Health beat: Olympic biathletes learn to master their breathing
- Article by: Jeremy Olson
- Star Tribune
- February 15, 2014 - 5:14 PM
Target shooting after skiing is like sprinting up 10 flights of stairs, then threading a needle.
That’s how NBC’s website describes the biathlon, an Olympic sport that often features Minnesota athletes. So I gave it a try — cruising up and down the stairs at home 10 times, then pausing to loop blue thread through a silver eye.
A minute later, I was still working on it.
Olympic biathletes need just 30 seconds to unshoulder their rifles and fire five rounds at targets 50 meters away. And they usually don’t miss. The transition from skiing to shooting — for biathletes such as Leif Nordgren of Marine on St. Croix — is one of the most mystical feats of the Olympics.
It’s also misunderstood — particularly the notion that biathletes have mastery over heart rates that exceed 170 beats per minute when skiing.
“In the 1990s, the notion that biathletes have a Zen-like ability to shoot between heartbeats became the go-to explanation of how the sport works … ” said Chad Salmela, a Duluth native providing NBC color commentary on Nordic events. “It is not accurate. Good luck trying to shoot between heartbeats at 160 beats per minute!”
Biathletes do slow down entering shooting zones to try to reduce their heart rates. But lowering the pulse too far can be counterproductive to accuracy, said Piotr Bednarski, a training director for the U.S. Biathlon Association. “If you’re around 100 to 120, the heart is going slower but it’s actually beating harder.”
The real secrets — beyond extraordinary fitness — are simpler. Athletes learn to understand their heart rates and breathing, and shoot in a cadence between exhales.
They also simulate distractions in practice and learn to shut them out. Biathletes know the sound of shots that hit or miss; even that can be distracting as they hear competitors’ results while lining up their own shots.
“Physically, you don’t do much,” Nordgren e-mailed from Sochi. “You notice the wind conditions, take some deep breaths to recover as much as possible, but most of the activity is going on inside the head; calming your mind down and trying to clear out any excess thoughts.”
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