A Peek Into Biathlon Training With US Olympian Clare Egan

A Peek Into Biathlon Training With US Olympian Clare Egan

Winter Olympic biathlete Clare Egan shares a sneak peek into the world of biathlon training and competition, just in time for her second Olympic games.

Photo courtesy of Clare Egan

Biathletes are elite nordic skiers capable of high aerobic output interspersed with precise shooting using 22 caliber rifles. Involved in the execution is not only world-class fitness but also an internalization of proper technique and the understanding of environmental factors like terrain and wind. The competitive biathlete is a product of year-round conditioning, repetitive practice, and psychological preparation which develops the ability to perform well under pressure.

Biathlon Definition and Basics

Biathlon is unique because it requires training for two disparate skills: target shooting and nordic skiing. Biathletes compete at varying distances and target shoot multiple times in a race, depending on the length of the event. In each event, regardless of distance, athletes must hit five targets with only five bullets after each lap. For every missed shot, there are penalty loops or added time. To win, athletes need to shoot clean and ski fast.

Watching biathletes compete highlights the task at hand. They’re racing at high-speed then gliding into the shooting area, fluidly dropping poles, preparing rifles, and then either standing or prone shooting as quickly and as precisely as possible before heading back out for another dose of exhausting work. It seems that biathletes are masters of their breathing, finding steadiness while their heart rate is still elevated. 

Target Shooting and the Importance of Equipment 

“Shooting is kind of similar to basketball free throws,” says Clare Egan, a successful US World Cup biathlete who is about to head into her second Olympic games. “It’s a repeatable task — you have to physically learn to shoot and then repeat over and over.” Egan noted that a shooting average of 90% is really good and something only a few athletes in the world are capable of doing. 80% shot average is still excellent in the World Cup circuit. This means perfection is not frequent and penalty laps are expected.

As one of the top-ranked US biathletes, Egan explains that shooting practice begins yearly in May where the team reassesses the basics including body position and any changes in rifle stock or other equipment. In the first part of the season, the team trains shooting and skiing separately, spending two to three hours every morning and one to two hours in the afternoon in this preparatory phase. 

“It took me seven years of changing around equipment every year, but I’ve been set for the past four years,” said Egan, referring to her eleven years on the US Biathlon Team. She’s had four different stocks in that time period and is now happy with the size, shape, and material of her current setup. 

The stock on a biathlon rifle is the part that supports the barrel and action mechanisms and is built for performance, taking into consideration weight and ergonomics. It is designed specifically for each athlete. Egan’s stock is made of wood overlaid with carbon. She noted that beyond the technical specs required for World Cup standards, there is a wide range of preferences and each athlete learns what works for their own body. For example, her own long torso means her stock is taller so that she can assume comfortable, effective shooting positions. 

Biathlon Training 101

While US biathletes average up to four hours a day building the muscle memory and precision that will allow execution on the range on race day, they’re also spending the early season roller skiing, running, biking, and weight training — all of which add up to over 20 hours of training a week. In addition, working with a sports psychologist helps athletes build the mental resilience to perform under immense pressure.

“Both mental and physical skills are important,” said Egan. “The whole transition to shooting in a race takes around 25-30 seconds total so there really isn’t time to catch your breath. You arrive, drop your poles, load the rifle, take position, aim, rebolt, repeat, then pick up your poles and leave.” 

Egan said a current trend is not breathing at all while in the range, but it’s not something everyone is doing. Instead, there is a strategy that encourages calm. “You don’t hammer into the shooting mat. Instead, the end of your current race lap ends about 150m before that, where you’re slowing down a bit, checking the flagpole for wind conditions, adjusting your sight so you can see straight, assessing how many people are in front of you, and then maneuvering into position.” 

How Clare Egan Became a US Biathlon Favorite

Egan has twice shot a perfect 20/20 in the World Cup season and also 10/10 twice, but the road to the top of the US squad wasn’t easy. As an athlete who was a nordic skier first, Egan was motivated to try biathlon by a former Russian gold medalist who was working with athletes in Vermont where she was training. Her first experiences were marked by a lack of shooting skill which she found clashed with her own high expectations of performance. “It was not fun in the penalty loop,” she recalls.

Now, in her eleventh season, Egan enjoys the rigor and demand of her sport and is at the top of her game. Her journey, and that of any high-level biathlete, is a testament to the hours of time spent mastering precise physical skills, building enduring fitness, and honing the resilient mental fortitude to compete with the best in the world.

Follow the US Biathlon Olympic and World Cup action here:

2022 Olympic Biathlon Schedule

2022 World Cup Biathlon Schedule

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