Today’s Top Science Headline: “Hacking the Human Body” –What Winning the Biathlon Olympic Gold Means





"It’s like running up a flight of stairs as fast as you can and then trying to thread a needle.” Every second counts in biathlon. Or, as seen Sunday in Martin Fourcade’s .04-second victory for France over Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, every sliver of a second counts. What’s even more, the abilities these 2018 Olympic biathletes champion are not naturally compatible; in fact, the exertion from cross-country skiing paired with the focus needed to shoot a gun are at odds, requiring control of the body that teeters on superhuman strength.

In biathlon, reports today's Inverse, a tradition that dates back to 18th-century Norwegian military competitions, athletes compete in a combination of cross-country skiing and marksmanship events. The skiing is broken up every five kilometers (about 3 miles) by target shooting, alternating between standing, where targets are 4.5-inch diameter circles, and prone (lying down), where targets are only 1.8 inches across. The events vary in length, including a 20-kilometer (12.4-mile) race, 10-kilometer (6.2-mile) “sprint,” single- and mixed-gender relays, and a few other distances, all of which combine skiing and shooting. Either of these tasks is challenging on its own, but things get really tough when you switch from one to the other.


Imagine: You’ve skied cross-country for five kilometers focusing on the path ahead of you, blocking out the world while you exert yourself, going as hard as you can to thrust forward with your poles and push yourself onward with your skis. Then you get to the shooting range, and you have to not just stop but you have to stand still. In that stillness, with your heart pounding in your chest and your lungs gulping for air, you shoulder your rifle to shoot at targets 50 meters (164 feet) away. You only get one shot per target. If you aim a single degree too low or too high, you could miss the tiny target by feet. And if you miss, you get a time penalty that could cost you the medal.

“You’re watching the target come in and out of your sight,” Sara Studebaker-Hall, a U.S. Olympic biathlon competitor, tells Popular Science. “The example we give to people is it’s like running up a flight of stairs as fast as you can and then trying to thread a needle.”

In a study published in the November 2017 issue of the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, researchers who examined the effects of aerobic activity on shooting performance found that subjects performed significantly worse just after they’d completed a simulated march. Their accuracy (the ability to hit the right spot) and precision (the ability to hit the same spot repeatedly) were both about one-third worse after the march. While this study was conducted in a warm environmental chamber with the participants burdened by heavy loads, similar to conditions that military personnel might experience, we see that physical exhaustion can play a role in a person’s ability to shoot at a target.

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