“Sport explained”: How to get the perfect shot in biathlon

Status: 02/13/2023 1:38 p.m

Shooting in biathlon is extremely demanding, both physically and mentally. In “Sport explained” you will find out how the perfect shot can still be achieved.

First, a few facts about the course of a biathlon competition: The athletes have to go to the shooting range two or four times, where they try to hit five targets 50 meters away. The targets are as big as a beer mat when shooting standing and as small as a golf ball when shooting prone. Each missed target results in a penalty loop of approximately 150 meters in the disciplines sprint, pursuit, relay and mass start. In the individual races, missed shots are considered a penalty minute.

Shooting is extremely important in biathlon

This gives shooting a central meaning: Depending on the discipline, the shooting performance accounts for between 30 and 50 percent of the overall performance. In other words: A bad shooter will hardly become a good biathlete. That is why biathletes work with different techniques to avoid shooting errors.

Biathlon rifles have no aiming device that enlarges the target and no crosshairs – but a so-called diopter. A simple sighting device for aiming at targets with the naked eye. The rear sight consists of a plate that can be adjusted in height and sideways, with a very small viewing opening in the middle, through which the front sighting device can be seen. Depending on the wind and weather, the diopter has to be reset before each competition and the settings have to be adjusted during the race.

There are often difficult conditions

In a storm, however, there is an additional problem: the shooter and rifle start to wobble quite a bit. It helps to be quick to react in the trigger. So then pull the trigger when the target just wobbles through the field of view.

However, it usually doesn’t take a storm to shake a biathlete. Because the athlete’s body does it all by itself. Due to the physical exertion of running, the nervousness in the competition situation and the time pressure. Help against this: A firm footing or a good lying position.

When shooting in prone, the ground provides good support. The shooter raises his left elbow, hangs an additional support band on the upper arm and thus has good stability. He draws the rifle with his right hand to his right shoulder, he also puts up his elbow. Now he is firmly on the ground, both elbows up and can hardly sway to the right and left. Only up and down heartbeat and breathing cause some instability.

Body and gun are firmly connected

Standing is a bit more difficult because only the skis are connected to the ground, legs and upper body can sway quite a bit. In order to still get as much stability as possible, the shooter stands sideways with his left shoulder towards the target. He leans his upper body back a bit, so the rifle’s center of gravity is not so far forward, but rather over the middle of the body. In addition, he can put his left elbow on his hip. He pulls his right arm back parallel to the ground and presses the rifle to his shoulder. In this way, the body and the gun are firmly connected.

Good shooters don’t even blink

But a firm footing is not everything, it also needs: a steady gaze. Some very good shooters don’t even blink between shots. You focus on the target and never let it out of your sight, there is only one breath between shots.

And these breaths follow a very specific pattern. Inhale, exhale two-thirds, hold your breath briefly, squeeze, then exhale the rest. With this technique, athletes try to keep their own body as still as possible when pushing the trigger. Because every heartbeat is a vibration in the body. Using the “Two Thirds/One Thirds” breathing technique with a short pause, you will find the exact point between two heartbeats.

The shooters shouldn’t be too quiet either

But they shouldn’t be too quiet either. Because if the pulse drops too low after the effort of running, it can be counterproductive. Then the individual heartbeats get stronger to send the muscles the oxygen they need. And the stronger the heartbeat, the stronger the shock in the body.

The dreaded sewing machine

And: It can come to the dreaded sewing machine. This is what athletes call a condition in which the body – especially the legs – begins to tremble. You sway slightly back and forth – like a sewing machine. A clean shot becomes extremely difficult. Therefore, a heart rate between 130 and 160 is desirable.

If you take all these points into account, you have created the best conditions for a good shooting result: set the diopter properly, stand firmly, look steadily, check your breathing and pulse – and then pull the trigger at exactly the right moment. However, none of these techniques are a guarantee. Because even those who have perfect command of arms, legs, eyes and trigger fingers can still be thrown off balance by another part of the body: the brain.

The athletes have to keep their heads under control

The best technology cannot do anything against the wrong thought at the wrong moment. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the fear of failure, private problems or just the thought of thinking: If you don’t have your own head under control, you will fail at the shooting range. A 2018 study shows that successful biathletes are able to inhibit certain areas of the brain. This allows the automatic motor programs to run unhindered. The shot becomes more precise.

That’s why professional biathletes don’t just train to run and shoot, they also increasingly work with mental coaches. Vanessa Voigt, for example, concentrates on a certain word as soon as she enters the shooting range. After years of training, she manages to get into a flow, i.e. to hide everything around her.

Despite all the techniques and tricks, the perfect biathlon shooter will probably never exist. Because in the end it’s still a human who pulls the trigger. And he can just have a bad day.