Slash Your Transition Times
One of my biggest heroes is . . .
He was one of the production engineering geniuses who in post-war Japan reversed a 10:1 productivity gap between Japanese auto production, and their rivals in Detroit. It took 20-30 years, but they took on the best in the world, and, when you look at how Western manufacturers are adopting Lean production techniques (i.e. the TPS), it’s clear that they came up with the right methods.
But, “What’s the relevance of this to triathlon?“, I hear you ask.
One of Shingo’s biggest achievements was the concept of rapid tool change. In 1948 or so, he watched a technician spend two days changing a machine from making product ‘A’ to making product ‘B’. By a systematic analysis of how and when the work was done, he came up with a system (”SMED“) which he claimed, could reduce any tool change to nine minutes or fewer.
Tool change . . . like changing from a wetsuit onto a bike . . . . or from a bike into a pair of running shoes?
Now in this context, nine minutes sounds like a bit of a low goal. But nine seconds sounds more like a race-winning target. The funny thing is that when I’m teaching or implementing SMED, I use triathlon transition to illustrate the point. On race day, I get organised to make the transitions speedy, but I do this more on ‘gut feel’ rather than formal analysis.
And my industrial experience says that gut feel doesn’t cut it. Shingo’s methods will always cut a changeover time by 50% - even if you’re previously used the techniques to improve things. So if your T1 is currently four minutes, you should be getting to down to two minutes. If it’s already two minutes, you should be targeting 60 seconds.
Now obviously there’s a limit to how far you can realistically take this - at least without spending any money. I’m not much of an expert on T1 involving a wetsuit, so I can’t really comment on that, but I’d suggest that in T2, nine seconds (count ‘em: 1 . . . 2 . . . 3 . . . 4. . . 5 . . . 6 . . . 7 . . . 8 . . . .9) is about as good as you’re ever going to get (and you know who you are!)
But if you’d like to find out how to get that good, read on . . . .
OK let’s begin with some definitions.
- We’ll define transition time as the time from when you enter the transition area, to when you leave it at race pace. There will be some specific differences here for different races - like where the transition area is a couple of hundred yards from the water; or one that I was chatting about with a guy who did last year’s UK national finals, where there were so many entrants that the transition area was almost 500m long . . . and his bike was at the furthest point from the entry / exit.
- Internal Tasks can only be performed while you’re in the transition area. e.g. you must put your bike helmet on before you leave the area.
- External Tasks can be done before / after the race or outside the transition area.
Then there are seven steps to conducting the SMED analysis:
- Observe your transition. The best way to do this is probably to mock up a transition area (complete with entry / exit points, a stand for the bike, and all the rest of the stuff you have on race day) at home, and set up a video camera on a tripod to record what happens. Do this for T1 & T2 separately, and if you can include a half mile or so ride out & in, so much the better.
- Identify, and separate out the Internal and External activities. Obvious things like putting the water bottle into the cage and loading up your gels / other food (tape it to the bike); pressing the reset on the cycle-computer; pinning your race number on; are all external - you should do them before the race starts. But so are things like putting the blob of Vaseline into the toes of your socks; tidying up your transition mat; getting at least half out of your wetsuit as you run from the water to transition; or selecting first gear on the bike, so that you can get to race pace quickly. Changing shoes, putting your helmet on, and fastening the chin strap are all Internal. What you now have is a list of things to prepare before the race even starts, and a list of things you can do once you’ve crossed the finish line, and gone to collect your stuff from transition. This should give you an automatic 25% improvement in your transition times.
- Now you’ve got to use your head, and try to convert activities from Internal to External. This is stuff like getting a tri-suit, so that you don’t have to try to pull a t-shirt on at all; getting elastic laces for your shoes so you don’t have to tie them; leaving your bike on the rack already in first gear (or whatever gear you use for drag racing from the lights in training!); having your race number pinned to a belt rather than trying to pin it to your shirt in the transition (I’m serious - I’ve seen people trying to); taking off your bike shoes while you’re still a few hundred yards from T2 (leave them clipped to the pedals and ride with your feet on top of them). Externalising in this way should gain you another 15% or so.
- Next you want to Streamline the Internal tasks. So you want to make the activities that are actually left to do during T1 & T1 as easy and simple as possible. So have a pre-determined layout of your race mat, and practice grabbing what you need ’till you could do it with your eyes shut. Leave your helmet on your saddle so that you cannot get on the bike without it (running back from the exit to get your helmet really messes up your day!). If you wear socks, make them short / ankle socks, which are easier to put on, and leave them ‘rolled’ so that you can put your toes in and just unroll them over your feet. Zappoman revealed two neat tricks this week - an olive oil coated wetsuit is easier and quicker to get out of, and having his bike shoes already clipped to the pedals and held in position against the crank arms with elastic bands. I see this as streamlining, because trying to run in cleated shoes can easily lead to a comedy sliding fall before you even get on the bike. If transition places aren’t pre-allocated, try to bag a place which is on the way from the water to the exit AND between the bike entrance and the run exit - not always possible, but worth a go! Streamlining will save you around 10% of the transition time.
- Now Streamline the External Tasks. It’s race day, and you want to have time to enjoy it don’t you? So have a standard box or bag that you can put the transition gear into in the hour (or even night) before the race, and know that you’re ready. Do your last minute bike maintenance a good few days before race day, so that all you have to do on the day is go for a short spin around the car park to make sure you’ve put the front wheel back on right.
- Document what you need to do for each transition. You’ll need to write down exactly what you need to do in preparation, the sequence during T1, what you’re doing Externally in the bike leg, the sequence for T1, and any after-race tidy-up or equipment checks. At it’s most simple, this is a list of things to take to the race, and what state they should be in. At the extreme, you could make your race mat into a shadow board, though people might think you’re a bit of an anorak!
- Finally . . . Strive for Perfection. Practice your new transition routines a few times - either in training, or actual races - until they feel like second nature. Then go back to step one, and do it all again - until you hit the barriers of what’s actually possible with the human body, you should see similar levels of improvement on your second, third, or fourth iteration.
That’s all - it’s common sense really. But having a system to make this kinds of changes to your race means that you’re more likely to make the improvements.
Good luck, and feel free to add comments of your own personal top tips for a tip top transition.