Transitions are the race inside the race. In addition to swimming, biking and running, a triathlete should look at transitions as another skill, and work toward becoming proficient and calm while practicing transitions under a variety of circumstances.
Each transition should be made while calmly optimizing speed, control of movement and effectiveness. Although there are certain style differences, every aspect of the transition should be considered. Where will the wetsuit be taken off? Where will it be placed? Will you put your helmet on first or last? What about your sunglasses, gloves, socks?
The list goes on and on and is unique to each athlete. You must physically practice before the event; then mentally "walk" through each transition the morning of your race.
I have seen transitions so swift they were a blur, and others with multiple duffle bags and gear flying in every direction. Regardless, there are some principles everyone can benefit from and put into practice.
Aside from a smooth physical transition, physiological changes also need to be addressed. As you switch from one sport to the next, your circulating blood needs to be rerouted to a new set of muscle groups. It takes a few moments for this to occur after each transition. The athlete will temporarily feel sluggish, uncoordinated, and perhaps lack range of motion. However, once the blood has been recirculated to the new muscles coordination should improve.
In this article I will talk about both the general elements of transition, and the physical and cognitive aspects of changing from one sport to the next.
Being familiar with your movements and staying relaxed and composed is important in every aspect of your transitions, which is why you should always practice your transitions before race day.
Transition practice can actually be a fun group activity where you can create a set of circumstances for you and your friends to rehearse.
A women's triathlon team I once coached would practice and time a series of transition elements—sometimes the swim to bike which would include wetsuit removal and a short run to the staged transition area. Or they would time the bike to run transition which included dismounts from the bike, a short run with their bikes to the designated area, and the change from bike shoes to running shoes. Each athlete would be timed while the others watched and made every effort to disrupt their teammate with catcalls. After a while, everyone became smoother under pressure.
Dean Harper, a former professional triathlete and a top-10 overall Ironman finisher, would practice transitions in the hallways of hotels. In those days, wetsuits were just becoming popular, and he wanted to make sure he could get the thing off quickly enough. Dean would run down the hallway, peel off the wetsuit, and put on his cycling shoes while I timed him. It was an eccentric sight for the patrons, but it worked.