Tri Talk Triathlon Podcast, Episode 48

Lost in transition? The free speed of perfectly executed transitions, video analysis of the best and worst transition techniques.

Welcome to Tri Talk, your podcast source for, triathlon tips, training, news and more. New listeners in the last 2 weeks primarily came from Denmark and Kentucky. In Denmark, I hope you did well at the Xterra Denmark event that took place a couple of weeks ago. You Xterra athletes are real men in my opinion. In Kentucky, I’m hoping that the word on Tri Talk spread due to exposure at the recent Louisville Ironman event, and if you didn’t participate in that race, I wish you well in the upcoming Lake Barkley full and half triathlon. My goal at Tri Talk is to help you swim, bike, and run faster, to meet your personal triathlon goals. Whether you are an elite or amateur triathlete, we cover sprint distance to Ironman distance. I’m your host, David Warden, and this is Tri Talk episode 48.

If my voice sounds a little different on the podcast, it’s because I went to a concert the other night. It wasn’t that I screamed myself hoarse, but it was a Josh Groban concert, and the 20,000 screaming housewives gave me temporary hearing loss. I still can’t hear myself talk. Today on Tri Talk I’ll be covering the 15 steps to the fastest transition times, based on an analysis of filming dozens of transitions at a recent event. Even if you are veteran triathlete, I think you’ll learn something new from this transition analysis. Now, last week I told you I would also be publishing a report on my recent experience as a race manager for a major event, but this transition topic ended up being a significant report, and with the transition video analysis, we’ll already be at about 30 minutes for the episode, and that is right on where I want it to be. So I’ll be covering my race manager experience in episode 49.

I have two significant announcements for the podcast today. First, I am thrilled to announce that I submitted my first two articles for publication, both were accepted, and I just had my first article published in the print edition of Triathlete magazine. You can find it in the October issue of Triathlete. Although I am always proud of my nearly 10,000-strong force of podcast listeners who download each episode, there is something about being printed in a publication with a circulation of over 100,000 that gets me excited as well. Can you imagine when 90,000 of those Triathlete subscribers open up their magazine and say, “who the hell is David Warden?” Regardless, I could not have done it without you, your support, great ideas and feedback that you have given me now for over a year. Look for another article that will be published in the magazine as well this fall, and I hope they are the first two articles of many more to come.

Before we get onto the good stuff, I want to make an appeal to any race directors in the audience. Triathlon is growing so fast, and I think that the movers and shakers of the sport recognize the things they need to do to accommodate that growth. There is one area where we may be missing an important part of the growth. We now have a growing aging population of triathletes. These are either the athletes who blazed the trail for the rest of up 20 years ago, or there is a growing number of older athletes who are coming into the sport as part of the regular word-wide growth. As a result, I am seeing and receiving feedback on more and more triathletes who are suffering from injuries that make it very difficult to run. Now, let me make it clear that the age of the athlete by itself does not necessary means an increased risk of injury. I have seen no evidence to support that. But, an athlete who is 50 years old, with 30 years of endurance training, is more likely in that wide window of experience to have taken that one wrong step that led to a tear, or a sprain, or a break, or the 30 years of pounding on that hip has finally caused the body to beg for mercy. It’s just plain wear and tear. And frankly, it is not just aging athletes. There is plenty of injury in the ranks of the young that inhibits running.

What can we do help accommodate this issue? How can we keep these athletes involved and motivated to train for endurance events? The answer to me is such a simple one, and yet it has not been widely adopted. Adding an aqua-bike division to any existing triathlon would allow multi-sport who have running problems to still stay motivated to train and participate. Aqua-bike is simply a swim-bike event, and is fully endorsed by USAT. In fact, an aqua-bike division is easier to setup for an existing event than a duathlon. All the race director needs to do is add the aqua-bike division, and those athletes total time is based on the swim and bike. The athletes start at the same time, they use T1 in the same manner, they just don’t head out of T2.

Can I request that any race director within the sound of my voice consider adding that aquabike division to all of their triathlon events. Or, if you are a triathlete, don’t be shy in pinging your race director and asking that they add the division to their future races.

Let’s get onto the good stuff! The following analogy has been used almost to the point of nauseam, but it is still just as powerful to me as ever. How long would it take you to shave a minute off of your 10K running time? Of course, it depends on the fitness level of the runner, where less experienced runners would see improvements faster. So let’s say that you are trying to knock off 1 minute from a 45-minute 10K. With a good training plan, that might take you a few months. Going from 40 minutes to 39 minutes might take you up to a year.

But, how much training and planning would it take to shave a minute off of your total race time by working on your transitions? For a triathlete who has not spent time already specifically working on transitions, taking just a few minutes to practice and develop a transition strategy can give you that extra free minute.

But the real beauty of outstanding transitions, is that they transcend athleticism. It is the one area of triathlon, where you and I can be as good as the pros. It takes no additional athleticism to be a good transitioner, at any age, at any experience level. It just takes strategy and practice.

Even for those of you who are racing veterans, I hope today to share some transition information that could still shave a few more seconds off for you as well. Also, while researching for this topic I filmed various athletes in transition at a recent event, and have some video examples of good and not-so-good transition technique that is available as a companion video released alongside this podcast.

So let’s start from beginning and work our way from T1 to T2, and cover some transition best-practices. I have broken these up into 15 steps. The 15-step program to blazing transitions. 8 steps to perform before the race even starts, and 7 steps to perform after the race starts. Here we go.

The first step in fast transitions is to practice transitioning. I actually put on my wetsuit, goggles, and swim cap, and hop in the shower. There is something about being wet that simply changes your ability to be quick in transition, and this is an excellent way, just like in athletic training, to have a race-simulation workout. Find out what order and in what position your equipment is best placed for you.

Second, use the motto “less is more”. As much as you can have already on your bike will make a huge difference. Nutrition, tubes, CO2, can all be on the bike and ready to go. There are several nutrition products that hold your nutrition in an aerodynamic position on the bike, including the Bento Box and the Gu Bike Mount, even taping your nutrition to your bike. The X-lab Saddlewing is an outstanding component that has anything you need to change a flat that attaches right onto the bike. You can hear about these products in Epsisode 35 as well. Try to avoid stuffing anything into your jersey out of T2. This is not always possible with half and full Ironman racing, where you may need to carry a couple of hours worth of nutrition, but for short races, it is a good goal to try and add nothing to your pockets as you transition.

Third, know where your bike and transition area is. I have seen balloons, chalk, or flags taped to the bike racks used as markers to easily find your bike out of the water. Or, memorize a landmark. Practice at least once the route you will take from the water to your bike. Not only practice, while at the transition area, visualize yourself going through the motions, and see your entrance and exit from transition.

Fourth, wherever possible, get your transition area as close to the exit as possible. Yes, everyone needs to run the same distance in the transition area, but it is a sad fact that running the length of the transition area with your bike will be slower than running the length of the transition area without it. Many events assign a bike rack to an athlete, but if you have the choice, closer to the exit is better.

Fifth, wear your race gear and race belt under your wetsuit. Nothing kills a transition more than getting dressed. In fact, in analyzing the athletes I filmed, putting on a jersey took anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds extra.

Sixth, after you have setup your transition area, what is the next thing to do? The next thing to do is to go back and check your transition area just before the race starts. Too often after you have setup your things, another triathlete may come along and “nudge” your bike or your things to a different spot. You’ll recall that Ryan Danforth had his T2 bag moved about 15 feet from where he placed it in T2 for a race, and it cost him a minute in transition to find it again.

Seventh, use body glide liberally. Put it on your wrists and ankles, which helps facilitate a quick exit from the wetsuit. The ankles and wrists are the notorious places for the wetsuit to give resistance. Also, put body glide on your feet. Assuming you will not be wearing socks, which we will talk about in a moment, having your feet slippery will help you slip those biking shoes on even faster.

Eighth, have your bike in an appropriate gear. It should be an easy gear regardless, but some transition areas may even start up a small slope which would justify an even easier gear. Nothing is worse then getting clipped in with one foot only to lose momentum because you can’t pedal fast enough due to a tight gear. Many a triathlete has dropped a chain, or even fallen over coming out of T1 due to the wrong gear.

Alright, there are the 8 steps to prepare for a fast transition before the race ever even starts. Now, what to do after you come out of the water? 7 more steps.

First, take the wetsuit off right away. Either take advantage of the strippers, or take the wetsuit off while it is still wet. I know that most of you have been taught to strip to the waist while running, and finish talking it off at your bike. But, in watching dozens of transitions this year, I am confident that it is faster to have a stripper take it off for you, or if there is not a stripper, then taking it off while it is still wet. By the time you get to your bike, if your wetsuit is still on from the waist down, it will be dry and much more difficult to take off. Taking off the wetsuit while wet will allow it to slip off much faster. Check out the companion video for an example of this.

Second, socks. I hate socks. Socks are the enemy of T1. Your feet are wet, your fingers are cold and numb, your disoriented. Nothing is a bigger waste of time than socks. It takes anywhere from 15 to 28 seconds to put on socks. One of the pros I filmed even put on socks, because he was doing another race in a week that was even more important to him, and he did not want to risk blisters. It still took him 19 seconds to put on socks, and he is a pro! Now, I know that many of you are saying now, “gross! No socks?” There are two concerns. Will it make your shoes smelly, and will it give you blisters. On the first complaint, Emilio De Soto posted an outstanding article out on the slowtwitch.com forums on how you can wash your bike shoes, running shoes, and even your helmet. I’ll have that link up on the tri-talk.com website. Plus, you don’t have to always train sans socks year round, but rather just the last few weeks before a race. Second, on the concern with blisters, simply start training without socks for your short runs and short rides during your easy weeks. Use plenty of body glide on the feet, and this will also help avoid blisters. I have an athlete who resisted no socks for months, and as soon as he did his first race, he no longer wears socks at all, even for regular training, he thinks it is so comfortable.

Third, let’s talk about having shoes clipped into the bike already vs. putting on your bike shoes at T1. I have been opposed to having the shoes clipped for many years. Yes, you save some time in T1, but how much does it cost you when you get on the bike in acceleration to race speed? It sees to me that I am whipping by triathletes at 23 miles per hour while they are still fiddling with their shoes. The pros in general, all have their shoes clipped in, but I can’t help but think this is more viral and traditional than practical. So the real question is, how much time does it cost you to put on your shoes while in motion, and how much time does it cost you to put on your shoes in T1. I don’t know. Well, I do have a good idea of the time it takes in T1 to put on shoes. From analyzing the transition video, it takes anywhere from 9 to 15 seconds. I have not been able to film and time cyclists while putting on their shoes clipped into the bike. But, how many seconds can you gain on a cyclist when you are going full speed and they are not.

I’m a black-and-white person, and so I look for yes and no answers. I want to know which technique is better across the board. I proposed this question to a pro triathlete, and he really helped me put this back into perspective when he said, “it depends”. He pointed out that it depends on the course, and he makes a decision accordingly. If you are running hard on concrete in your bike shoes in T1 to the mount line, you could damage the plastic cleat and not be able to clip in all, and it would be better to have them clipped in. If you are up front to the exit, or on grass or carpet, this is not a problem and you can run in the shoes. If the start of the bike is uphill or has several turns, you would not want to be messing with you shoes. If the start of the bike is a flat straightaway, then it may be a better idea to have them clipped in. If the transition area is dirt with stickers or small rocks, then it may be better to have the shoes in to avoid damage to your feet. So, overall, this technique should be practiced and evaluated for each individual race.

OK, there are three techniques for T1. Coming into T2, there are a couple more. First, I do believe it taking off the shoes coming into T2. You have to start slowing down anyway before the dismount line, and this is a good time to unstrap them and place your bare feet on top of the shoes and continue to pedal slowly as you enter T2. Again, if T2 is full of hazards to your feet, consider leaving them on.

Second, I love the side-saddle T2 entry technique. If you can execute it perfectly, you look so cool and it saves a couple of seconds. About 5-10 seconds before you dismount, if you are already out of your shoes and pedaling with your feet on top of the shoes, stand up and swing your right leg behind the saddle, and swing it between your left leg and your bike. You are now riding side-saddle. As you stop the bike, your right foot takes the first step of a running motion and your left leg follows naturally. Basically, you never stop moving while blazing into T2. If there are bike catchers there, even better. Make sure you practice this lots before you try it in a race. I do it all the time when I come home after a ride, and my neighbors think I’m crazy.

Third T2 step is zip laces or quick laces. Next to socks, lacing shoes is the next killer in transition. It takes anywhere from 14-23 seconds to lace two pairs of shoes. Quick laces or zip laces use elastic laces that allow you to stretch the shoe enough to get your foot in, and then snap back into place to your preferred shoestring tension.

Fourth, anything you need to put on at T2, like your hat, race belt, or fuel belt, should be done while running. Don’t stop and put these tings on, rather grab them and put them on while running.

Now, you may be hearing some of these times that I have associated with different transition techniques, like putting on jersey, socks, or laces, and saying “I am positive I can lace 2 shoes faster than 14 seconds. I am positive I can put on socks in less than 15 seconds.” Yes, at home, you probably can. But coming out of the water with cold fingers, going from horizontal to vertical, coordination becomes significantly diminished. Coming into T2, when your fingers have been locks into a position for some time, they lack the same nimbleness than when you are fresh. Fine motor skills are hard to come by in a race-intensity environment, and things just take more time.

Don’t forget to check out the video companion to episode 48, which is published right along with this episode, where you will see examples of the fastest, and slowest transitions using different techniques.

By the way, if you want two excellent examples of professional triathlete behavior, I saw it first hand at the event I filmed these transitions at. The winner, pro Marcel Vifian spent the first 20 minutes after he won handing out water bottles to the other competitors as they came through the chute. Then I went to look for Heath Thurston, who came in second, and found him two hours later staying on to cheer the kids who participated in the kids triathlon that took place after the event. And he didn’t even have any kids in the race. Both guys are completely approachable, talking to anybody who came up to them and asked questions, and are great examples of pro athletes.