Summer 2021 could easily be called, “Biathlon’s Summer of Altitude” because almost every team devoted multiple camps to training and living in the thin air at 1600 meters and up. The reason is simple: the 2022 Olympic Winter Games biathlon venue, the Kuyangshu Nordic and Biathlon Center is situated at 1665 meters. Olympic success will depend on being well-prepared to deal with conditions in the Chinese venue’s dry, oxygen-thin air.
Any given week might find the German, Italian, French, Swedish, Slovenian teams or a dozen others crossing paths at places like 1600-meter Antholz, 1800-meter Font Romeu, 1700-meter Martell, 1750-meter Haute Maurienne or the new training center at 1800-meter Passo Lavazè.
An article published earlier this year in the Journal of Science in Sport and Exercise, “Preparing for the Nordic Skiing Events at the Beijing Olympics in 2022” simplifies the reasoning, “The current commentary provides the following evidence-based recommendations for the Olympic preparations: make sure to have extensive experience of training (> 60 days annually) and competition at or above the altitude of competition (~ 1700 m), to optimize and individualize your strategies for acclimatization and competition.”
Teams set up their summer training with stints at home and the usual low-altitude spots punctuated with doses of altitude training from 1-3 weeks. Although everyone has the same goals, each coach and team approached this task slightly differently.
Lukas “careful with intensities and rest”
Sweden’s Johannes Lukas explained his philosophy during the team’s 21-day camp at Font Romeu. “For me the balance point is that in the first four days, you can only train too hard. You have to get a good feeling for how the athletes feel and sleep and do a lot of lactate tests the first days to make sure no one is going too fast. Then we took a rest day early in the first week. Then when we started interval sessions, we got a good picture of how they adapted. My plan is to take it seriously easy the first four days, be careful the first week and then we are safe. 10 days into the camp, all is good. You just have to be careful with intensities and resting. The afternoon sessions are not too stressful, just focused on volume. You cannot mix it up like at home. The recovery time is much longer than at home.”
Finland’s Two-week Training Blocks
Finland’s Jonne Kähkönen explained how he set up his team from a country that has no domestic opportunities for altitude training. “This year was not that much different, for the past few years, I systematically wanted to get the athletes used to altitude, see changes in the body, and know what they needed to train well there…I made our plan to stay and train at an altitude similar to what we would experience in Beijing…Our standard block of training is two weeks, which we have done twice at Antholz; I typically go with blocks of three training days and an easy day. We also had a 3-week camp at Martell which is my max, which simulates a winter trimester, which would normally be followed by an easy week.”
Auchentaller “three to five days to acclimate”
The US Biathlon team uses a similar approach to the Swedish team, with three-week camps, one in Antholz/Ramsau and a second that just started at Soldier Hollow, Utah the 2002 Olympic venue. Armin Auchentaller explained, “We are doing those two camps, then another at medium altitude Obertilliach and maybe will do another load over Christmas…The more you are at altitude, the more you get used to it and get more experience. The body reacts differently in the thin air so you have to know how to train and race. Most of the time when we go to altitude, we adapt for three to five days and then add harder intensities after a good acclimatization. This is all proven by science. You have to hydrate well because otherwise you will not feel well and at the same time monitor sleep, because at the beginning some people do not sleep well.” Regarding rest and recovery, he added, “We try to start early for the first session and have longer break before the second session, because the body recovers a little slower. People are usually really tired after lunch; you just get that feeling that you are at altitude. Afternoons are easy and for recovery, especially after morning intensity…We go four day blocks and then take a rest day, which is a little more frequent than our normal approach.”
Training Hard and Well
In putting together their plans for the proper amount and intensity of altitude training, all of the coaches think the mental aspect is important. Lukas admitted, “After ten days, everyone is tired, but this is not just because of the altitude. We trained well and hard. It is the hard training; they would be just as tired doing the same work at home. It is the challenge of the coach to have a balance between training slowly because of the altitude, but we can still train. Nobody has to be afraid. We do not want the athletes to go to Beijing and only think about the altitude.”
Shooting Range Adjustments
Part of the altitude conundrum comes on the shooting range. The targets are the same size and distance away, but at 1700 meters, adjustments can be important in the approach, breathing or shot cadence. Kähkönen explained, “The athlete can shoot at the same cadence with one breath between shots, but sometimes need two. Still the athlete needs to be smart enough to know that they need to take an extra breath instead of not taking a bad shot. What is really important is that you need to take big breaths before you actually start.”
Breathing and Approach
Auchentaller agreed about adapting and doing what is necessary to close the targets. “Shooting at altitude is different. The breathing is different; you have an increased breathing cycle, generally. You need to adapt, and learn how many breathing cycles you need before you get to the first shot. The approach makes some difference; if it is downhill, it may be close to normal, if there is an uphill like Antholz, you might need an extra breath, but the athletes adapt quickly. In the end, the goal is to hit the targets.”
Keys to Success
There is nothing magic about altitude training or any one venue according to Auchentaller. Font Romeu, Antholz, Pass Lavazè, Antholz: “These are all good places. All the nations have the same science and it is not a big secret about the benefits of altitude training.”
Preparing for success at Beijing 2022’s 1665-meter Kuyangshu Nordic and Biathlon Center or a similar venue like Antholz comes down to a several key points: gradual acclimation, closely monitoring athletes both physically and mentally, adjusting rest and recovery time, and making necessary individual changes on the shooting range.
Lukas summed up his feelings about the Swedish team’s recent success and their approach to Beijing 2022’s altitude with thoughts similar to what his peers are thinking. “Actually, I am not worried about it. I am happy with the job we did last year; It was an amazing season. The Olympics are obviously the most important, but it is just another moment. It is a long travel to get there, a big time change; it is the altitude, the cold, dry air, so easy to get sick. There are so many things that you cannot influence. We are going there to win medals. That is clear, but I do not get stressed about it. I think we are well prepared and ready for it.”
Photos: IBU/Christian Manzoni, Jerry Kokesh, Nastassia Kinnunen, Svensk Skidskytte/Hakan Blidberg, Lukas Hofer