Getting Physical
The basic training for winter Biathlon is cross country freestyle skiing, also called skating. Unlike traditional cross country skiing where the skis are parallel, this technique is closer to rollerblading with ski poles. I think the technique should be renamed blade skiing for this reason. The skier alternates pushing off and gliding on each ski, as Russia's Biathlon gold medal winner Galina Kouklova demonstrates to the right.

I live in the San Francisco Bay area, however, so I need dry land training techniques to build endurance and speed when not on snow at Lake Tahoe. I mostly use running, road biking, mountain biking, rollerblading, and roller skiing. Mountain biking is an excellent choice, especially hill climbing, as it puts a similar load on your legs as a cross country ski race. I hear kayaking is also a great way to develop the upper body muscles that you use with your cross country ski poles.

Roller skis are short cross country skis for dry land training. They have polyurethane wheels, cross country skate bindings, and are used with normal cross country ski boots and poles for training in summer. I've found them much harder to stop than rollerblades, so I've only taken them on flat and moderately sloped trails so far. They simulate cross country skiing surprisingly well and require good technique to use effectively. Pulling a weight or fellow athlete will safely simulate steep hills.

I sort my exercises into three categories. The categories are strength, endurance, and speed. Sometimes I'll mix a couple but for the most part I'll focus my running or skiing practice on one of these for a given day. The endurance workouts take a long time so those are reserved for days with lots of spare time, like Saturday and Sunday. I think for Biathlon training interval speed workouts are very important when added to a good base of endurance work.
The basic speed workout is intervals. Instead of running 5 kilometers at one pace, I break up the run into 400 meter sprints with two minute rest periods between each one. Don't forget a warm up and warm down run at an easy pace to prevent injury. I'll also do short sprint workouts, where I use maximum output for ten or sixty seconds up a steep incline if possible. These are brutal, and may require a longer rest. Good rest periods are not stationary, but are instead exercising at a very easy pace so your body can recover and move lactic acid out of your muscles.

Training shorter distances at higher speeds is very good for your cardiovascular strength, muscle strength, and helps get your muscles used to working at faster paces. If you only train at one pace, you would find it harder to go faster in the race.

A heavy track running workout would be a couple 15 minute runs at a strong pace, followed by ten 800 meter (half mile) fast intervals, then four 400 meter (quarter mile) fast intervals. Double these distances on skis or multiply by four or five for biking.

Sometimes when I'm not up for the full intensity of intervals. I'll run an easier pace and vary the speed slightly for each mile or run in hilly terrain. Hills are a great way to vary your intensity like an interval, since you run up and down at different speeds. They make the run much more interesting as well. If you don't live near any hills, you can instead run on flat terrain at a race pace for 10 minutes, then an easier jog for 10 minutes, then race for 10, etc.
I use two types of strength building exercises, weights or workouts in hills. Since I want my muscles to be strong but usable, most of my weight training uses a higher number of repetitions. I try to do each exercise 30 to 50 times in a set. I do as many sets as possible or have time for. Examples of weight training exercises include:

  • isolate ham strings, quadracepts, calves
  • isolate lower quadracepts (supporting your knee)
  • pull ups and dips, at partial weight thanks to a Gravitron, and push ups inclined against a table.
  • abdominal crunches, abdominal oblique exercises
  • leg abductors (the outsides of your hip)
  • lunges (working your butt and hamstrings)
  • pull downs, back, and shoulder exercises

Other good strength workouts involve running or skiing in difficult terrain or using only specific muscles. For running, I'll do interval training at slower speeds but up steep inclines. Running up a 10% incline is excellent cardiovascular exercise while building stronger leg muscles. The ten to twenty second sprint exercises I mentioned above are also great strength workouts when done up a steep ascent, and can really burn your calves.

When running, try bounding up hills with large giant steps. Try skiing without using poles or only using double poling. Jumping exercises are good strength building drills, too.
I used to exercise near my maximum heart rate and I'd burn out after only 30 minutes. This trains your body to sprint but not to last in a long race. If you only did speed training, your muscles would be quick but wouldn't have the ability to process suger and remove lactic acid quickly. For the distances in your typical winter biathlon race, between 7 km and 20 km, you'll need your muscles to work closer to an aerobic range than just in an anaerobic sprint.

Another effect of too much speed training is cramping in a race. If your muscles are strong but don't have sufficient capillary density to move suger and lactic acid, and a high threshold for acid in your muscle, you'll find one or more of your muscles cramping and painful in longer races. Endurance training develops muscles that can exercise near their anaerobic threshold for long periods of time.

A common problem with beginning athletes is they train too hard. It doesn't feel right to go out for a long run and intentionally hold back the pace. The goal of this training, however, is to stay near but below your anaerobic threshold -- so the training won't feel hard at all. You should be tired at the end from the long duration and not the intensity.

A common way now to hold back is to use a heart rate monitor to guage your intensity. You may workout at roughly 70% of your maximum heart rate to stay aerobic. I have a monitor from Cardiosport which I use from time to time to learn how each intensity level (heart rate) feels like. You should plan at least half of your workouts at this intensity but for long durations (two or three hours.)

roller skis