A winning Olympic biathlete can lower his heart rate and stress level in 20 seconds. These seven techniques will let you do the same thing, any time, anywhere.
By Tom Weede
A man with an Anschutz .22-calibre rifle slung securely across his back swiftly cross-country skies through rugged Alpine terrain, churning his legs forward and back as fast as he can, his heart rate pounding out 200 beats per minute. Suddenly, he pulls up, unslings his weapon, and in the space of a few seconds, slows his heart enough to steady his hands and mind and take aim at a tiny, unsuspecting target 50 metres away. He fires rapidly several times, the bullets tearing into their mark. His objective realised, he immediately takes off again, quickly pushing the lactic-acid levels in his legs back up to dangerously critical levels.
No, he isn’t a spy in a James Bond film. He’s a biathlete, a competitor in the winter Olympic sport of skiing and shooting that mixes intense, frantic physical exertion with finetuned, focused purpose.
It calls for the athlete to ski through courses measuring up to 20km, and, at multiple stations along the way, fire off a series of rapid rifle shots at distant bull’s-eyes, after first having lowered his heart rate from 200 beats per minute (that’s more than max for most of us).
As a result of the alternating demands of furious cardio and calm precision, these secret agents, er, biathletes have to know how to relax and focus in highly stressful situations. “Being aware of stress levels and dealing with that stress is a very, very important part of our sport,” says top-flight biathlete Jay Hakkinen, a four-time Olympian for the US, with a best-place finish of 10th at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. And it’s also an ability that allows a man to perform at his best at virtually anything. With the next Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi in Russia in 2014, we asked Hakkinen and other US biathlon team members and coaches for their advice on keeping cool and focused under fire, whether in the gym or out and about.
1. REMAIN CALM
On days when you’ll be called upon to do something stressful, practise staying relaxed throughout the day — as opposed to hastily trying to compose yourself when you’re about to give a presentation or line up a one-metre putt. “When you’re eating breakfast, don’t have animated conversations. Just eat your food, take it easy, relax,” says Hakkinen.
“I try to do that through the whole day. I really keep my energy level kind of low so I can use it for the race.”
2. TRAIN YOUR BODY
To be steady enough to shoot, an athlete has to bring his heart rate down from 200 or more beats per minute into the 140s, and this has to happen within seconds of arriving at the range. The better trained you are, the lower the lactate level in your blood and the less stress on your body — and therefore the faster your heart rate can drop, explains Algis Shalna, coach of the US biathlon team. “In untrained people, it can take three to five minutes; for trained people, around a minute; and for very, very well-trained people in very good shape, 20 seconds.”
You don’t need to go so far as to achieve a biathlete’s recovery time, but the ability to quickly slow your heart rate is a marker of overall aerobic fitness and will help your performance in nearly any sport. So if you aren’t doing a half-hour of cardio at least three days a week, start. Once you’ve been on a program for five or six weeks (start with walking and build up to running or cycling), add one interval-training session a week — alternating slower and faster speeds — recommends Dain LaRoche, exercise physiologist with the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital in Salt Lake city, who has worked with the US biathlon team.
Here’s a version of what biathletes do to condition themselves that will not only burn calories, but will improve your recovery time, leading to even better workouts. While doing cardio, after a 5-10-minute warm-up, pick up the pace for 3-5 minutes (don’t overdo it — try for an effort of 7 or 8 on a scale of 10) and then ease off for 3-5 minutes (down to about a 4). Repeat this several times, then warm down.
3. BREATHE DEEPLY
In addition to being in good condition, biathletes increase their ability to relax and lower their heart rates by breathing correctly, deeply inhaling and exhaling as they approach the shooting range during a race. “The biggest stimulus to breathe in the body isn’t a lack of oxygen, but a build-up of carbon dioxide,” says LaRoche. “And when you take some really big deep breaths, you’re blowing off a lot of air. You can drop the CO2 that’s in the body, and then there’s not a really strong stimulus to breathe (fast).”
As your breathing slows, so does your heart rate. Also, by exhaling extra CO2, you counteract the lactic-acid build-up in your muscles, adds LaRoche. This adds up to improved shooting for biathletes — and faster recovery between intervals for the rest of us.
By reversing the effort and relaxation phases of your breath cycle, you can achieve a similar effect, says former marathon runner Ian Jackson, author of The BreathPlay Approach to Whole Life Fitness (amazon.com). Practise the following technique in a comfortable setting before taking it to the gym or on a run, and stop if you feel dizzy, faint or short of breath: Instead of taking air in and passively letting it out, push the air out and passively let it in.
Breathe out with a strong, deliberate abdominal contraction, pulling your belly back. By pulling your belly back to push the air out, you displace your abdominal contents up against the underside of the diaphragm. This creates a higher volume-out breath, which then creates a higher volume-in breath.
On the in breath, simply relax your stomach so that the inflowing air can effortlessly fill the empty lung space. This technique will relax you by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, says Jackson, who coached 1984 Olympic gold-medal-winning US cyclist Alexi Grewal. As a bonus you’ll strengthen your abs.
In the gym, make sure to exhale on the positive phase of a movement and inhale on the negative.
4. CONTROL YOUR PACE
Hakkinen recalls the time a Canadian biathlete hit all the targets in the last shooting stage, but got so pumped up that he became overly fatigued and slowed down for the rest of the race. “Going into the last loop… he just started out as fast as he could, and the lactate accumulated. He went too hard, so for the rest of the loop he was just plodding along. His body couldn’t handle it.”
“In a biathlon athletes ski around courses up to 20km long and, at multiple stations along the way, fire rapid rifle shots at distant bulls-eyes.”
Whether you’re doing a regular resistance routine, running a 5K, or even organising a project at work, the same principle applies: don’t focus all of your energy on any particular task to the point of burnout. For example, it’s easy to get caught up in the rush of the crowd at the beginning of an organised run and start out faster than you should. Determine how much you’ve got to give and pace yourself so you’ll have something left for a kick at the end.
5. MAKE IT MECHANICAL
One way to reduce stress is by practising something over and over until it becomes automatic. The biathlon team trains year-round, and a key to its training is repetition — “doing the drills until the autopilot turns on”, as Coach Shalna puts it.
“If you’re confident in the preparation you’ve done, and in your own abilities, then that itself is kind of a stress relief,” says Lawton Redman, another US biathlete. “If you know you’ve done everything you can, there’s really not a whole lot to get nervous about. You just go out and give it your best shot.”
But biathletes can miss their targets, just as the rest of us miss free throws or lose our train of thought. So what happens if you fall out of the automatic mode and mess up? “You definitely have to stop,” says team member Jeremy Teela, who deals with such times by taking two breaths, closing his eyes for a second and then starting over. “I jump back into it, just like I would if it was a new shooting,” he says. “And then I shoot the next shots just as fast as normal…so I totally clear what I just did (from my mind) and then start over.”
6. KEEP YOUR PERSPECTIVE
Hakkinen recently had some blisters on his heels that took him out of his regular training routine, and he started worrying about the not-too-far-off Olympics. “You can’t stress about it; you have to work through it and maybe work on other areas,” he says. “Everything works out in the end.”
“To be steady enough to shoot, a biathlete has to bring his here rate down from 200 beats per minute into the 140s within seconds of arriving at the range.”
“A lot of people get stressed out thinking about things that are out of their control, or things that aren’t going to happen for a long time,” says Teela. “Sometimes you can’t think about everything at once; you just have to live day by day.” The biathlon, he adds, has helped him “focus on the day-to-day things and not worry about things that are coming up in the future. If you worry about all the problems along the way in life at one time, you’re going to freak out.”
7. CHANGE YOUR MIND
Even Coach Shalna, who won the 1984 Olympic biathlon gold medal, admits he’s found it tough to breathe before he has to do something stressful, like give a public lecture. “The more you think about it, the more anxiety you have,” he says.
The best way to reduce stress is to get your mind off the matter itself, Shalna advises. You might do this by cracking a joke, asking a question that will turn the focus away from the event, talking with a friend, stretching, even — as Shalna used to do — singing a song in your head. “You have to turn your mind to something else, immediately, to let the anxiety go away, let the blood pressure come down, let the heart rate go down.”
Of course, unless you plan to compete in the biathlon or star in a James Bond film, you’ll probably never be asked to ski full-out and then shoot at a far-off target. But just knowing how to relax quickly and focus will help you — as it does these guys — to achieve more in all of your pursuits.