Biathlon – an Olympic winter sport with high physical and psychological demands

Save favourite 8 Nov November 2018

To become good a good biathlete you need endurance, excellent gross and fine motor skills, as well as mental strength.

Biathlon is an Olympic sport that combines rifle marksmanship and cross-country (XC) skiing using the skating technique, while carrying a rifle. It poses considerable physiological demands, similar to those associated with competitive XC skiing (Hoffman and Street, 1992; Sandbakk and Holmberg, 2014; Holmberg, 2015), while also requiring precise fine motor control for fast and accurate shooting under mental pressure (Vickers and Williams, 2007).

In this challenging endurance sport the athlete alternates between various XC skiing sub-techniques that require different relative contributions from the upper and lower body while skiing across varying terrain. This requires extensive training designed not only to optimize the relevant physiological capacities and performance aspects of the various ski-skating techniques, but also to improve and maintain accurate shooting within short time periods.

Biathlon in numbers

Although the duration of biathlon races ranges from 20 min (sprint) to more than 50 min (distance), seven of the 11 Olympic events (including relays) involve mass starts, which increases the importance of tactics, where the outcome is often decided by the last round of shooting and/or the final skiing sprint. Optimizing overall performance in  biathlon is complex, since success is decided by several components, such as skiing speed, time spent in the shooting range, shooting time and shooting accuracy.

The range and shooting times of elite biathletes across different types of competitions are usually similar and, thus, exert only a minor impact on final performance. In contrast, skiing speed and shooting accuracy appear to be the most important determinants of success (Skattebo and Losnegard, 2018). It has been calculated that in biathlon sprint skiing speed relates to approximately 60% and shooting accuracy to approximately 35% of total performance. The remaining small part of the entire performance is explained by shooting time (Luchsinger et al. 2018a). During distance competitions, skiing speed and shooting accuracy relate to approximately 50% each of total performance (Luchsinger et al., 2018b).

Biathlon race courses are required to consist of continuously changing flat, uphill and downhill sections, forcing frequent alternations between the various skating sub-techniques (Holmberg, 2015). The demands of biathlon skiing are comparable to those made by XC skiing, where more than 50% of the racing time is spent on uphill terrain, the sections on which individual performance varies most (Bergh and Forsberg, 2000; Andersson et al., 2010; IBU, 2018). Since more than half of the race time is spent skiing uphill, world-class male and female biathletes demonstrate high maximal oxygen uptakes (VO2max) of > 80 and > 65 mL/kg/min, respectively (Tønnessen et al., 2015).

In addition to adapting their skiing to the terrain, snow conditions and altitude, biathletes (in contrast to XC skiers) must prepare for the upcoming shooting bouts. Thus, unlike XC skiing, biathlon skiing is intermittent, being interrupted twice or four times during a race by short stops on the shooting range, depending on the type of race.

Overall, shooting accuracies in prone and standing positions are comparable. However, shooting accuracy during the Winter Olympic Games (WOG) for example, is extremely high. In the Sochi Olympic Games in 2014, the average shooting accuracy for all individual male and female medalists was 97%; a total of 7 missed shots over 8 competitions. This level of accuracy among WOG medalists is actually greater than the long-term accuracy of the best athletes in the world (which is approximately 90%), suggesting that biathletes must shoot beyond their "normal level" in order to win an Olympic medal. This indicates a certain degree of randomness in connection with biathlon shooting (Maier et al., 2018).

Several different technical factors affect shooting accuracy. In prone shooting, triggering behavior (i.e., exerting a high pressure before the shot) and rifle sway have been shown to be the most important factors affecting shooting accuracy (Sattlecker et al., 2017). In standing shooting body sway also plays a major role in accuracy (Sattlecker et al., 2017; Ihalainen et al. 2018). The preceding high-intensity exercise almost certainly influences the psycho-physiological aspects such as focusing, an important factor of shooting. High focus is needed in order to be able to simultaneously aim, maintain the optimal shooting position and pull the trigger (Laaksonen et al., 2018a).

Training in biathlon

The volume of physical training is similar to that in XC skiing. The best biathletes perform 700-900 h of endurance training annually, including 80% at low, 5% at moderate and 5% at high intensities. In addition to endurance training biathletes also perform strength training (10%) and shooting training, which is partly performed in combination with endurance training (60% of total shooting training; 75% at low, 15% at moderate and 10% at high intensities). In total, elite biathletes shoot more than 20,000 shots annually (Laaksonen et al., 2018b).

Because shooting time in biathlon is very short (5 shots in approximately 30 seconds), shooting training under competetive contitions is important. At the same time, the technical aspects of shooting must be performed correctly, for example aiming and triggering, and should be combined with mental training (Laaksonen et al., 2011).

In summary, biathlon is a complex sport in which the athlete must master different skills, both in skiing and shooting. Regardless of the popularity of biathlon, it is a sparsely studied sport and more in-depth research is needed not only to understand how different factors affect performance in biathlon but also to be able to develop the sport.


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