pulling off the top of my wetsuit as I run out of the water. Arriving at my transition area and having my sunglasses, race number belt, and bike gloves laid out inside my helmet. Pulling those on as I pull off the bottom of the wetsuit (bike/tri clothes already on underneath the wetsuit). Socks and bike shoes in place, ready to pull on next. And water and food already on the bike, so that I can just eat and drink once I’m riding. For bike-to-run, this means run hat on top of running shoes. Get into transition, re-rack the bike, helmet and gloves off, hat on, bike shoes off, run shoes on, and using elastic laces to quickly tighten them and get out onto the run.

This also means practicing my transitions. The practice is partially to get down the technical parts of the transition. For example, exactly where do I want my helmet in relation to my bike? Do I want to put on gloves or sunglasses first? How can I get my wetsuit off the fastest? But more than that, practice is to get myself in the mindset of transition as part of the race. Even without practice, my transitions will probably be okay, just because I’ve thought through everything I need to do. But practice will be critical in getting myself into that mindset of keeping my energy moving through transition. Transitions are not a time to slow down and catch my breath. That will happen after the race.

So I’m going to be sure to practice my transitions. To make sure I know what I’m doing. Later this afternoon I’m doing an easy open water swim in Lake Michigan. After my swim, I’m going to practice my swim-to-bike transitions a few times. Depending how busy the beach is, I may not actually get on the bike — I may not be comfortable just leaving my wetsuit lying around. But I will at least practice getting out of the water, running up the beach to my bike, and quickly changing into my bike gear. And after my bike workout tomorrow, I will practice my bike-to-run transitions: getting off the bike, running it to the rack, changing bike shoes for run shoes and helmet for run hat, and getting off running. If I make my transitions faster, great. But if I keep myself mentally in the race during transition, even better!

131 days till Ironman Arizona.

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From → form, training

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