Duathlon Tactics: The Fast Transition

By Tom Demerly | March 22, 2011, 12 a.m. (ET)
Even more than triathlons, the key to unlocking good duathlon results is lightning fast transitions. There is a cliché in multisport that transitions are the “fourth event,” but in duathlon the transition needs to be so fast and intuitive it barely interrupts the flow of the race. You hardly break stride.

The single most effective duathlon transition strategy is practice and speed work. Just as intervals on the track and using a power meter on the bike build proficiency and speed, repetition and rehearsal in the run/bike and bike/run transition can shave more than a minute off your overall duathlon time.

Your first step is to visualize your transition strategy. Duathlon is a simple sport and the transitions are simple also. No wetsuit removal, no wet clothes, no chilly opening miles on the bike when you are soaking wet. You hit T1 with hot legs and a warm body. With visualization you are preparing a mental script that guides your motor activities intuitively more than cognitively. You don’t have think about what you are doing in transition, you simply do it, going through a rehearsed set of motions in the same way a dancer completes a sequence without effort or hesitation.

Find a quiet place when you are adequately rested and close your eyes to visualize your transition. Picture where your race equipment will be on the ground relative to your bike. Where will you put your bike helmet? How will the chin strap be arranged? Will you be able to don your helmet quickly with your sunglasses already on from the first run? Can you pull your running shoes off from the first run with your feet while you are simultaneously buckling your helmet chin strap? Make a mental list of the tasks you’ll need to complete during your first and second transitions. Your first visualizations will be slow as you envision the location of your equipment and your movements in the transition area. As you develop a mental picture of the transition dance your visualizations can become more real time. You can even use a stopwatch to visualize your transitions.

After a number of repetitions of visualizing both transitions it’s time to begin rehearsal. Military schools like the elite U.S. Navy Basic Underwater Dive School (B.U.D.S.) teach critical skills to Navy SEAL candidates by telling them, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” That’s your approach to duathlon transitions: Start by moving slowly through the transition, rehearsing the moves required to slide both running shoes off using only your feet while reaching for your helmet and donning it. Run a half mile into your mock transition to elevate your heart rate and simulate race conditions. With elastic speed laces in your shoes they should slip off your feet by holding your left heel down with your right foot, and the opposite to slide the right shoe off using your left foot. Move slowly and deliberately, learning the motions required. Pick up speed in subsequent repetitions.

In most duathlons the fast athletes are leaving their cycling shoes clipped to their pedals. Some athletes use a rubber band attached to the heel tab of their triathlon cycling shoes to hold shoes level. Pass the rubber band through itself and hook it to your rear quick release skewer on the non-drive side of your bike with the crank at the 3 o’clock position. On the drive side, hook it to the top of the front derailleur.

With your running shoes from your first run slid off and your helmet on and securely buckled, you are ready to unrack your bike and head to the mount line leaving T1. You’ll be running in your socks so be sure you’ve inspected the transition area for debris, rocks, glass, etc. Many transition areas use Astroturf or carpeting for easier footing.

An alternative to leaving shoes clipped to your pedals is to put on your cycling shoes and run with them on to the mount line. If you practice both techniques you’ll learn that, once proficient, you are faster leaving your shoes clipped to your pedals. Practice is critical with this technique. Athletes trying it for the first time on race day are going to have problems. You already know the rule: Nothing new on race day.

An important part of making the shoes-on-pedals T1 tactic work is getting your feet in the shoes safely, smoothly and quickly. Move through this entire sequence in training slowly and smoothly, adding speed as you do repetitions. Be sure to use an open area free of traffic for practice. You’ll make mistakes on your first efforts and quickly learn how to avoid them on race day. Your confidence in the technique will build as your experience and proficiency improves. It’s difficult to practice this technique too much, unlike overdoing it with a hard set of track intervals. It’s hard to get an overuse injury from practicing transitions.

The second transition in duathlons is easier and quicker since you are coming off the bike and don’t have to worry about mounting and wearing cycling shoes at the same time. Good duathletes may use a separate, second pair of running shoes for the second run, with some athletes using a more cushioned shoe for the second run when their legs are fatigued. A common mistake in duathlons is unbuckling your helmet too early. Experienced race officials will call a penalty on an athlete who unbuckles their chin strap while in contact with the bike, and that means running with your bike. Don’t touch your helmet chin strap until your bike is racked. You’ll only need to open the buckle. Leaning over to switch to your running shoes should remove the helmet from your head, another technique to practice in your transition rehearsal.

Once you master the techniques of a high-speed duathlon transition, the only other skill you’ll need to develop is a victory wave when you get to the finish line at the top of your age group. 

This article is the first in a six-part series leading up to USA Triathlon's Duathlon National Championship, brought to you by Trisports.com. Trisports.com is the presenting sponsor of the USAT Duathlon National Championship slated for April 30 in Tucson, Ariz.