Imagine biking with a swim cap and goggles on, or running in cycling cleats while carrying a bike. Ridiculous, right? Yet that’s what triathlons would be like without the critical transitions. For an athlete to excel, the goal is to streamline those chaotic changing zones into orderly, time-saving areas.
“I call it ‘free speed,’” says Troy Jacobson, senior national director of endurance sports training for Life Time. “If you’re good at the transitions, you have the ability to make up time on some of your competitors who might be faster at swimming or cycling or running. The free-speed element is a really big part of being competitive in triathlons.”
Even if you’re more concerned with having a good time than shaving minutes off your PR, mastering transitions is important. Your heart rate is typically at its highest when you’re completing one discipline, especially when emerging from the swim, explains Matt Dixon, MSc, triathlon coach and author of multiple books on endurance training.
“You’re already in a stressful environment,” he says. “But you can control transitions. If you make it automatic and routine, you can focus on having more fun.”
The biggest mistake that many recreational triathletes make is failing to practice transitions in advance. That can lead to tragi-comical situations (wriggling out of a wetsuit, for example, or forgetting shoes) that sap energy for the rest of the race.
“Many people panic and go as fast as they can,” says Dixon. “All that does is deflate the ability to race to their potential.”
Building core strength helps handle the switch from a prone position (swimming) to seated (biking) and upright (running), Jacobson notes. And brick workouts that include more than one discipline — for instance, the bike and run performed back to back — can help you breeze through the transitions and cash in on free speed.
Improving your transitions comes down to practice, practice, practice. Jacobson and Dixon share their training tips.