The biathlon combines physical demands, mental calm

ZHANGJIAKOU – An analogy often used to describe what it feels like to participate in a biathlon race is: “Walk up 20 flights of stairs as fast as you can, then try to thread a needle.”

Biathlon is the marriage of “two totally unrelated things,” says American biathlete Jake Brown of Saint Paul, Minnesota. “One is totally physical, and the other is partly physical but mostly mental. Having to combine that mental effort on the stand when you’re under the physical strain of skiing, that’s really the difficulty of our sport.

Here’s a look at what it is, what makes it work, and how it plays out.


A biathlete skis several kilometers and arrives at the shooting range with a heart rate of up to 180 beats per minute. Then they shoot five targets in 25-35 seconds.

“Shooting with a high heart rate is really tough,” says Armin Auchentaller of Antholz, Italy, who coaches the United States women’s biathlon team.

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They are penalized for each missed target. This usually involves skiing a 150 meter loop, but in a race format, the individual has one minute added to their time for each error. It can be the difference between a podium and a 20th place.

Lowell Bailey, a retired four-time U.S. Olympic biathlete and the team’s top coach, says the combination of fast skiing and high-pressure shooting makes biathlon an “exceptionally good spectator sport”.

Most people are familiar with the drama that can occur in a cross-country race, “but with biathlon you double or triple that drama because you’re adding more shooting.”

As the race develops, the lead may change depending on how the runners are shooting that day.

“It can really come down to that last stage of filming,” he says. “And that can put people on the edge of their seat as spectators, where they really hang on to every shot of that last leg. And a lot of times, you know, you’ll have a head switch there and then the final loop is this dog race to the finish.

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Biathletes use the skating method of cross-country skiing to run trails that run between 1.5 and 3.5 kilometers (0.9 to 2.2 miles), depending on the format of the race.

They carry a .22 caliber biathlon rifle that weighs between 3.5 and 7.5 kilograms (7.7 to 16.5 pounds) unloaded. Special slots built into the butt of the rifle allow them to carry from two to four magazines containing five bullets each.

The rifle has a sight at the end of the barrel and another just above the bolt; they allow the athlete to line up the rifle for aiming. Views contain no magnification.

Biathletes have 45 minutes before each race to “zero” their rifle – align their sights – to ensure they are ready for the day’s weather. During this process, coaches look through a spyglass as they fire five rounds in If their shot group hits the left and the wind is coming from the left, they will adjust their sights to the right to account for the wind.

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Coaches also monitor screens during the race to see if runners need to make any additional adjustments. They can radio the shot information to the team support on the course who will know that the runners will know what they need. Coaches are not permitted to speak to athletes in the pit during races.

Biathletes carry the rifle on their back with a harness that attaches to the butt of the rifle, allowing them to swing quickly into a firing position, which alternates between prone and standing.

The rifle also has a strap with an elastic cord and hook that clips into a D-ring on a band that the biathlete wears around their arm. This allows them to create a tripod with their elbows and body in a prone position.

Since the subject is the most stable, the targets are small – about the size of a golf ball. Standing shooting targets are larger – the size of a DVD. The shooting distance is 50 meters (54.7 yards).

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Each biathlon race begins with a ski loop. The distance depends on the race format. The first shooting combat is in the prone position.

When biathletes get into range, they slow their pace to lower their heart rate. They come to a mat, kneel down and swing the rifle to the side of their body to insert a loaded magazine, grab onto the sling, drop onto their stomachs and line up the sights.

In this position, the breath moves the rifle barrel up and down, so the athlete will center the rifle, take one or two breaths, and then hold it as the target slides toward the center of the sight. A slight pressure on the trigger releases the shot. They use their thumb and index finger to move the bolt which loads the next ball.

They repeat this process on all five targets and put the gun back on their backs. If they hit all five, they can head to the next round of skiing, but if they miss any targets, they must ski the 150-meter (164-yard) penalty loop for each miss.

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After skiing the trick, they will return for another shoot.


In sprint races, biathletes start at 30-second intervals, skiing three laps with a prone shot and a standing shot in between. It is a race against time and the shortest biathlon race format.

Sprint races are often followed by the pursuit where biathletes start based on where they finished the sprint, with the fastest going first. The pursuit features five ski loops and four shooting fights, two prone and two standing.

A mass start race has a similar format but everyone starts at the same time. Only the top 30 biathletes in the World Cup ranking take the start of this race.

The individual race has interval starts with four shoot fights and five ski loops. But instead of skiing a penalty loop for each miss, a minute is added for each missed shot.

Teams of four men and four women run relays. Each biathlete skis three loops with a prone shot and a standing shot. Runners are allowed to use three extra balls for each shooting bout in relay races.

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AP reporter Martha Bellisle won three national masters medals in cross-country skiing before moving on to biathlon, where she won four world masters gold medals and six national championship titles American masters. Follow her on Twitter at


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