Triathlon Transition Excellence – Mastering the 4th Discipline

March 12th, 2024 by JoAnn Cranson

By:  Jay Campbell

Swim, Bike, Run …. Do well at all three and you will be a good triathlete.  But to be a great triathlete, you need to master what some call the ‘4th discipline’, the transition.

How important is the transition?  It becomes more important in shorter races. In a 600 minute race (10 hours) the difference between a 2 minute and a 4 minute transition is less than a 1% improvement…so not that important. But if you are doing supersprint races (~30 minutes), that would be a 13% improvement!

Just to prove that I know what I am talking about, here are the top-10 fastest T1 + T2 times at the 2023 Eagle Lake Triathlon, a ‘sprint’ distance race.























I spent a total of 41 seconds (21s in T1 and 20s in T2) in the transition area. Yes, it was a smaller, local race with a compact transition zone and limited competition…but those are factors which you must consider when developing your transition strategy.  Each race will be unique and requires a different strategy. I will walk through the strategy I used for this race and suggest alternatives for other scenarios.

From the table above you can see that the 2nd and 3rd place finishers had good transition times…they were both in the top 10.  But finisher #2 still gave up almost 1 minute to me on his transitions. Here are the times for S/B/R with the transition times removed:

OA Finish






















In general, S+B+R times correlate with overall finishes. The main exception to that rule in this case was my superior transitions which led to yours-truly walking away with the Overall Winners Trophy and local bragging rights. Another exception was the 5th fastest S+B+R who had slow transitions did drop to 8th OA.

Before I dive into my secrets for a fast transition, let me say that if you are new to triathlon, ignore all of this. My caution to new athletes is not to ‘overthink’ the sport during your first year of racing. Just get out on the course, listen to your body, pace yourself, and be cautious during bike mounts and dismounts.  There will be plenty of time in the future to dive into all the tiny tweeks that add up to measurable gains.

Are you ready? It pains me a bit to give away my secrets.


1.  Understand the course. Every race has course maps.  Study them to get an idea of what you are up for in transition. In the case of Eagle Lake, I could see from the course map and verbal description that the Bike Corral was about 400 yards from the Swim. That 400 yards was on asphalt and mostly uphill. I would be definitely wearing running shoes from Swim to the Bike Corral. The swim was only 300 yards, so I toyed with the idea of no wetsuit as wetsuit-removal sucks up transition time.  But for me, as a mediocre swimmer, the speed advantage of a wetsuit trumps the removal time even for races this short. The bike course is only 11 miles so I opted for biking in my running shoes using pedal straps.  I would already be in my running shoes coming in from the swim, so that was another factor that supported the bike shoe decision.
2.  Practice your transition strategy.  It is common for me to use a slightly different transition strategy for every race…each race is unique. You don’t want race day to be the first time trying out a strategy, even if it is only slightly different from your ‘norm’.
3.  Be prepared to change transition strategy on race-day.  Bring multiple shoes, pedals, and swim gear. Inspect the transition area. Walk/Run/Bike the transition approaches. If the water temperature disallows wetsuits, how will that change your transition?

B. TRANSITION SKILLS (I will focus on strategies for short races as this is where transition times are more critical)

1. Wetsuit removal – Removal of the wetsuit is usually the first skill used in transition. There are some great youtube videos on this, but here is what works for me:
a) before you put on wetsuit, spray lower legs with copious amounts of triglide or other lubricant.  These will help the suit slide off.
b) wetsuits become harder to take off once the small amount of water between suit and legs is drained.  So better to take off before a  long run to a distant bike corral.
c) Flip up your goggles and start pulling down your top as you exit the water.
d) Once you get your suit down to your hips, stop running and push the suit to the ground and start trying to step out of it.  I am so impressed with the videos of pros and others that can do this standing up.  I can’t do it. What works for me is to find a pole I can hold onto as I try to step out of the wetsuit. When it is at my ankles, I drop to the ground and use the index and middle finger of  my dominant hand to slide down my Achilles until my knuckles are under my heels and push the suit off that foot.  Repeat on the other leg.
e) In the case of Eagle Lake, I stopped at a speed limit sign about 25 yards from the Lake.  I could hold onto the sign to remove my wetsuit.  My running shoes had been placed there earlier.
2) Donning socks – Putting socks on wet feet can be difficult.  I have found that:
 a) putting on the sock before the race in the transition area and then
 b) rolling it down all the way to the toes, prepares the sock for easier application.  Socks   were not part of my Eagle Lake strategy.
3) Donning Running Shoes – Once again, I am impressed with the pros (and probably many of you) who can put on shoes without sitting down. The shoes I used at Eagle Lake had been fitted with elastic laces.. in fact I just used some elastic strap from my sewing box.
a) grasp the tongue with one hand and the heel counter with the other. I find that if I line up my big toe with the tongue and my little toe with the heel counter, shoes go on easier.
4) Running on long transitions – Long distances between swim and bike corral are not unusual.  The Grand Rapids Tri has what seems like a half-mile run from River to the bike corral.  When the run has been on grass or carpet, I have not used shoes. I have both run in my wetsuit and carried my wetsuit…I think I run faster with my hands free (not carrying a wetsuit), but then the wetsuit becomes harder to get off. At Eagle Lake I opted to get the wetsuit off quick, don shoes, and run like crazy up the hill to the bike corral. The swim-split at Eagle Lake included the run from Lake to Bike. I had the seventh fastest split and I am fairly convinced my placing would have been worse without my transition strategy.  Note that swim-split is not a good predictor of Overall Finish…a plus for us mediocre swimmers.











OA Swim











5) Donning Bike Shoes – After removing wetsuit/goggles/cap, the first thing I do is put on my biking shoes. As mentioned, I finish wetsuit removal on my butt and I put on bike shoes on my butt. [not the strategy at Eagle Lake].  Of course the pros and many of you already have shoes attached to pedals, so this does not apply to you.  There is some time savings to using the shoes-on-pedals method (the 2nd and 3rd finishers at Eagle Lake used that method.) But, bike-mount and dismount are where 90% of the crashes occur in triathlon. I am too old and fragile to risk that any more. There are some good youtube videos on the shoes-on-pedals technique.

6) Donning Bike Helmet – putting on your bike helmet needs to be practiced. Place it in transition so it is one clean move from hands to head. Sliding the hands down to clip the strap.
7) Donning Biking glasses – This is an extra move but only takes a few seconds.  A visor on your helmet eliminates this step.
8) Running with bike – Practice running with your bike while holding with one hand on the seat.  If you are a shoes-on-pedals person, practice barefoot with the shoes attached.  If you are going to wear bike shoes, practice running in the bike shoes.
9) Bike Mounting – Technically the mount happens after the transition is exited. If done sloppily it only counts against your bike time and not transition time. The object is to quickly get to speed … without crashing. Whatever your method, practice it looking forward and not at your feet. My Eagle Lake strategy was to use a ‘hop-on mount’, pedal the first quarter mile on top of the straps (it was a downhill and I wanted no distractions), then get my feet in the straps.  I had practiced this enough that I could get into the straps without looking down or using my hands. If you are using the ‘shoe-on-pedal’ method there is usually a hand adjustment once you are in the shoe.  Make sure you can do this without looking. If you are using the worn-shoe method, you may want to be sure that one shoe is clipped in before hopping on.
10) Bike Dismounting – As with the mount, this technically happens outside of transition. If done sloppily it only counts against your bike time and not transition time. In the case of Eagle Lake, I removed my feet from the straps so my running shoes were untethered on the pedals. At about 5mph I swung my right leg over and did a running dismount. I had practiced this enough I felt very comfortable doing this. Dismounting with bike-shoes flopping from the pedals is too risky for me as I mentioned earlier. If I am wearing bike shoes, I unclip my left shoe, come to a complete stop, balance on my left leg, unclip the right shoe, push the bike forward and start running behind it. The pros make it looks so easy…except when…See some of the pros struggle here:<
11) Bike racking – Generally bikes are racked on the saddle noses. The bike is usually ‘backed in’, raised, then moved forward to position the nose over the bar. That’s a lot of motions. Practice racking your bike from the ‘wrong side’ before the race starts. It may not be possible as other bikes are in the way. But when you get back from biking and the transition area has fewer bikes, you may be able to run your bike right into its spot from the rear, ditch your helmet and go.

12) Helmet Removal – This may not sound like a skill, but after a duathlon at 40F with gloves on it is a whole different ballgame. My hands have gotten so cold that I lost grip strength and could not undo a chin strap clasp. I have practiced this so many times with gloves and with different parts of the hand. Reduce the movements you need to make this happen.  Place the helmet where it will not get damaged by other triathletes.

There are thousands of small innovations and skills in triathlon that when summed up can amount to measurable gains.  It’s one of the things that has kept me in the sport.  Keep an open mind when planning your next transition and maybe it will kick you up a place or two!


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