A biathlon competition consists of a race in which contestants ski around a cross-country trial system, and where the total distance is broken up by either two or four shooting rounds, half in prone position, the other half standing. Depending on the shooting performance, extra distance or time is added to the contestant’s total running distance/time. As in most races, the contestant with the shortest total time wins.
For each shooting round, the biathlete must hit five targets; each missed target must be « atoned for » in one of three ways, depending on the competition format:
by skiing around a 150 metres (490 ft) penalty loop, typically taking 20–30 seconds for top-level biathletes to complete (running time depending on weather/snow conditions),
by having one minute added to a skier’s total time, or
by having to use an « extra cartridge » (placed at the shooting range) to finish off the target; only three such « extras » are available for each round, and a penalty loop must be made for each of the targets left standing.
In order to keep track of the contestants’ progress and relative standing throughout a race, split times (intermediate times) are taken at several points along the skiing track and upon finishing each shooting round. The large display screens commonly set up at biathlon arenas, as well as the information graphics shown as part of the TV picture, will typically list the split time of the fastest contestant at each intermediate point and the times and time differences to the closest runners-up.
The 20 kilometres (12 mi) individual race (15 km for women) is the oldest biathlon event; the distance is skied over five laps. The biathlete shoots four times at any shooting lane, in the order of prone, standing, prone, standing, totaling 20 targets. For each missed target a fixed penalty time, usually one minute, is added to the skiing time of the biathlete. Competitors’ starts are staggered, normally by 30 seconds.
The sprint is 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) for men and 7.5 kilometres (4.7 mi) for women; the distance is skied over three laps. The biathlete shoots twice at any shooting lane, once prone and once standing, for a total of 10 shots. For each miss, a penalty loop of 150 metres must be skied before the race can be continued. As in the individual competition, the biathletes start in intervals.
In a pursuit, biathletes’ starts are separated by their time differences from a previous race, most commonly a sprint. The contestant crossing the finish line first is the winner. The distance is 12.5 kilometres (7.8 mi) for men and 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) for women, skied over five laps; there are four shooting bouts (two prone, two standing, in that order), and each miss means a penalty loop of 150 m. To prevent awkward and/or dangerous crowding of the skiing loops, and overcapacity at the shooting range, World Cup Pursuits are held with only the 60 top ranking biathletes after the preceding race. The biathletes shoot on a first-come, first-served basis at the lane corresponding to the position they arrived for all shooting bouts.
In the mass start, all biathletes start at the same time and the first across the finish line wins. In this 15 kilometres (9.3 mi) or 12.5 kilometres (7.8 mi) for women competition, the distance is skied over five laps; there are four bouts of shooting (two prone, two standing, in that order) with the first shooting bout being at the lane corresponding to your bib (Bib #10 shoots at lane #10 regardless of position in race.) with rest of the shooting bouts being at the lane in the position they arrived (Arrive at the lane in 5th place, you shoot at lane 5.). As in sprint races, competitors must ski one 150 m penalty loop for each miss. Here again, to avoid unwanted congestion, World Cup Mass starts are held with only the 30 top ranking athletes on the start line (half that of the Pursuit as here all contestants start simultaneously).
The relay teams consist of four biathletes, who each ski 7.5 kilometres (4.7 mi) (men) or 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) (women), each leg skied over three laps, with two shooting rounds; one prone, one standing. For every round of five targets there are eight bullets available, though the last three can only be single-loaded manually one at a time from spare round holders or bullets deposited by the competitor into trays or onto the mat at the firing line. If after eight bullets there are still misses, one 150 m penalty loop must be taken for each missed target remaining. The first-leg participants start all at the same time, and as in cross-country skiing relays, every athlete of a team must touch the team’s next-leg participant to perform a valid changeover. On the first shooting stage of the first leg, the participant must shoot in the lane corresponding to their bib number (Bib #10 shoots at lane #10 regardless of position in race.), then for the remainder of the relay, the relay team shoots at the lane in the position they arrived (Arrive at the range in 5th place, you shoot at lane 5.).
The most recent addition to the number of biathlon competition variants, the mixed relay, is similar to the ordinary relay but for the composition of the teams, each of which consists of two women and two men. Legs 1 and 2 are done by the women, legs 3 and 4 by the men. The women’s legs are 6 km and men’s legs are 7.5 km as in ordinary relay competitions.