What is Biathlon? A beginner’s guide

By: Toby Martin-Kohls

Biathlon is a sport that combines cross-country skiing and rifle shooting. Athletes compete on a circuit where they stop to shoot at a set of tiny targets on a shooting range. In addition, they ski with rifles carried on their backs, which adds another level of difficulty while skiing. 

Each race has a set distance, and the number of laps is determined by what race is going on. Every race has at least one trip into the range where athletes shoot at the targets in the prone position, which is lying down on their stomachs, and one where they stand and shoot. 

The tiny targets are 50m away from the shooting mat. That equates to 164ft and is about nine-tenths of The Leaning Tower of Pisa, half the height of the Statue of Liberty, or half the length of a soccer pitch.

The target size varies depending on the position the athlete is shooting from, prone or standing. Since standing is considered harder, the targets are 115mm wide, equaling 4.5in. That’s four and a half quarters wide for comparison. 

The size of the targets while shooting in the prone position is only 45mm wide, which equals 1.77in. That’s around the size of 2 quarters. The target would be just smaller.

Besides the target size and the range length, biathletes have other factors making it hard to hit the targets. Heart rate and muscle fatigue play a significant role in shooting accuracy. Imagine running as hard as you can while holding weights for, let’s say, 10 minutes straight and having to very precisely aim a rifle at a tiny target 50m away. Your arms are probably shaking, and you have to get your breathing under control.

Every time athletes come into the shooting range; they shoot at a set of 5 of those targets. If they miss, they usually have to ski a penalty loop for every target they miss. The loop is an extra 150m (490 ft) added to the original race distance. These usually take around 20 seconds for the athletes to complete.

The only times biathletes might not ski the penalty loop is the individual race, where if you miss, you get an added minute onto your time. And the relays, where biathletes get three spare rounds they must manually load into their rifle. If they use the extra rounds and still miss, then penalty loop(s) are required.

Good shooting times for women are around 30 seconds on the range, while good shooting times for men are around 20 seconds in total. You will see the biathletes take the most time until their first shot, getting their breathing under control and their rifle steady. Then men usually take around 2sec between shots and women around 3sec. 

Most biathletes shoot the targets from right to left, as it’s the easiest way to do so. However, some shoot left to right, and some start from the middle and go right or left after. There is no rule about which order you shoot the targets in.

Types of races

There are a few different disciplines in biathlon. The first is the sprint and the pursuit races. The Sprint race is 7.5km for women and 10km for men. Each shoot twice, one in the prone and then one standing. The sprint format is a time trial. The starting times for the pursuit are based on the sprint race results. The pursuit is 10 km for women and 12.5km for men. Both shoot four times total, two in the prone and two standing. They alternate, with the first time into the range in the prone position, the next in the standing position, and so on.

Then there is the mass start, which is self-explanatory. It is 12.5km for women and 15km for men. They shoot four times in total.

There is the individual race, the longest race for each gender. As I explained above, this race values shooting a bit more than the others. It is better to be accurate and take more time on the range than try and shoot fast, as you get a 1 min penalty for every target you miss. The race is 15km for women and 20km for men.

Lastly, there are the relays. The men’s relay is 4×7.5km, and the women’s relay is 4x6km. There is also the mixed relay, two men and two women, and the single mixed relay with one man and one woman. Teams are by country.

The person who wins the overall for each gender wins the trophy known as the Crystal Globe.

In addition, there are nine World Cups throughout the season, not including the World Championships in February.

The season starts this Tuesday, November 29, in Kontiolahti, Finland. After that, the World Cups will stop in Austria, France, Slovenia, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Sweden and end with Norway in mid-March.

How you can watch

You can watch all replays this season at: youtube.com/@BiathlonCentral1.

My opinion

I enjoy watching this sport because the shooting adds another aspect to the race, keeping it interesting. I’ve tried watching Nordic Skiing, and the distances are very long, and it only comes down to who is the fastest over a distance. Maybe there are some passes during the race, but the fastest person wins.

Biathlon keeps things varied during races; you can gain and lose positions because of the track or the range. The wax you use, your ski speed, your shooting accuracy, there are so many factors that make or break the racing. That is what makes it an exciting and fan-friendly sport.

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