Triathlon bikes racked in transition

Conquer Triathlon Transition Fear (Part 1): What You Need and Why

For newbies to triathlon, the race transition can be a stressful and intimidating.


Those few minutes between the swim, bike, and run segments of a race can become overly complicated by the sheer volume of equipment, confusion, and the stress of knowing precious minutes can be lost in a poorly planned transition.

But not to worry! Transition isn’t really all that hard, once you tackle 3 main concepts. I’ve broken these concepts into 3 bite size weekly posts:

  • Week 1: Know what to set out (and why)
  • Week 2: Know how to set up your transition area (with pictures!)
  • Week 3: Practicing Transition (and how)

Week 1– What and Why

I’ve put together a list of equipment (with needed and additional optional items), tips, and a printable Transition Checklist.

This list will seem loooooong at first, but stick with me.

By the time you get to through that checklist, everything will look simpler and make a LOT of sense AND you will have made some crucial equipment decisions. I like practical (and wallet conscious), so you won’t find the list filled with costly extras.

You will need to find an area to collect and sort your transition gear, however. I generally start my piles on the couch or on the floor. You’ll see why soon.

Important tips:

  • The list is broken into sections corresponding to the 3 race segments. I recommend thinking of packing for an event this way—if you do, soon it will be second nature.
  • Pack at least 2 days before race day (or the mandatory bike check-in). This gives plenty of time to identify and replace/fix missing or broken items.
  • Use a checklist. Always. Bad things happen (as you’ll see below) when relying solely on memory for gear. The stress of an upcoming race can make you more forgetful than usual. Also—especially after training for months for longer races—a brain fog can appear leading up to race day. (This is a real thing. Some call it ‘race brain’). Having a checklist can help keep you on track.

Ready? Set! Athletes (take a deep breath and) start your piles!

Swim Pile


Black, long sleeve triathlon wetsuit hanging up on door
  1. Wetsuit:
    1. Be sure the race is wetsuit legal (check USAT rules here and check the individual event rules, as they may differ).
    2. Practice swimming in the wetsuit before race day. I’ve seen too many people ruin a race by not training in the suit. Why? A list of reasons, but the most important include:
      • Compressed chest: that tight feeling can leave some feeling breathless. Get used to breathing in the water against that pressure, so you’re not shocked at the event.
      • Collar: during practice you either make friends with that wetsuit collar or decide you need a different suit. Some higher neck collar suits can feel too constricting or choking. Some rub badly and require the use of extra skin glidant.
      • Arm strength: Pulling against that neoprene resistance can be both surprising and more tiring than anticipated. Strengthen your upper body, using a mix of pull-buoy workouts and upper body gym days. Periodically test your arm strength by practicing in the suit. If the resistance remains too much for you, it may be time to consider a different suit. Many newer suits are made with less restrictive neoprene in the shoulder area, and allow more fluid arm movements.
      • Rub spots: swimming in the wetsuit will reveal all the friction spots, so you can pretreat with a skin glidant on race day. This helps you avoid chafed, oozing, painful, brush-burned skin during the race.  
  2. Body Glide (or some other skin glidant)
    • Use this to pretreat those rub spots (above). Also, rubbing some along your ankles and wrists will make getting into the wetsuit much easier. Make sure the glidant is compatible with wetsuit material. Some, like baby oil or petroleum jelly, can damage neoprene.

3. Swim cap:

  • If you forget your race swim cap, many races won’t let you enter the water. It’s a safety thing- the lifeguard can spot your colored swim cap bobbing in the water if you’re in trouble.

Tip: If you get to the race without yours, go to the race help tent. 

4. Goggles (maybe a backup pair, too!)

  • It may seem obvious, but listen at your next event. I bet you’ll hear at least one announcement asking for extra goggles for some poor athlete who forgot to bring theirs. Also, having a back-up pair can’t hurt, if the strap on yours decides to snap race morning!

Tip: A bright sun on the horizon can make open water sighting difficult. Check the direction of your event’s swim and find goggles that work in those conditions (both into the sun and in the early dawn lighting). Mirrored or smoked lenses often help, but can prove too dark in the early morning light, before the sun crests. Some manufacturers use various colored lenses for different lighting conditions. I found this helpful (see halfway down this page of Roka branded lenses)- I could see what the vision field would look like with each different colored lens without guessing before buying.

5. Timing chip:

  • No chip, no race time. You’ll be logged as a DNS (Did Not Start) at the race. Worse, if you’ve lost the chip, you’ll be charged a fee and they aren’t cheap!  Some athletes even sleep with the chip on their ankle the night before the race, just to be sure they don’t leave it at home.      

Tip: Did you show up to transition on race morning without your chip? You can still save the day! Go directly to the race information desk and get a new one assigned before the race starts. Worry about finding the other one later.

6. Race watch (don’t forget to charge it!)

7. Swimsuit or tri suit (one piece or two):

This is one of those topics that starts contentious debates. Bottom line? What you wear is really up to you. Just make sure your list includes whatever clothes you plan to wear during the race. Some options include:

  • Swimsuit: Prefer a traditional swimsuit? Fine. But plan to change into cycling /running gear later.
    • The downside?
      • Changing clothes adds to your overall elapsed race time. It takes extra time to change clothes.
      • Many events shorter than a full iron distance don’t offer changing tents—you may be relegated to changing in the port-o-potty.

Tip: Don’t be cavalier and think you can unabashedly change in the open—most races specifically ban this practice,  will disqualify you (and possibly fine you), and you may face public indecency charges. You may even be banned from USAT sanctioned events in the future. After all, these are family events.

  • One-piece Tri suit : A tri suit can be worn all day, from before the swim to the finish line. This saves time in transition and the stress of having to pack more clothes.
    • The down side?
      • They are freaking expensive, some athletes find them inadequate for ventilation, and
      • The cycling pad can be uncomfortably thin for longer races.
  • Two-piece Tri suit: These are often less expensive than their one-piece counterparts and can also be worn for the entire event. The tops can be pulled up or unzipped for ventilation (as long as race rules for uncovered torsos aren’t breached).
    • The down side?
      • For some, these pads are still too thin for longer races.
  • Cycling jersey (or Tri top) and padded cycling shorts:
    • Some consider this “old school.” Some consider this comfortable. If you prefer a fully padded short for the race distance, a separate top and cycling shorts may be an option.
    • The down side?
      • These shorts can’t be worn for the swim—the pad soaks up way too much water, causing a huge diaper feel on the bike and run, with lots of chafing. If you go this route, change into these after the swim. And again—check the availability of changing facilities.
      • This adds 2 changing times to your race (after the swim and before the run). Many athletes that do choose this option, reserve them for longer races, such as half or full iron distance events, where that time loss is a smaller percentage of the finish time.
  • Additional Optional Items:
    1. Goggle anti-fog (I’m a big fan, but some don’t use it). One brand I found that really works is Quick Spit. (No I don’t get a commission, I just like it that much!).
    2. Socks- to use while pulling on the wetsuit, to make it slip over your feet easier.
    3. Towels:
      • 1 small to wipe down after the swim
      • 1 medium/large for the ground to arrange gear on. Doubles as a place to stand during transition to keep dirt and grass off your feet
    4. Pre-race snack
    5. Plain water bottle (just for transition to stay hydrated until race start and wash off feet, if needed, before plunging them into your cycling shoes).

Any room left on that couch?

Blue triathlon bike with black aerobars leaning against a beige door. There is a black water bottle holder on the back of the seat, one on the down tube, and one on the seat tube.

Keep going!

Cycling Pile

  • Needed:
    1. Your bike!
      • Honestly, I’ve seen athletes race morning realize they left their bike at home.  Put it on your list- no matter how obvious it seems. Obviously, I don’t put my bike on the growing couch pile. But I do put a note on the pile so I don’t forget the bike when I’m packing the car.
    2. Helmet (there is no racing without one!)
    3. Sunglasses (to protect from sun and flying rocks/debris)
well-worn, silver triathlon cycling shoes

4. Cycling clothes (if changing during race. See “Swim Pile” above)

5. Cycling shoes An elite athlete once forgot his cycling shoes and had to wear his running shoes the entire bike ride- balancing his feet on those tiny clipless pedals. Can you imagine how uncomfortable that must have been? Not to mention the pedal stroke efficiency he lost! It made for a great story later, though.

6. Socks:

Some triathletes (like me) prefer to not wear socks in cycling shoes. Practice this ahead of time so you’re not surprised by nasty rub spots and blisters.

7. Hydration (for cycling leg)

8. Sunblock

9. Bike repair tools:

  • Extra tubes
  • Flat tire repair tools and kit
  • Small bike-mounted tire pump OR CO2 tire pump
  • CO2 cartridges (if your pump uses those
  • A portable pump (for the last tire fill-up before the race)
Photo of a wide selection of triathlon nutrition and electrolytes that have been sorted for a race into transition packets.

Additional Optional Items:

  1. Nutrition– for cycling race leg
  2. Electrolytes (especially for longer races)

Are you spilling off the couch onto the floor yet?

Hang in there! You’re almost done!!

Running Pile

  • Needed:
    1. Running clothes ( if changing)
    2. Running shoes
    3. Socks for running (unless wearing cycling socks)
    4. Some folks (like me) prefer to run without socks. If you do that, make sure you have practiced that way, so you know the rub spots. Finding out race day can be very painful and end your race.

Tips: Some sockless runners pretreat their feet with skin glidant or coat the inside of their shoes with petroleum jelly to avoid the rubs. Find out what works for you.

  • Additional Optional Items:
    1. Race Number Belt
      • These are allow you to forgo pinning a race number to your shirt. The race number easily attaches to the belt. Simply grab it in transition and pull it on as you start out on the run (or before the bike segment, if required).
    2. Running hat/visor
    3. Hydration
    4. Nutrition
    5. Electrolytes (especially for longer races)

“Specialty” Items

  • Needed:
    1. ID and USAT Card
      • Many races won’t let you check in without both your photo ID AND your USAT membership card. If you only bought the one-day USAT pass, have proof of that purchase with you.
    2. Race numbers
      • For bike and helmet: If you’ve been given race numbers for your helmet and bike, now’s the time to apply them. Don’t wait until race morning!
      • For your body: for tattoo numbers, put them on the night before the race. If using Sharpies: get the number written on your skin before using sunscreen on race morning.
Chapstick tube sitting in an open  black top tube gear pacl
  • Optional Items:
    1. Plastic bags (for rainy weather)
      • Cover your bike seat and speedometer in transition until the race starts.
    2. Chapstick, Chapstick, Chapstick:
      • I keep one on my bike and one in my run jersey (see here). This is simple, lightweight, and can be whipped out in an emergency on that bike ride, when all the rub spots start to crop up. Or on the run, when blisters threaten. A quick application of Chapstick and you’re on your way.

Tip: Don’t pick a flavored Chapstick—they can attract bugs. And mint flavored ones just burn like crazy on raw tissue.

Does your couch look like your closet exploded on it?

Then you did great!

Join me next week for Part 2: How to set up your transition area. I’ll include pictures of actual transition set-ups.  In the meantime, print off your own copy of the Transition Checklist so you can follow along next week.


Got any items you use that left off the list? Or problems that plague you in transition? Share in the comments.

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