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Power Transitions

by Nan Kappeler

(this story appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Triathlon Canada)

            Heading into the bike to run transition at the 2008 Olympic trials in Tuscaloosa, Ala., Julie Ertel, found herself among a pack of four women, which included Sarah Haskins, Sarah Groff and Sara McLarty.  At stake was the second of the three women’s triathlon berth spots on the U.S. Olympic triathlon team in Beijing.
            Just moments later, Ertel blasted out of the transition area onto the run course, four seconds ahead of her competition.  Energized by the cheers and energy of the hundreds of fans, she pulled ahead and finished 30-seconds ahead of Haskins, the second place finisher.
            For Ertel, a fast, flawless, transition didn’t happen by chance at this race, or at any other event.  The changing from T1, the swim to the bike, and T2, the bike to the run, is a well-thought out, rehearsed skill practiced every week.  Though some may use this in-between time as a chance to catch a breath or adjust gear— practicing the change from one segment of the race to the next can save valuable time and better prepare the body for the upcoming bike and run.
            “Ask any triathlete if they would rather save time on the swim, bike, run, or get free time,” Ertel says.  “Unlike the other three parts, a transition is totally controllable by every athlete if they if they create a plan and practice it.”
            Mechanical verse Physiological Transitions

            Locating your bike among hundreds after a bone-chilling swim, removing a tight wetsuit, and putting on a helmet and shoes is considered by many as “free-time.”  If practiced, an athlete can save seconds in a race, without having to put in extra training miles.  Mark Allen, a six-time Ironman world champion, coach and motivational speaker refers to this changing as mechanical, because it takes no athletic ability to swap gear and clothes.
            “Few people practice going from one sport to another.  If you’ve never practiced snapping the clip on your helmet quickly and go to do it in transition, forget it, your whole race is gone, says Allen.  “Get good at changing your stuff.”
            But the second part of a transition, which Allen refers to as the “physiological” portion are the adjustments your body goes through going into the different sports.   Switching quickly to the next activity, such as from a swim in prone position to an upright bike event can result in oxygen deprivation and circulation issues in the legs and an accelerated heart rate heading onto the race course.  By rehearsing the conversion from swim to bike and bike to run, energy levels will stay up in each sport and the body will accommodate the change more efficiently.
            “Going from the upper extremity muscles to the lower muscles, the more you practice, the more your body gets it and you will get into your race pace faster,” says Allen.  “In a race you aren’t done after the bike.  You still have to run.”

Practice Makes Perfect

            The concept of clipping on bike shoes and sliding the foot into the shoe while riding out of the transition area had just been introduced when Allen and Dave Scott decided to try the new technique out at the 1989 Hawaii Ironman.  Exiting T1, the two reached down simultaneously to slide their feet into their shoes.  
            “We slammed into each other,” says Allen.  “We almost went down in the first 75 meters of the bike because we hadn’t practiced.”
            Even for a pro, failing to rehearse using new equipment can be embarrassing, especially in front of hundreds of cheering fans and national television.
            Though many triathletes have found simple solutions to help speed up that in-between time, such as single-strap shoes and wetsuit lubricants, practicing how these items fit into your transition is vital.  A wetsuit may adhere to the body after running several hundred yards from the swim and shoe straps may handle differently with numb fingers.
            Ertel says she doesn’t have any transition secrets, but does use elastic shoe laces and sets up her bike very specifically with her sunglasses and helmet.  She also regularly incorporates a series of “mini-tri’s” with a group of friends.  The race consists of a four to five minute swim, bike and run with changes to each sport, preparing muscles for the next leg. 
            With regular practice changing from one sport to another, if something does go wrong, it such a difficulty getting off a wetsuit or experience trouble getting on a shoe, you won’t panic, which can cost even more time.
Race Day

            Come race day, note where you have placed your gear using landmarks that won’t move such as banners and balloons.  People often have similar gear, so it is important to use several markers to find your spot.  Allen discovered that someone else may very well have the same gear.  After attempting to put on a rather tight-fitting blue running shoe that Nike had given him, he realized he was in the wrong spot.  The shoe belonged to a female pro, who also received the shoe.
            Prior to each race, mentally review the transition.  During the swim, think about your gear placement and location.  Review the same items during the bike, thinking about how you will enter and exit the transition area.
            “The main thing about transitions is not to panic.  Just do it calmly.  Some people take that to the extreme and take ten minutes,” says Allen.  “The calmer you stay with speed, the better you do.  People who panic can’t buckle their helmet.”

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