Biathlon: Speed, skill & precision

March 18, 2010, 2:43 p.m. (ET)

Shortly before he enters the shooting range, biathlete Andy Soule begins to transition from skiing mode to shooting mode.  He lifts his sunglasses to allow his eyes time to adjust to the light, unclips the straps attaching his poles to his hands, and most importantly, begins to recover his breath.


By this point in the season Soule goes through the motions without thinking.  Constant repetition has made the process second nature.  He skis into the shooting range and slides smoothly to his shooting mat before acrobatically turning his sit ski onto its side and sweeping his legs back, rolling into a fully prone shooting position.  He then receives his rifle from his coach.


“There’s a lot of little details that go into biathlon specific shooting,” James Upham, US biathlon coach, said.  “All these things, we try to get them to be automatic.  All we’ve been doing is the same range approach over and over and over.”


Biathlon is a sport that combines two contradictory elements, the heart pounding, lung busting, cardio catastrophe that is cross-country skiing, and the steady breathing, calmed, focused precision of target shooting.


Soule, who won the bronze medal in the biathlon pursuit, the first medal ever won by an American biathlete, Olympic or Paralympic, has been competing in the biathlon since 2005.


“It’s a sport that requires a great deal of fine motor skill and concentration and focus under stress,” said Soule.


At the Paralympic Winter Games that is more true than ever.  Upham explained that at a major competition his athletes might be going harder than they are used to coming into the shooting range, making it even more important to be able to perform and hit the target in a stressful situation.


The key to successful shooting in biathlon is in the breathing.


“There’s no voodoo to getting you’re heart rate down,” said Upham.  “It’s mostly just breathe like crazy. Really breathe hard right up to that first shot.  That gets the heart rate down.”


The rhythm of biathlon shooting is also based on the athlete’s breathing.  Both US biathletes, Soule and Kelly Underkofler, have trained to shoot on a one breath sequence.  In steady breaths they breathe in, breathe out, and squeeze the trigger at the end of their exhale.


“You breathe in and out because you don’t want to be shooting depleted of oxygen because you don’t want to get shaky,” Soule said.  “The rifle’s going to point downward when you breathe in, and then you exhale and it points back onto target so you’re letting the rifle naturally approach onto target.  It’s the calm moment on the end of the exhale you want to squeeze the trigger and let it fire”.


“It’s an organic rhythm,” Upham said.


“Basically once they start shooting they shoot, they bolt (ready the gun for the next shot), breathe once, shoot again.”


Each round of shooting consists of five shots with athletes shooting at a 16mm target from ten meters away. 


Try running twenty straight wind sprints on a basketball court, then laying at half court and shooting a dime suspended from the rim of the basket, five times in a row.  Now imagine doing that outside, in the wind and rain or snow, with a pack of guys around you all trying to run faster, shoot faster and hit the dime more times than you.  That is the biathlon.


Soule has the process dialed in.  In the biathlon pursuit he hit 19 of 20 targets and in the 12.5km race he was a perfect 20 of 20. 


After his fifth shot in the range, Soule instantly unstraps his rifle, flips his ski upright, and gets his arms moving.  He’s got another lap to ski and five more targets to shoot.


“You immediately want to be moving again,” he said.  “No matter what happens in the range you have to get moving again.”