Shoot, ski, record: How biathletes use tech to stay on target

Lowell Bailey Biathlon

At first glance, biathlon looks like a sport invented by the X-Games brain trust to make two distinctly different, distinctly unexciting skill sets feel cooler. After all, cross-country skiing and target shooting boast roughly the same natural, symbiotic relationship as fishes and bicycles, and neither discipline features fast-and-furious action.

But as much as the sport might feel like a modern invention, it’s actually an old-school, no-nonsense affair. Norwegian art dating back more than 4,000 years depicts men hunting while on skis, and soldiers even skied into battle during 18th century conflicts such as the Great Scandinavian War. By the time biathlon was introduced as a medal event in the 1960 games in Squaw Valley, the sport had an established history, one decidedly low on bells and whistles.

Although it remains inherently simple, biathlon has embraced technology to help its athletes sharpen their skills, especially in the United States. An American has never medaled in biathlon, but if 2014 marks the breakthrough, perhaps the U.S. will have a bit of gadgetry to thank for its showing. We spoke with former two-time Olympic and current US World Cup Team biathlete Lowell Bailey, who shared thoughts on the 21st century advancements fueling biathlon.

Shoot, watch, repeat

When every movement counts, sometimes video of your training can be a crucial bridge to improvement. But traditional video equipment never made the shooting and reviewing process easy.

“All we’re looking for is ways that we can improve.”

“We used to do a lot with video cameras and found that a lot of times, getting the video off the camera and onto a computer or TV in order to analyze the video would be very difficult,” says Bailey. These days, the camera and the screen come together in a much simpler package that’s already familiar to many coaches and athletes. “The iPad is really indispensable for their purposes,” Bailey explains.

For athletes, the iPad’s biggest advantage is its portability. Just put the tablet in a backpack, ski out to the course, and record practice. The ease of using it is also one of the key selling points for Bailey. Because so little setup is required, coaches can post themselves at various sections, start recording in an instant, and not miss an instant.

“There’s so much going on every second,” notes Bailey. “If you’re messing around trying to set up a video camera, or turn on some device or something, by the time you have it turned on, half the time what you wanted to record is already done.”

That speed and immediacy is paramount, even if quality is lacking. “It’s not the highest definition,” concedes Bailey of the video. “It’s not a movie quality picture, but what it does give you is a good representation of what you’re doing, either on the ski course or with the biomechanics of shooting. All we’re looking for is ways that we can improve. Ways that we can be more efficient.”

Being able to review footage in the field, rather than waiting to get back to the lodge, is also crucial. “Say it’s a 100-meter section of the trail, maybe a gradual climb. That dictates you’ll be using a certain ski technique,” Bailey explains. “You can have a coach with an iPad at the top of the hill. You can do repeats at that hill and change little nuances to the technique each time and in real time, review what you just did 10 seconds ago. That’s a huge advantage.”

Put a watch on it

Every athlete’s heart gets pounding in the middle of their sport, but for biathletes, who must takes a steady rifle shot after heavy exertion, understanding and controlling heart rate is even more crucial.

“One mark of being in top, peak shape is that your heart rate will drop really quick.”

According to Bailey, many biathletes use Polar heart monitors that look pretty much like regular sport watches, but with GPS tracking embedded. The watch records their heart rate along with variables like distance and altitude during the workout. The data is then plugged into a laptop, uploaded to a website database, and analyzed for information often critical to success. Heart-rate monitoring allows you to be proactive and stay on top of any situation.

“There’s a bunch of things you can tell from looking at the data collected from a heart rate file,” says Bailey. “One of the real simple ones is just average heart rate.” An athlete might go for a three-hour run at a target heart rate, then repeat it later in the season to look for a lower average heart rate over the same distance, indicating an improvement in fitness.

“You can also see how your heart rate responds to different terrain,” adds Bailey. “You can see where your heart rate peaks. You can see where your heart rate spikes. You can see recovery time, which is really important for biathletes because you’re always coming from these high intensity situations out on the ski course and into the ski range. You want to be as highly trained as possible. One mark of being in top, peak shape is that your heart rate will drop really quick.”

Lowell Bailey Biathlon

Heart monitors also allow biathletes to predict illness and prevent injury. “If you go out and do a workout and see that your heart rates are maybe a lot higher than expected, a lot of times that’ll mean you’re at the front end of a sickness,” notes Bailey. “You can take the necessary measures to ratchet back the intensity of that workout.”

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