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Tips and exercises for training like an Olympic biathlete

Biathlon: a cross-country ski race with a carbine on the shoulders. Ski, stop, crouch, aim, focus, shoot at the target, get up, ski, repeat until the end. Does it sounds easy? It is not easy at all. In fact, biathlon, which is very popular in Northern Europe, is a complex sport where physical and mental effort follow one another.

Saverio Zini, born in Livigno in 1994, is an athlete of the Courmayeur Army Sports Centre and from this year member of the Italian biathlon World Cup national team. He knows that his first national debut planned for the World Championships in Anterselva 2020 will be an important one for him: it will be the first biathlon world championship in Italy in 13 years.

View of Anterselva
We ask Zini what kind of mental focus is needed to compete in a biathlon competition: "There are two different foci in a biathlon competition: we have to distinguish between technical focus as we ski - and on breathing to maintain a certain constancy in effort - and mental focus as we shoot".

Different types of focus for many thoughts that run through the various kilometres of the race. It is natural to ask the young biathlete what goes on in his head during a race. Zini replies: "There is no real thought, you don't think of anything in particular. The difficulty in biathlon is being able to control the physical effort, because you experience a range of heartbeats between medium and fast and especially at the time of shooting you have to be able to control your breathing to get a good aim.”

A sport that knows no rest
Described in these terms, biathlon looks like a sport where there is no respite. Is that really the case?  "Yes - says Zini - especially to shoot it would be better to have some 'peace of mind, but you never have it! Also because the psychological factor takes over: maybe you have another athlete at your side who shoots with you. When you are at the range, you have to be able to close yourself in a bubble, to get away from what is the outside world. Just be yourself, the carbine and the target".

Biathlon is a hard sport, where muscle training must be at least equal to mental training. Without it, you do not go anywhere.

A hard sport indeed, but certainly not without joys and emotions. What is the thing about biathlon that Saverio Zini likes the most? "The difficulty - Zini answers - nothing is ever decided until the last shot, until the moment you pass the finish line, and there are many variables that can lead you to make a good result or make a bad one. I like complexity. It's love and hate then, because many times when things go wrong you think "Who made me do it?", but when everything turns out well it's very satisfying.”
High speed in short circuit descents
Saverio Zini is one of those who put on a pair of skis very early. "When did I start? On skis at about 5 years old, starting with cross-country skiing. Then in 2009, when I was 14, I tried biathlon and I liked it immediately, and from there I started to practice it seriously".

Isn’t 14 years old a little late? "Just because in Italy you can't use the carbine under 14 years of age - points out Zini – before that you are limited to shoot with compressed air

A sport born from the military

The kind of agonistic biathlon Saverio Zini practices comes from a much more rudimentary past. In fact, if we take biathlon as the sporting act of shooting while skiing, then the first ever evidences we have of this practice date back to the third millennia BC, with cave paintings in Scandinavia depicting men hunting on rudimentary skis.

The practice never left Scandinavia – whose biathletes are still to this day some of the best in the world - and it moved from hunting to the military. Already in the Middle Age, skiing soldiers from Scandinavia were widely used and appreciated for their tactical use and field mobility, allowing them to win battles against foes many times larger than their numbers. Starting from the military, the first biathlon competition took place in 1767, with border patrols between Sweden and Norway competing on a shooting contest while on ski.

A sport born from the harsh military discipline
From there, it did not take long for biathlon to become a fully-fledged sport, with sports institutions being created all around Europe. In 1954, the Olympic Committee accepted biathlon as a winter sport.

Saverio Zini's biathlon training

With biathlon moving out of the military branch, this sport required more and more specific athletic preparation, both during the summer and winter season. In fact, despite being a strictly winter sport, summer is the period where much of the training is concentrated.
Biathlon training lasts all year round
During summer, biathlon athletes focus on improving their stamina, given the length of the competitions they attend. Therefore, they do a lot of running, cycling – either off or on road – and roller skiing, the latter of which replicates the movement of cross-country ski the closest.

Regarding the rifle shooting aspect of biathlon, biathletes refine their shooting skills with stationary shooting at the shooting range.

To work on the combined shooting and cardio effort, biathletes usually bring a treadmill or a stationary bike to the shooting range, in order to elevate the heart rate between shooting sessions.

Lastly, biathletes need to work on their strength training, working out at the gym on an almost daily basis. Olympic biathletes, as Saverio Zini knows really well, in fact train somewhere between 5 to 8 hours every day during summer months, and despite the heavy focus on the lower body, they require strength development all round. To achieve this, they perform a number of exercises, among which:

Kettlebell lunges

This exercise is extremely useful to boost up the stride on the cross-country ski aspect of biathlon. Start with your torso upright holding two dumbbells in your hands by your sides.
Lunges with kettlebell
Step forward with your right leg around 2 feet or so from the foot being left stationary behind and lower your upper body down, while keeping the torso upright and maintaining balance. Inhale as you go down. Do not make your knee go beyond your toes as you come down, as this will put undue stress on the knee joint. Pushing upward with the heel of your foot, go back to the starting position as you exhale.

Repeat the movement for the recommended amount of repetitions and then perform with the left leg.

Shoulder press

This exercise allows the biathlete to hold the rifle for longer without the fatigue on arms and shoulders. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, sit on a bench with your back leaning on the support. Raise both dumbbells to shoulder height. That is the starting position of the exercise. Make sure to rotate your wrists so that the palms of your hands are facing forward. Now, exhale and push the dumbbells upward until they touch at the top.
Military press with barbell
Hold the position for one second, and then slowly lower the weights back down to the starting position while inhaling. Repeat for the recommended amount of repetitions.

Loaded calf raises

This version of the loaded calf raises is performed on the leg press and it is especially useful as it allows focusing solely on the calves. Lie on the leg-press machine with your back lying firmly on the back.

Straighten your legs completely pushing against the press and carefully walk your feet down the foot platform until your heels hang off the end.

Loaded calf raises with leg press
Keeping your legs straight, rise up on your tiptoes as high as you can and then lower down until your heels are below the level of the footplate. Keep repeating the exercise for the number of reps prescribed.

After you complete all the reps, carefully walk your feet back to the centre of the footplate before bending your knees and lowering the weights.

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