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The 5 Biggest Transition Mistakes

By Ken Johnson | June 09, 2017, 4:58 p.m. (ET)

running through transition 

We often call transition the fourth discipline of triathlon (and indeed, any multisport). A fast and smart transition improves your race time and stress level. Unfortunately, a bad transition caused by mistakes can result in everything from a disappointing race time to a full race disqualification.

With a little forethought, research and planning, you can avoid these annoying to significant mistakes in transition:

Mistake No. 1: Not Racking Your Bike Legally

The vast majority of triathlons have specific bike racks or corrals where you must place your bike; these are identified by race number range. You must put your bike in the designated area for your race number. You can’t just pick an area by one of the exits or lean your bike up against the fence or a convenient tree. If you do, you risk a time penalty [USAT Competitive Rules, Section 7.2]. And of course, you must return your bike to the same designated area in T2.

Also, when racking your bike, the front wheel must be on the ground on the proper side of your designated racking location. And when you return from the bike course, the bike must be racked upright. No laying it on the side to get out to the run quicker.

Mistake No. 2: Not Racking Your Bike Smartly

Once you find your bike rack or corral, you need to decide where within that space to put your bike. In general, you want to place your bike as close to the transition area’s bike exit as possible. Since you’re slower running with your bike to the exit, minimize the distance as much as possible. Even if that puts you further from the run exit, remember you’re much faster running just yourself in running shoes then you are with the bike in bike shoes.

Now, that being said, there may be a good reason not to be absolutely the closest to the bike out. If that closest spot is at the end of a bike rack, it’s going to be very crowded with bikes. You may want to move down the rack a bit to get a little more space. In fact, if you are a relatively new triathlete, you may want to move all the way down the rack to the other end. There is likely to be more space there so you can have a more comfortable transition. (There is also a tad more space next to the legs of the bike rack.)

If your race allows for day-before bike racking, and you get a good spot at the end of a bike rack near the bike out, you may want to consider locking your bike to the rack with a combination bike lock. Not to protect against theft; the race site will provide security overnight. It is because I have seen cases of late arriving triathletes moving bikes in a good position and putting their own bike in that spot. Not only is this unethical, but it will result in a time penalty or disqualification [Section 7.2] if that person is caught.

Notice in the last paragraph I said combination bike lock. You do not want to risk losing or forgetting a key. In several years working as a transition volunteer in triathlons, we twice — in two different years — had someone forget the key to their bike lock race morning. Since these races were at a large fitness center, we were able to get someone from maintenance with their bolt cutter to cut the locks off before the race started. But it certainly sent the athletes’ stress levels sky high that morning.

Mistake No. 3: Not Laying Out Your Gear Smartly

Coming out of the swim and running to transition you’ll probably be dizzy and have a pretty fast heart rate. You don’t need any more stress, so set out your triathlon gear in the logical order and ready to put on quickly.

First, if at all possible, lay out your gear on the left side of the bike from the rider’s perspective. Why? You want to stay away from the greasy chain and all those nasty teeth on your front and real derailleurs. Standing at the back of your bike, first set out all your bike needs — bike shoes, socks, helmet, sunglasses, gels, etc. Then toward the front of the bike, set out what you need for the run — running shoes, race belt, hat, etc.

Everything is in the order you use it. Coming in from the swim you encounter the bike gear first, coming in from the bike you encounter your run gear. (Toss your swim gear — wetsuit, goggles and swim cap — by the front wheel in front of your run gear, so it is out of the way.)

When setting out your gear, each item should ready to put on as fast as possible. Shoe laces untied or loosened and tongue pulled up, so you can slip your foot right in. If you wear socks, roll the tops down to the heels and put them inside the shoes. Stick your toes in the sock, push up to get the heel in, and then roll up the tops. Then on with your shoes.

Unfasten the strap of your bike helmet and lay the helmet upside down, with the front facing the back of the bike. With one motion you can grab the helmet and swing it up on onto your head, then fasten the strap. If you wear glasses or sunglasses, open up the hinges and lay them upside down in the helmet, with the lenses also facing toward the back of the bike. Like this, it’s again one quick motion to pick up the glasses and put them on your face, then grab the helmet and do the same.

Mistake No. 4: Not Understanding Transition Entry Rules

Transition is for athletes only — before, during and after the race. Yet many triathletes show up with friends and family in tow helping carry their gear, and your helpers aren’t going to be allowed entry. Actually, you’re not going to be allowed entry without a race number and possibly ID. Please don’t ask the volunteers at the transition entrance to watch your gear, or your children, while you go register or to rack your bike!

Now for youth races, race organizers may permit, at their discretion, one parent to enter transition with the youth athlete to assist with the bike and setting out their gear [USA Triathlon Supplemental Youth Rules]. However, once transition closes prior to the race beginning, only athletes and race officials may enter.

Mistake No. 5: Not Checking Handlebars and Helmet

All bikes must have the handlebar ends solidly plugged. This is something that is easy to overlook, even if you have a race day checklist. An unplugged handlebar is like a tiny circular knife waiting to cut you or someone else in the event of an accident. Violating this rule results in disqualification [Section 5.11.i]. Visit your local bike store to buy a few extra handlebar plugs, and keep them in your saddle bag just in case.

As for your helmet, remember that it must be on and buckled before mounting the bike, all along the bike course and through dismounting your bike and entering transition for T2. To be on the safe side, buckle your helmet before taking your bike off the rack at T1, and after putting your bike back on the rack at T2.

And note that this rule applies not just to bike course, but at all times during race day at the event site [Section 5.9(b)]. This means if you’re riding your bike to transition race morning, or riding back to your car after the race, if that helmet isn’t on and buckled, you can get a penalty or disqualification. Several years ago, I saw this happen to at least a dozen triathletes at a regional championship. Remember: helmet on and buckled whenever that bike is anywhere other than sitting in the rack in transition or on your car.

So read the race information and plan your transition area beforehand, and you’ll improve your race time without a single extra workout!

Ken Johnson, M.S., C.P.T., is a corporate health coach and was a triathlon coach at the largest municipal fitness facility in the U.S. for over 10 years. A USA Triathlon Level I coach since 2003, he can be reached at

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.