At heart of matter, biathlon transition is not easy
Imagine sprinting up 10 flights of stairs, getting to the top, and then trying to thread a needle.
Doesn’t sound easy, does it?
That analogy perhaps best sums up the inherent challenge of biathlon, a sport which requires the ability to transition from intense aerobic effort to shooting with marksmanship, and it's best competitors to possess a unique combination of endurance, precision, concentration and steadiness.
“One of the most difficult parts of biathlon is changing from being a skier to a precision shooter,” American Tim Burke said. “Your heart rate's going nearly maximum. And you come into the range. You have to get your breathing under control. That's maybe the hardest thing to master in our sport.”
Embedded video_content_type: Focusing on the target
One misconception about biathlon is that participants work on slowing their heart rates when they enter the shooting range in order to shoot more accurately.
From the moment they set down their ski poles to the moment they pick them up again, the world’s top biathletes only spend about 30 seconds each time through the shooting range. That is not enough time for the heart rate to come down significantly. Biathlon is more about learning to shoot effectively with a high heart rate than about learning to control and lower one’s heart rate.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Biathlon hotshots of Vancouver
“If I try to rush in the shooting range or if I'm tensed up, thinking about time or the race and how it's unfolding around me, I'm probably going to miss those targets,” U.S. biathlete Susan Dunklee said. “Any extra muscle tension or disquiet within my head… it doesn't take much in order to miss targets.”
Shooting in and of itself is not difficult for a practiced marksman. An elite biathlete should be able to hit 30 targets in 30 tries when at rest. The challenge is to shoot quickly and accurately when their heart rate is elevated and they’re breathing heavily, which makes it difficult to steady their gaze.
“It's really hard because your heart will often be beating three times a second when you come in,” she said. “If you think about your breathing cycle, you breathe in, inhale, you exhale, then there's a natural pause before you inhale again. That's when your body's mostly still, and you’ve got to take advantage of that stillness to take the shot.”
Embedded owg_slideshow: Model Olympian: Tim Burke
Biathletes tend to ease up a bit as they approach the shooting range, the extent of which depends upon the topography of the course. If there is an uphill leading to the shooting range, they must slow down more than if the approach were flat.
But even after slowing down, a biathlete’s heart rate could be more than two-and-a-half times greater than the average adult’s resting heart rate of 72 beats per minute.
The worst mistake a biathlete can make, however, is slowing down too much before entering the shooting range. A too-conservative approach will result in the heart rate dipping too low, which actually makes it more difficult to shoot as well as if the heart rate were higher.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Model Olympian: Susan Dunklee
“My max heart rate is about 192 beats per minute,” Burke said. “When I'm on the ski course, I'm racing just about five beats below my maximum heart rate. When I'm shooting, my heart rate might be anywhere between 175 and 160. That's, for me, my ideal range.”
None of this takes into account the environment around the shooting range. On top of the frigid temperatures, there is also the crowd noise to contend with.
“The atmosphere in the stadium is such that you come in from one of the ski loops and it's like skiing into an NFL stadium,” U.S. Olympian Lowell Bailey explained. “It's that loud. So you have screaming and cheering to the point where often times you can't hear yourself breathe which is a weird kind of disorienting feeling to be going as hard as you can but not being able to hear your breathing.
“It’s definitely not easy.”
Embedded owg_slideshow: Model Olympian: Lowell Bailey