Winning Biathlon Olympic Gold Means Hacking the Human Body
"It’s like running up a flight of stairs as fast as you can and then trying to thread a needle.”
Every second counts in biathlon. Or, as seen Sunday in Martin Fourcade’s .04-second victory for France over Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, every sliver of a second counts. What’s even more, the abilities these 2018 Olympic biathletes champion are not naturally compatible; in fact, the exertion from cross-country skiing paired with the focus needed to shoot a gun are at odds, requiring control of the body that teeters on superhuman strength.
In biathlon, a tradition that dates back to 18th-century Norwegian military competitions, athletes compete in a combination of cross-country skiing and marksmanship events. The skiing is broken up every five kilometers (about 3 miles) by target shooting, alternating between standing, where targets are 4.5-inch diameter circles, and prone (lying down), where targets are only 1.8 inches across. The events vary in length, including a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) race, 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) “sprint,” single- and mixed-gender relays, and a few other distances, all of which combine skiing and shooting. Either of these tasks is challenging on its own, but things get really tough when you switch from one to the other.
Imagine: You’ve skied cross-country for five kilometers focusing on the path ahead of you, blocking out the world while you exert yourself, going as hard as you can to thrust forward with your poles and push yourself onward with your skis. Then you get to the shooting range, and you have to not just stop but you have to stand still. In that stillness, with your heart pounding in your chest and your lungs gulping for air, you shoulder your rifle to shoot at targets 50 meters (164 feet) away. You only get one shot per target. If you aim a single degree too low or too high, you could miss the tiny target by feet. And if you miss, you get a time penalty that could cost you the medal.
It’s a tough feat for a solid shooter under normal circumstances, and with blood pulsing through your body, it’s darn near superhuman.
“You’re watching the target come in and out of your sight,” Sara Studebaker-Hall, a U.S. Olympic biathlon competitor, tells Popular Science. “The example we give to people is it’s like running up a flight of stairs as fast as you can and then trying to thread a needle.”
In a study published in the November 2017 issue of the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers who examined the effects of aerobic activity on shooting performance found that subjects performed significantly worse just after they’d completed a simulated march. Their accuracy (the ability to hit the right spot) and precision (the ability to hit the same spot repeatedly) were both about one-third worse after the march. While this study was conducted in a warm environmental chamber with the participants burdened by heavy loads, similar to conditions that military personnel might experience, we see that physical exhaustion can play a role in a person’s ability to shoot at a target.
Another challenge that comes with the biathlon is shooting position. Biathletes alternate between standing and prone positions at each set of targets (standing, ski five kilometers, prone, ski five kilometers, and so on). So they have to be comfortable with both positions, each of which has its issues.
In a study of biathletes published in the March 2017 issue of the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, researchers found that standing shooters tended to sway forward and backward while prone shooters’ rifles often erred up and down. Both of these factors worsened with fatigue, which, for obvious reasons, increases throughout a race.
With all this in mind, athletes get a good bit of help from their rifles, which are designed for the specific challenges of the competition. A biathlete uses a .22-caliber rifle that includes magazine holders (with each magazine only holding five cartridges), snow covers for the front and back sights and the muzzle, a cheek rest for added stability, a sling that helps anchor the front hand, a special “staged trigger” that’s soft for 80 percent of the pull, and a mechanism called a Fortner bolt that allows the rifle to be reloaded in a flash. It’s a unique firearm, but most of the firepower is behind the trigger: the athlete.
After all, specialized equipment can only help so much. Biathletes have, therefore, figured out how to overcome the limitations and complications of the human body to remain stable under pressure.
As Brooke Jarvis reports for The New York Times Magazine, there’s a pervasive myth that biathletes time their shot to fall between heartbeats. Even though the motion of a heartbeat pulse may seem minuscule, it’s significant in a precision shooting situation, and athletes can feel their blood pulsing through their hands as they grip the rifle. In a paper published October 2016 in the ergonomics journal Human Factors, researchers found that elevated heart rate had a negative impact on shooting accuracy. So yes, it’s possible that pulling the trigger between heartbeats could be beneficial. But that’s easier said than done.
With hearts racing at triple-digit beats per minute, this is basically impossible. It would be like trying to jump into a specific car of a speeding train. And waiting for the heart to slow down would waste precious seconds that an athlete simply can’t spare during a race.
So how do they do it? It’s all about pulling the trigger at the right moment during a breath.
As U.S. Olympic biathlete Susan Dunklee told The Times Magazine, the perfect moment to let off a shot is right near the end of an exhale. By controlling their breathing, biathletes can lower their heart rates by a very small degree, but breathing serves just as much as a way to center the mind and focus on the task at hand.
Dunklee’s performance in the women’s 7.5-kilometer sprint at Pyeongchang on Saturday showed how crucial this mind-body connection is. Competing while fighting off a cold, she missed five out of 10 targets, causing her to trail gold medalist Laura Dahlmeier of Germany by more than three minutes to place 66th.
Sometimes even the best practice falls flat, especially in intense winter conditions. The Washington Post reports that the conditions in Pyeongchang are so intense that biathletes’ bullets are being blown off-course. All the training and mindfulness and breath control in the world are no match for Mother Nature.