Hugh Pritchard, Biathlete

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Hugh Pritchard
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Biathlon Training

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Training: Biathlon Specifics

Biathlon performance consists of:

  1. Ski speed
  2. Shooting accuracy
  3. Range speed

A look at the detailed results available on the IBU web site shows that the racers who win world cups are those who ski very fast and shoot more or less clear, with shoot speed being a comparatively unimportant aspect (Halvard Hanevold, for instance, shoots very slowly yet is Olympic champion; Frode Andrésen missed 3 of 10 targets yet won the last Sprint of 2000/01 at Holmenkollen).

However, there is obviously no point in shooting slower than you have to, and many people find that shooting faster does not make their statistics any worse. Moreover, racers who are not winning at world level are in a part of the results list where a few seconds may make a big difference in placings, so that shoot speed may paradoxically be more important for racers who are not at the very top.

So, three related and interdependent aspects to work on.

Ski training

There is plenty of material available in English on this, mostly written by Norwegians who could not stand the pace at home and emigrated to the USA. This is a good start, but biathlon training tends to include more high-intensity work, because of the requirement to learn to shoot under severe physiological stress.

Technique is fundamental to skiing success. Rather than designate certain sessions as 'technique training', you should concentrate on technique every time you put on skis, roller-skis or roller-blades.

Roller-skiing is by far the most important element of ski training, as you can (and must) always work on technique, and the physical demands are much the same as those of skiing on snow - if you find a track with suitable gradients (most public roads do not have the gradients without being dangerous). If you only have a flattish track then you can still get 95% of the benefit, as V2 skating is great for improving strength and balance.

Shooting

Ideally, just as with ski training, your shooting training should follow a progressive programme, both within each year and year-on-year. People who regard themselves as endurance athletes probably read quite a lot about endurance training; but planning a shooting training programme does not follow immediately from that knowledge. The shooting programme must nevertheless be planned.

First of all (traditionally), you need to learn to hold the rifle and get into and out of position; then to shoot the targets; then to shoot the targets quickly; then to shoot the targets quickly under stress. The order in which speed and stress are introduced may change, but overall the learning processes are distinct.

Hold

I don't remember how I first learnt to hold a rifle, but the most important thing for a beginner is to get someone to coach you, rather than try to work it out for yourself, and expect it to take time to get a good position. Mike Dixon turned himself (uncoached) into an excellent biathlon shot in a single Summer, but he is probably exceptional in his perseverance and ability to focus on what is important.

Dry-training (ie training with the rifle without using live ammunition) is very useful for practising drills, getting into and out of position and the rifle on and off the back, etc. This is not just for beginners but something that all biathletes do, and probably the better they are the more they do.

Shooting straight

Again, get a coach. A shooting specialist is fine if you convince him that you need to wear skis to shoot and your position must allow for that. Although you only need to shoot 8s prone in biathlon, it is worth being able to shoot a lot better, to give you a margin for error when things get tough. It also makes zeroing a lot easier.

Once you know what a good and a bad shot feel like, you can start to get a lot of value from dry-firing (if you use an Anschütz-Fortner you should either fit a dry-firing adapter or apply the safety catch, as the firing pin may break otherwise). The great thing about this is that you can get valuable shooting training at home, without spending money on ammunition or time getting to the range.

Shooting fast

This is largely a matter of confidence. Try it a few times, and what seems absurd to start with will very soon seem normal. The two aspects to fast shooting are time to first shot and time between shots. Both require confidence and slick rifle-handling.

Time to first shot is influenced by:

  • Confidence vs fear
  • Drills
  • Physiological stress

Time between shots is influenced by:

  • Solidity and correctness of position
  • Confidence
  • Need to breathe (depends on physiological stress and shooting speed)
  • Smoothness of cocking action

There is a lot that you can do with dry-firing to improve all of these areas. Remember that you can incorporate mental training (mental rehearsal, visualisation) into dry-firing training, which multiplies its effectiveness.

Most beginning biathletes, who do a prone shoot in perhaps 50", will find that if they shoot faster they hit just as much. But fear of missing nevertheless inhibits them from shooting faster - the temptation to wait for a slightly better sight picture is too great. In biathlon you have to assess the risks: do you want to shoot outrageously fast and risk a bad result, knowing that if you hit you will have a great result? Or do you want to be sure of hitting, and accept that although you will never have a great result, you will rarely have a bad one?

Shooting under stress

This means physiological or nervous stress. In a race you have both, and to learn you just have to practise - and think.

Physiological stress is induced by exercise - usually skiing/roller-skiing or running ('combination training'), and results in you trying to shoot with elevated pulse and breathing, and possibly the shakes as well in severe cases. Shooting after hard skiing is very different from shooting after 'long slow distance' skiing, so it is worth raising the pace for the last quarter-mile into the range, to make the shooting more realistic, without having too much impact on your slow ski training.

Nervous stress can be induced internally - such as by the athlete thinking 'this is an important race, only one chance, what if I get it wrong' and so on; or externally, by having a gang of hecklers behind the shooting range, or a loud PA. Both of these annoyances are worth training with, as you can learn to shut them out. (In the national sprint biathlon championships a couple of years ago I was on my stand shoot, having cleared my prone shoot; I had hit the first 3 targets, when I realised that the commentator was saying something like 'Hugh Pritchard is clear so far: can he do it?' - and of course I missed the last two.)

Doing little shooting competitions in training is a great way of introducing nervous stress - there are all sorts of variations on this theme - see the page on shooting exercises for some examples.