What is a Biathlon?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A biathlon is an athletic competition in which athletes compete in two sports. Although any combination competition could be considered a biathlon, the word is usually used to refer to a combination of skiing and shooting. In addition to being a listed Olympic sport, the biathlon is also very popular in Northern European countries and Russia, where regular competitions are held in addition to qualifying competitions for the Olympics.

Skiing may be part of a biathlon.
Skiing may be part of a biathlon.

Unlike many other combined sports, the biathlon actually tests the abilities of the athletes to confront real world situations. It has its roots in military exercises dating back to the 1700s, in which soldiers would go on long skiing expeditions and hunt for food. Branches of the Norwegian military began to compete in a biathlon format in the late 1700s, and in the 1800s, many nations were fielding biathlon teams in competition. Many Northern European militaries still include a cross country skiing and shooting segment in their training.

A skating biathlon can include the use of roller skates.
A skating biathlon can include the use of roller skates.

In a biathlon, bouts of skiing are broken up by shooting from both standing and prone positions. After skiing a set distance, athletes shoot from shooting lanes, and then resume skiing. Typically, there are four skiing and shooting rounds in a single biathlon. During the ski phase, the athlete wears his or her rifle in a sling mounted to the back of the ski suit, and any style of skiing is permitted. Standings are judged both by the time it take to complete the biathlon, and on target accuracy.

Typically, each biathlete is expected to hit five targets during the shooting phase. 100% accuracy is required, and if athletes do miss a target, they must submit to a penalty. Typically, the penalty is an additional skiing distance in the next skiing round, although in some biathlons, the judges simply add a minute to the ski time for every shot missed, which will impact the time standing of the athlete.

Typically, a biathlon team comes from a nation with seasonal snow pack, as it is difficult to train for a biathlon when no snow is available to ski on. Some countries combine running or swimming and shooting for a different style of biathlon, while some enterprising athletes compete in skating biathlons, either on ice or roller skates. Some biathlons put the athletes in snow shoes, or force them to complete an orienteering course as part of the competition as well, further testing their potential military fitness.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Tomislav- I know, serious biking gear is very expensive. I have a friend who works in a bike shop, and she gets things at cost, but the prices still astound me.

I wish I could do a biathlon. I have never done cross-country skiing or shooting, though, so it would likely take me a long time to work up to that point.

I have done a lot of running, though, so I think it is something I could realistically try eventually.


@Tomislav - A duathlon is actually different from a biathlon. And it is almost what you were discussing when you said you thought a biathlon would be a triathlon without one of the events.

A duathlon is actually a triathlon without one of the events. A duathlon consists of running and cycling; but it has 3 legs of the event: running, cycling, and then some more running.

So it sounds like a duathlon is still not what you are looking for but if you do ever get a bike the duathlons just as the biathlon has an international event, the biathlon worldcup, to see who is the best; duathlons have premier races all over the world where champions are named.


I had no idea a biathlon was skiing and shooting. I thought it would be a triathlon (typically biking, swimming, and running) with one less of its events like maybe running and swimming!

I was looking for my next athletic challenge as I have done some half-marathons and I was hoping for something that didn't involve buying too much equipment. I had thought about triathlons; however, those bikes are actually quite expensive!

I hadn't looked at bicycle prices since I was a kid so I am still not over the sticker shock of the price of specialty racing cycles!

So I thought biathlon events (again thinking it might be running and swimming) might be my next challenge. But I don't think here in small town North Carolina that I will be able to train for skiing and shooting! Well maybe the shooting, I have found quite a few people like to skeet shoot here!

Also, it looks like biathlons require specific biathlon equipment too, so since that is the case I might as well buy a bike!

I have also heard about a duathlon is that the same thing as a biathlon?

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