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Your Young Triathlete’s Best Transition

By Morgan Johnson | Oct. 21, 2013, 5 p.m. (ET)

Pop quiz! How many sports are in triathlon?

If you answered three, you might be surprised to know that you are incorrect! Triathlon includes a fourth sport, and that sport is transition—switching from swim to bike, and then from bike to run. Transition is often one of the most confusing aspects of the sport for new-to-tri families, and it counts as a part of your athlete’s overall race time, so it’s important to be prepared.

Help your young triathlete have his or her best transition with this easy guide to equipment, setup, rules, practice and execution. Please note this guide is intended for beginner to intermediate youth age-group athletes and therefore does not address clipless bike shoes, or rules for youth/junior elite competition.

Part I: Equipment
tire closeup Transition is all about efficiency, so the fewer distractions your child has to deal with, the smoother the process will be. The following equipment will help young athletes avoid potential obstacles:

  • Helmet with no cracks or other damage, with a safety certification sticker on the inside (all American-made and purchased helmets should have this sticker)
  • Bicycle in good working order with a braking mechanism and full tires (check the side of your tires for a guide to proper PSI—see photo at right)
  • Any race numbers provided by the event, already affixed to their proper places
  • Water bottle with water, preferably on the bicycle in a water bottle cage
  • Trisuit or swimsuit that can comfortably be worn for the entire race
  • Running shoes in good condition that can be worn comfortably without socks
  • Elastic shoelaces or similar system for running shoes that does not require tying laces
  • Body Glide, Tri Slide or similar lubricant
  • Transition mat or small hand towel that is brightly colored
  • Race belt

Part II: Setup
youth bike and gear Young triathletes will set up their transition area on the day of competition before the race begins. The key to a great transition setup is simplicity—disorganized or cluttered transition space makes for a slow and stressful transition during the race.

Ideally, only the equipment listed above will be present in the transition area on race day, and it will be set up in an orderly fashion.

First, your athlete will either hang the bike from the provided bike rack, or set it underneath using the kickstand. All equipment should be set up to the side of the bike, and should not extend beyond the reach of the wheel furthest from the rack. Shoes and helmet should be open and lined up in a position conducive to putting them on quickly. Race belt should be visible and unclipped (see photo at right). Don’t take up too much width—remember, you will be sharing this rack with up to 10 other athletes!

Many youth races do not allow parents into their transition area for setup, so it is important that your young athlete can confidently set up his or her transition area with only minimal verbal assistance. Practice setup in advance until he or she can get it right every time, and verify if he or she will need assistance from a volunteer.

Part III: Rules
USA Triathlon has specific guidelines for transition behavior in its youth races:

  1. Helmets must be on and fastened before an athlete can get on the bike, and may not be unfastened until the athlete has completely dismounted.
  2. Athletes may not ride their bikes in transition—they must mount after the mount line (transition exit) and dismount before the dismount line (transition entrance).
  3. No outside assistance (i.e. friends, parents or coaches) is allowed once the race has begun; however, race volunteers are allowed to assist athletes at all times.
  4. Athletes cannot intentionally block another athlete from making progress.
  5. Athletes must always return their bikes and other equipment to the same spot, and may not interfere with other athletes’ equipment (unless it is impeding their own).

Part IV: Practice
Practice makes perfect, so it is important that your athlete practice his or her transition setup and execution in the weeks before their race, just as they would practice swimming, biking and running.

Set up a makeshift bike rack (unless your child has a kickstand), use computer paper and tape to create “race numbers,” and then “check” him or her in to “transition”—get out your Sharpie and mark the race number on their calf and upper arm, and write their race age on the back of the right calf. Check the brakes on their bike and look inside their helmet to confirm that the sticker is there. Then, once they have been checked in, allow them into transition.

Once in transition, walk them through setup the first time then have them take it all down and do it without your assistance. Again, it is important that they be able to do it without a parent’s assistance as not all races allow parents into transition pre-race.

Once you are confident that your child can set up his or her own transition area, practice putting run shoes on quickly (this is where the BodyGlide and elastic shoelaces come in handy!), fastening the helmet, getting the bike down (or kicking back the kickstand), running the bike out of transition, and getting on—these are the components of “T1,” or the swim-to-bike transition. Next, practice getting off the bike, running it to the correct place, putting it up and grabbing the race belt (which will have your child’s run number on it in the race)—these are the components of “T2,” or the bike-to-run transition.

Part V: Execution!
Hopefully, by the time race day arrives, your athlete is already a transition machine. It’s recommended that you arrive at least one hour before transition closes so that your child has ample time to check in and set up. Make sure your athlete can quickly locate his or her “spot”—the athlete should practice running from the swim out to their spot, and then from the bike in to their spot at least three times. This is where that brightly colored transition mat comes in handy as a spot with a giant yellow square around it is much easier to find than an unmarked one!

Remember, for our youth triathletes race day should be a positive and FUN experience—correct expectations for transition setup and execution will go a long way toward achieving this goal. Good luck, and happy transitioning!

Morgan Johnson is a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified Coach, and a USA Triathlon High Performance Team head coach. She is a former member of Team USA, and currently works as the Playtri Youth and Juniors Lead Coach in Dallas, Texas.