Coach Tip Tuesday: Multisport Transitions Explained

Posted On:
Tuesday, April 2, 2024
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Transition has been called the “fourth discipline” of triathlon, and with good reason.  In triathlon - or any other multisport discipline (such as duathlon, aquabike, or aquathlon) - time spent in Transition counts toward an athlete’s overall race time.  Practicing Transition like you would practice any other discipline of multisport (such as swimming, biking, or running) can help you have a stress-free, smoother, and shorter Transition, which can impact your overall race experience and time.

What is Transition?

Multisport, as the name implies, is a sport that has multiple disciplines combined into a single event.  There are several different types of multisport events and races:

  • Triathlon
    • Triathlon is the most well-known multisport discipline and consists of swimming, cycling, and running (in that order).
    • Triathlons can vary in length; the most common standardized distances are: 
      • Sprint (800-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike, 5-kilometer run)
      • Olympic (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike, 10-kilometer run)
      • Half (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run)
      • Full (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run)
  • Duathlon
    • A Duathlon is a multisport discipline that consists of running and cycling.
    • Most often, duathlons are composed of three legs (running, cycling, and running - in that order).  
    • Duathlons can vary in length; the most common standardized distances are: 
      • Sprint (5-kilometer run, 20-kilometer bike, 5-kilometer run) 
      • Olympic (10-kilometer run, 40-kilometer bike, 10-kilometer run)
  • Aquabike
    • An Aquabike is a multisport event that consists of swimming and cycling.  
    • Aquabikes can vary in length, but often align with standardized distances in triathlon, such as:
      • Sprint (800-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike)
      • Olympic (1,500-meter swim, 40-kilometer bike)
      •  Half (1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike)
  • Aquathlon
    • An Aquathlon is a multisport event that consists of swimming and running.  This is probably the least common and therefore the least well-known multisport event.
    • Aquathlons can vary in length, but often align with standardized distances in triathlon, such as:
      • Sprint (800-meter swim, 5-kilometer run)
      • Olympic (1,500-meter swim, 10-kilometer run)
    • Aquathlons sometimes have three legs (i.e. running, swimming, and running).

The term Transition actually has two relevant definitions (one as a noun, and the other as a verb) in the context of this conversation.

The first definition of Transition is a location within a defined boundary in a multisport event venue that is designated as the place where you can hold your gear and any necessary supplies for the different stages of a multisport race.  Transition is not part of the course of any of the legs of the multisport discipline.  (So for example, in a triathlon, Transition is not part of the swim course, bike course, or run course).

This area is sometimes called the “Transition Area,” “Transition Zone,” or sometimes it's just called “Transition”.  You use this area as you transition from one discipline to another.  Thus, you use the Transition Area one time less than the number of total legs that there are in your multisport event.  For instance, if you have three legs (such as the swim, bike, run in a triathlon), you will use the Transition area twice, once in between the swim and the bike and then again between the bike and the run.  Transitions are called by the numbered sequence in which they happen in a race.  For example, the Transition between the swim and bike in a triathlon is called Transition 1 and the Transition between the bike and run in a triathlon is called Transition 2.

The process of moving through the Transition Area is also referred to as Transition in the world of multisport.  Transition Areas vary pretty widely in terms of how they are designated and organized depending on a lot of factors, including the distance of the race, the size of the race, and the location of the race.  Conduct in Transition is governed by the relevant rules that apply to a given race; in the United States, those are the USA Triathlon Multisport Competition Rules.

What Do Athletes Put in Transition?

What athletes put in Transition can vary widely depending on the type of multisport event, the length of the event, and the individual athlete.  That being said, there are some general commonalities that are good to ensure that one puts in Transition (items denoted with an * are required for multisport events that have cycling and/or running legs):

  • Bicycle*
  • Bicycle Helmet*
  • Sunglasses or Prescription Glasses
  • Bicycle Shoes
  • Nutrition & Hydration for the Bike Leg (can be stored on the bike itself)
  • Race Bib (this is only required to be worn on the run leg)*
  • Running Shoes
  • Running Hat or Visor
  • Nutrition and Hydration for the Run Leg
  • Socks
  • Sunscreen

Out of all of these items, only three of them are required (a bicycle, a bicycle helmet, and a race bib).  While the other items on this list are certainly very nice to have, they are not required per the rules.  That being said, this list covers the most common items that athletes put at their designated spots in Transition.  You may feel like you need more than what is listed here, but be wary of the temptation to bring everything plus the kitchen sink with you to a race.  Transition is a very “Goldilocks” place where having exactly what you need - not more and not less - is best.

Athletes enter Transition and set up things at their designated spot prior to the race start.  Some races (such as IRONMAN and IRONMAN 70.3 events) assign spots in Transition based on athlete race bib numbers.  Other races (usually small, local, and grassroot events) have “open” Transitions where athletes may self-select their spots when they arrive at the race venue.  

Athletes place their bikes in Transition on a bicycle rack.  These bicycle racks can vary in how they look and function, but the most common ones look like A-frames.  Athletes rack their bicycle on the bicycle rack by hanging it from the seat or the brake hoods and rack it in such a manner that the majority of the bicycle is on one side of the rack.  At races where rack numbers are assigned, the majority of the bicycle must be on the number side of the rack.  Some races require athletes to rack their bikes the day before race day; other races have athletes bring all of the gear they will need (including their bicycles) into Transition on the day of the race.  

Once the bicycle is on the rack, athletes set up the rest of their gear and equipment on the ground next to the “down wheel” of their bicycle.  The down wheel is the wheel that is touching the ground (or, for our shorter friends who ride smaller bikes, the wheel that is closest to the ground).  If rack numbers are assigned, then the down wheel must be on the number side of the rack and athletes must place all of their gear on the number side of the rack.  The amount of space that each athlete has to place their gear other than their bicycle is approximately 24 inches wide; the length of this space is from the front of the down wheel until the rack.  An athlete cannot take over another athlete’s designated spot or interfere with another athlete’s gear or equipment by putting their belongings down in a way that spills over into another athlete’s designated spot.

At some point prior to the race start, Transition will close and remain closed until after the race ends.  Once this happens, the only people allowed in Transition are race personnel and racing athletes. 

How Does Transition Work?

An example of what a Transition Map could look like.

Athletes flow through Transition in a very specific way.  Using a Triathlon Transition as an example:

  • Transition 1
    • After the swim, athletes enter Transition via an entrance known as “Swim In”.
    • After entering Transition via Swim In, athletes go to their designated place in Transition where their equipment and gear is stored and waiting for them.
    • Once they arrive at their spot in Transition, athletes remove any gear and equipment from the swim that they no longer need and place it in their designated spot in Transition.
    • Once they place their swimming gear at their Transition Spot, athletes start to collect the items that they will need for the bike.
      • The most important of these is their helmet; multisport competition rules are very strict about the fact that an athlete may not even remove their bike from the bike rack unless they have a helmet on and the chin strap is secured.
    • Once the athlete has what they need for the bike and their helmet is properly secured on their head, the athlete grabs their bike and proceeds toward the Transition Exit, which is a very specific exit known as “Bike Out”.
      • In a triathlon, Bike Out is always on the opposite side of Transition from Swim Out; this ensures that all athletes have to cover the same distance in Transition no matter where their designated spot in Transition is so that one athlete does not have an unfair competitive advantage over another athlete.
    • Once the athlete exits Transition, they continue running with their bike until they reach the Bicycle Mount Zone. 
      • Once the athlete crosses the Bicycle Mount Zone (usually designated by a visible line colloquially called the “Mount Line”), they are allowed to get on their bicycle and begin riding it on the bike course.
  • Transition 2
    • Athletes must dismount their bicycle before they cross the Mount Line at the end of the bike course.
      • Once they dismount their bicycle, they enter Transition via an entrance called “Bike In”.  Bike In is often the same entrance as Bike Out was.
    • Athletes reach their designated spot in Transition and rack their bicycle.
      • Only once their bicycle is racked may athletes unfasten and remove their helmet.
    • Athletes remove any other gear from the bike leg that they no longer need and place it in their designated spot in Transition.
    • At this point, athletes start collecting the items that they will need for the run leg.
    • Once the athlete has everything they need for the run, they proceed toward a very specific exit of Transition, known as “Run Out”.
      • Run Out is often the same exit that Swim In was.
    • Once the athlete crosses the boundary of the Transition Zone at Run Out, they begin the run.

Why Does Transition Matter?

Transition matters for a lot of reasons.  Since it is the area where you store all of the gear and equipment you need for a multisport race, Transition is vital to you being able to successfully complete the race.  Simply put, multisport events would be impossible without Transition. 

Another important reason why Transition matters is that your time spent in Transition counts toward your overall race time.  My friend Kyle Coon just lost a triathlon in March 2024 by one second.  ONE SECOND.  Winning this particular race would have guaranteed him a spot at the 2024 Paralympic Games.  So Kyle missed guaranteeing himself a spot at the Games by ONE second.  He knew right after the race that he had left time on the table in Transition, and that if his Transitions had been smoother and slightly faster, he would have won the race and punched his ticket to the Paralympic Games.

While most of us are not elite athletes like Kyle, Transition still matters for all athletes, including beginner and age-group athletes.  Over the course of my career, I’ve coached multisport athletes who have (very sadly and unfortunately) not met the time requirements of a triathlon.  (When this happens, this is known as a DNF, which stands for Did Not Finish.)  Three of these athletes have missed the time requirements of an IRONMAN by less than one minute.  Having smoother and faster Transitions would have undoubtedly helped each of these athletes to be able to finish the race within the required time limits.  So even if you are not competitive, aren’t an elite athlete, and/or don’t necessarily care about your finishing place or time, you don’t want to spend more time than is necessary in Transition.  Doing so disrupts the flow of your race and - in a worst case scenario - could send you over the time limit of a race by mere seconds.

How big the race is - and therefore how big the Transition Area is - will have a direct impact on the minimum amount of time that you will be spending in Transition.  Smaller Transition Areas can be moved through more quickly than larger Transition Areas.  But no matter the size of the Transition, you should always be seeking to spend the least amount of time possible there.

How Can You Improve Your Transition?

There are several ways you can ensure that you have a smooth and good Transition and things you can do to improve your Transition:

  • Have Everything You Need
  • Practice Transition in Training
  • Complete a Pre-Race Walk-Down
  • Arrange Your Transition Items in the Order You Will Use Them

Have Everything You Need

Though it may seem obvious, one of the most fundamental ways for you to ensure that you have a smooth Transition (and ultimately a successful race) is to make sure that you have everything you need for the race actually in Transition.  I have seen many athletes forget to put something important in Transition and it either severely compromises or ruins that athlete’s race.   

Practice Transition in Training

All too often, athletes get focused on the “big ticket” items of their training and racing.  For multisport athletes, this means that they often get really focused on practicing the main events of their race in training, such as the swim, bike, and run.  But practicing and training Transition is just as important as training swimming, biking, and running.  The common advice “Nothing new on race day” doesn’t just apply to gear choices; it applies to behaviors and strategies, too.

Athletes can practice Transition in training when they have bricks scheduled.  A Brick is a workout that includes two or more disciplines (such as swim-to-bike or bike-to-run) with minimal time in between each of the disciplines.  Brick workouts help prepare athletes for the unique challenges that multisport athletes face in racing where they must move from one sport to another in a single race while minimizing drops in their performance.

When athletes have bricks on their schedule, they can set up their own Transition Area and treat the transition in their brick the same as they would treat Transition on race day by practicing their gear and equipment swaps like they would be making them in the race.  Even if athletes don’t have bricks on their schedule, they can commit to dedicating time to practice transition just like they commit to dedicating time to completing swimming, biking, and running workouts.  

Like any other skill or discipline in endurance sports, consistency of practice breeds proficiency.  While Transitions may look and feel complicated at first, they can feel smoother and more straightforward with regular practice.

Complete a Pre-Race Walk-Down

Another important thing for athletes to do is to walk down Transition before the race begins.  I recommend that athletes walk through the entire flow of Transition.  To do this, they can start at Swim In, walk to their spot in Transition, then walk to Bike Out.  Then, they should start at Bike in, walk to their Transition Spot, and walk to Run Out.  Athletes are not permitted to mark their spot in Transition (such as with a balloon or brightly colored tape), so this walk down is important so athletes take note of any clear landmarks that they can use to find their spot during the race itself.  When heart rates and adrenaline are high, it can be quite easy to get lost in Transition if you haven’t walked it down and taken note of where your spot is!

Arrange Your Transition Items in the Order You Will Use Them
Items arranged in Transition in the order an athlete would use them.

I recommend that athletes place their gear and equipment at their spot in Transition in the order that they are going to be using it in the race.  Using a triathlon as an example:

  • Cycling shoes are placed closest to the Transition Aisle (aka first)
  • Running shoes are placed behind the cycling shoes (further away from the Transition Aisle)
  • The cycling helmet is placed on top of the cycling shoes with the outside of the helmet touching the shoes with the strap unsecured and the straps hanging outside of the helmet.
    • This allows the athlete to put the helmet directly on their head and secure it very smoothly and easily.
  • Sunglasses or prescription glasses are placed in the helmet in the open position
    • This allows the athlete to put the glasses on quickly before they put their helmet on; this is obviously more important for athletes who need prescription glasses to see.
  • The race bib is placed on a race bib belt and is set behind the running shoes along with any hat or visor.
    • This allows the athlete to grab these items; they can be put on while the athlete is running out of Transition (versus while they are standing at their spot in Transition); doing this while they are moving saves time.
  • If the athlete is using socks, place individual socks in individual shoes and have them partially hanging out so they are easy to grab and put on.
  • When putting wet gear in Transition after the swim, hang the wetsuit on the bicycle rack in the spot where your bicycle is.
    • Don’t put your wet swim gear on top of your other gear unless you want to have wet shoes to run with!

Advanced Transition Techniques

Once an athlete establishes proficiency with the fundamentals of Transition, there are some advanced techniques that an athlete can employ, practice, and master that will help them shorten their Transition times.  These should only be incorporated once an athlete has mastered the basics of Transition.  Here are some common examples:

  • Flying Mount
    • This is where the athlete clips their shoes into their pedals and leaves them there while their bicycle is racked in Transition.  When they go to mount their bicycle at the Mount Line, they start pedaling by putting their feet on top of their shoes.  They ultimately put on their shoes and secure them while they are riding.
  • No Socks
    • Many, many multisport athletes will cycle without socks.  It’s slightly less common for athletes to run without socks (mostly due to the increased risk of blisters in running compared with cycling), but many athletes do train to run without socks so that they can eliminate the time it takes to put them on in Transition.

The Bottom Line

Transition is an important part of a multisport event, and athletes would do well to treat it with the same reverence and respect that they show the other disciplines of their training.  With thoughtful planning and practice, Transition can help athletes have smooth, strong, and fast multisport races.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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