3S's for Smooth Transitions: #3 Skills

This is the final article of the series, looking at improving your transitions for better race times and a more enjoyable race experience. The goal is to minimise the time you take but without compromising your ability to perform on the next leg of the race. The 3S's can help you achieve this - thinking about the Stuff you need, your System for managing it and practicing your Skills at changing from swim to bike to run. In article #1 we looked at considerations for your kit list of Stuff for your race and in #2 we looked at your System for organising it. In this article we will look at developing and practicing the Skills you need to move from Swim to Bike to Run.

Sharpen your Skills

There are two main aspects to good transitions:

  • Managing physical and physiological changes when going from one sport to another

  • Developing the neuromuscular pathways and practical techniques to enable swift change of kit and being ready to start the next discipline

Triathletes should practice both of these elements, you can do this separately or together in one session.

Brick sessions should form part of your training plan, where you do back to back training sessions to replicate the physical demands. Most people focus their Bricks on the Bike to Run, partly because it is more practical but mainly because it is the one they are more concerned about, being able to run on fatigued legs. How many brick sessions you build into your training and how often you do them depends on your individual goals and needs but as a minimum I recommend doing at least a couple of short 15-20 min runs straight off the long bike as you get close to race day. This gives you a chance to feel how it affects you and find the best strategy for you to find your running legs. It also prepares you for what to expect on race day, avoiding any nasty surprises and giving you the confidence that any discomfort will pass once you get into your run.

If you want to incorporate practical skill development into your brick sessions, you can do this by laying out your kit as you would for transition so that you replicate the race. This allows you to test out whether your System works and whether you have selected the right Stuff. It also enables you to develop the co-ordination and habitual movements that will enable you execute your change without undue stress.

But you can also practice skills without doing the Brick element, doing a dedicated Skill session where you lay your stuff out then practicing running in, changing and running out again. This gives you good opportunity to repeat the process, learning what works and embedding the movement patterns and sequence until it becomes unconscious competence. With practice, you may also find that you can learn to multitask e.g. pulling off a wetsuit whilst adding a jacket. And lastly, take advantage of every opportunity to practice key things at the start and end of each training session, such as wetsuit removal or bike mount and dismount.

Here are some of the key skills to develop for each part of the race:

Pre Race:

This isn’t always easy to practice in advance but it is a good habit to develop. Make sure you orientate yourself in transition – look at the map in your race pack in advance but also look around when you arrive. Find your spot and then identify where the Swim In / Bike Out / Bike In and Run Out points are in relation to your position so you can navigate to and from your spot quickly. Making your spot more visible with markers is a rule infringement so the best way to find it is to use static landmarks and signs. When you rack, count how many rows in you are (sometimes they are labelled A,B,C etc) and roughly how far along you are. You can of course use the rack numbers to find your place but these are really small to read. The best approach is to identify static landmarks which align to your spot – e.g. a tree or a building. Do make sure they are static though – I once racked opposite an inflatable banner, which had then been deflated when I arrived back…

When laying out your kit as per your System, also check that your bike is in a suitable gear for the start of the bike. People often leave them in too hard a gear or fail to notice an uphill then really struggle to get going.

T1 - Swim to Bike

This is often the most disorientating and the more complex of the two transitions. If you have been lying horizontal with very little sensory input for a period of time, suddenly going to standing and trying to execute an array of tasks can be tough. Taking a couple of seconds to stop once you are upright and just breathe can be really helpful.

For the Swim, think about working Top to Bottom to remove everything. Use glide on your arms and legs to help with speedy wetsuit removal. There may be people there to help you but practice getting your wetsuit off unaided just in case. There are some good YouTube videos available on this but essentially, whilst on the way back to your bike, undo the top and pull the zipper. You can remove your hat and goggles and hold in one hand whilst pulling down the front of the suit with the other, leaving the hat and goggles stuffed in side the arm as you remove it. This does depend a bit on flexibility and dexterity - some people prefer to leave hat and goggles on so they have both hands free for their wetsuit then dump them off at the end.

When you have reached your spot, you can remove your legs from your wetsuit. If you are very adept, you can push the suit down your legs then stand on it with one foot whilst pulling the other leg free, leaving your hands free for other tasks like your bike helmet. But most people need to focus on getting their suit off and may need their hands to assist, before doing anything else.

To prepare for the bike, I generally work bottom up – shoes are already undone (I don't have them on my bike) with toe covers if needed and sock are talc’d and rolled so I can get my feet in quick. Race belt is done up so I can simply step in and pull up (ff you are pinning your number to a top instead, double check you haven't pinned the two layers of your shirt together or it won't go on!). Lastly if I need warm clothes, I prefer a zipped gilet or jacket - arm warmers and over the head jerseys are hard to put on when wet. Then helmet and glasses – always do your helmet BEFORE you touch your bike. If you are planning to do an outfit change e.g. to add proper cycling shorts for a long ride, practice making this change from wet and see how swift you can make it.

Decide in advance how you will mount your bike and then practice it. Practice running with your bike on a traffic free area – hold by the saddle or the headset and running alongside on the same side as you prefer to mount, steering left and right. You can choose to have shoes attached to the bike, so you run barefoot with your bike then get your feet in once you are riding but you need to ensure you can do this without endangering yourself or others. Or you can put your bike shoes on in Transition and run with them on – just take care not to slip. You can do a flying mount if you are confident in your ability to do this but a "postie" style or simple standing mount are much more common and easy to execute. The time gain from a flying mount is not hugely significant vs the risk of getting it wrong and hurting yourself or damaging your bike unless you are very proficient.

Always be aware of yourself and others at the mount line. Other racers can be unpredictable and their skills may not be great. It can also become a little congested. Keep your wits about you, always do a brief check behind you and try to clear the area as quickly and safely as you can.

T2 – Bike to Run

This is a much simpler transition to execute practically however the physical demands can feel more challenging as you shift to a weight bearing position on legs which are tired and fatigued.

Practice your dismount skills – doing this at the end of your long training rides is the best way to replicate how you will feel. Make sure your feet are unclipped if you ride with cleats and you can do a “postie” style or a standing dismount as you feel most confident with. Then practice running with and steering your bike as you have for T1. Again – be alert at the dismount line, you don’t want to go over it but also look out for other athletes.

Make sure your bike is safely racked BEFORE you touch your helmet and then start to change. Again, I work Top to Bottom then Bottom to Top when casting off my bike gear and then picking up anything I need for the run like my visor. Twist your race belt as you run to the exit so that your number is on the front.

You might find that your legs feel very heavy as you start to run, as the muscles take time to adjust and get the blood to the right places. In your practice sessions, you can try different approaches to see what works for you. Some people like to walk a little first until they feel a little more balanced. I like to go for a slightly shorter stride and higher cadence initially to get my legs moving – but be careful not to do this for too long. With adrenaline rushing, its easy to feel comfortable early on but to go out too hard and then fatigue quickly. Focus on being relaxed, calm and trust that your legs will settle into it and trust your pacing strategy.

Practicing transition Skills is essential for a good race. You want to feel confident in your ability to execute each change and get out onto the next leg swiftly but you don’t want to rush – forgotten nutrition could lead you to bonk or a rucked item of clothing can cause a painful chafe. Even if you aren’t aiming for a fast time, emotions and adrenaline can run high on race day so the calmer and more automatic you can make your transitions, the less stressful your race.

And that concludes the 3S’s of smooth transitions. Plan what Stuff you will need, develop a robust System to organise it and practice your Skills. And always make your preparation specific to you, your event and your race strategy. Happy racing!

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