Imagine yourself racing on cross-country skis, your heart pounding, a rifle slung across your back. You round a corner and approach a shooting range ringed by thousands of screaming spectators. You ski up to your shooting lane and have to squeeze off rounds — accurately — into target 50 metres away.
This is what biathletes do day in and day out, and come race time they have to do it perfectly in order to be successful.
Contrary to popular belief, biathletes don’t dramatically lower their heart rate as they transition from skiing to shooting. Instead, they learn to quickly relax their mind and muscles in order to accurately shoot through their still-pounding heart rate.
During the skiing portion of the biathlon, a competitor’s heart rate can soar to 180 beats per minute or more — roughly twice the average resting rate. Top male biathletes aim to bring their heart rate down to between 160 and 165 as they get ready to shoot, but the rest is mostly mental.
From a psychological and a focus point of view, it’s like a Zen state they’re focusing on the feeling of their finger on the trigger, and looking down the sights.
How do biathletes get into this state and focus on the task at hand? Whilst there is acres of advice available on relaxation techniques, mere mortals like us can learn a thing or two from the techniques athletes use:
The Feldenkrais Method, identifies a series of techniques that emphasizes the connection between movement and thought make athletes aware of their body’s function and accept the peculiarities thereof without trying to change anything, any conscious effort to change the way the body is reacting to a situation only increases tension.”
Feldenkrais movements, which are performed lying down with eyes upward, are “suited to blocking out the actions of others around you, an important skill when you’re elbow to elbow with other racers on the course or firing range.
Biathletes generally start adjusting their ski speed right before hitting the shooting range, and start to narrow their focus to everything that’s important at that moment such as the current wind speed and the shooting lane that’s assigned to them. Once they’re in the lane, their focus shrinks again to just everything in that one lane, As soon as they have the rifle in position and [are] starting to look through the sights, their focus goes down to the trigger and looking down the sights.”
And this doesn’t apply just on race days. Athletes using this technique are in demand to do public speaking, host events and participate in a variety of activities off the track that require the same kind of focus. In these non-athletic settings, they simply physically relax their bodies [and] use these techniques to find their calm.
Once they’re on the shooting range, biathletes try as much as possible to keep the rib cage from expanding and contracting at the top of the body, to keep the alignment of the rifle from moving, The key is to regulate.
The techniques biathletes practice with physiology specialists aren’t that different from what you might encounter in a yoga or meditation class
The breathing exercises they go through are exactly the same sort of thing a person would do in a time of stress if they had to move away from a state where everything is getting away from them to having to effectively deal with something in the moment.