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Top 10 - Ways to be a Better Orienteer

Posted on Saturday, February 25, 2006.

A list of the top ten ways of getting round your course faster than everybody else and running off with the prize every time. (Reproduced from Pacemaker 94, January 2005)

1 - Make more mistakes

'Every day's a school day' as an Irish orienteer in LOK used to say as he recounted his latest disaster that had kept him from the front of the leaderboard. Orienteering is not easy. You will make mistakes. Some will be big and some will be small. The best way to deal with this is to be able to recognise these mistakes before they happen or as they happen, rather than after they have happened. And this requires you to do it for real in the forest. I can write any number of articles telling you to be careful on the way to number 1, but you need to lose 10 minutes there three events in a row for it to begin to sink in. After you've made the same mistake several times you will be really good at spotting it, and have an outside chance of avoiding it in the first place. Maybe the really natural orienteers can manage without this stage in the learning process: don't kid yourself you are of this breed.

2 - Make fewer mistakes

So now you know what mistakes not to make, the trick is not to make them. People starting out in the sport normally find that for the first few events it is simply impossible. There then comes a period where things appear to be getting much better, and mistakes reduce to five minutes or less. They then often hit a plateau where no matter what they try they still seem to keep going wrong. This can go on for months, years or even a whole lifetime. For the lucky few there comes a point where things really click and you can drop phrases like "nothing more than 30 seconds" into your post-race conversation. 30 seconds lost at the 10 controls you get on even the shortest courses adds up to five minutes, and well over 10 minutes on longer courses. If only you could stop making those 30 second errors you say to yourself as you dream of the day you have the perfect run. See item 10 for why this might be some time in arriving.

3 - Start young

The real advantage of starting young is that it maximises the time available for you to make mistakes (see item 1) and move on to stopping making mistakes (see item 2). Seldom if ever does a person start orienteering as an adult and make it to the very top. If you make a real attempt at this one you can progress so fast that you have learnt all about mistakes by the time you are 10 and win international competitions even at that age. Yvette Baker was World Champion in 1999 having appeared on the front cover of "The Orienteer" magazine in 1979 having just won W10 at the Swiss 5-Day. This is not an isolated occurrence. Unfortunately for many readers they may already be several years too late to try this particular method of improvement, so let's move on.

4 - Run slower

_Festina lente_ (make haste slowly) as the Romans used to say in the days when Stirling Surveys was what you got by looking over Hadrian's Wall. The trick is to run as fast as possible without making mistakes, but no faster. For beginners this can often be roughly translated into "whatever you do don't start running until you know where you are, where you are going and how you are going to get there". Very few people can navigate faster than they can run, especially in complex areas. Running at less than full pace allows you to stay in control and keep thinking straight. Running at the limit can pay off in small chunks but is a high-risk strategy that almost inevitably leads to mistakes. These are a bad thing (see item 2) unless you are doing it on purpose for your own good (see item 1).

5 - Run faster

Another idea that at first sight appears trivially obvious but which turns out not to be quite as useful as you might hope. In orienteering the race will normally be to the fast, but seldom to the fastest. From elite level downwards it is clear that speed is a requirement but is not enough on its own. Olympic track athletes have tried and failed to make it into World Championships squads. Carsten Jorgensen of Denmark was fast enough to be European Cross Country Champion but never quite got the same results when orienteering. So by all means try to run faster, but don't expect it to be the miracle that you are looking for.

6 - Understand numbers

What do orienteers do to fill in their spare time between races? A short list of occupations covers a large proportion of the orienteering population. How many people reading this aren't a teacher or lecturer (normally mathematics, physics or possibly geography), engineer, doctor, accountant, or something in computing. The common link is a general ability to deal with numbers. This works all the way up to elite level. Learn to love numbers. To be honest you've probably given up the sport already if you struggle on the mathematics front, so you won't be reading this. An example of natural selection in action.

7 - Be Scandinavian

There was a time when this would have been number one on the list. Scandinavians dominated the world, with their vast expanses of technical forest to train in. Other countries turned up to run for the places, but the Scandinavians sorted out the medals amongst themselves. The new world order really arrived in Scotland in 1999 when the three medals in the Women's middle distance race went to Great Britain, Austria and Germany. World Championships medals now regularly go to previous orienteering minnows like Switzerland, France and Russia. If you're Swedish or Norwegian then you can probably now understand how the English feel after introducing cricket, footbaIl, rugby and any number of other sports to the rest of the world. Of course all these top foreigners still spend a lot of time in Scandinavia, with many of them living there and running for Scandinavian clubs, so perhaps pretending to be Scandinavian is really what this is all about.

8 - Choose your parents carefully

It clearly helps to come from a family of super-athletes who are all thin and fit (and of course Scandinavian: see item 7). However this is probably less important than coming from a family which is willing to drag you around the country (and world) to attend every race and training course available. They must also be willing to accept that holidays mean orienteering events rather than days on the beach or visits to relatives. This tends to mean they have to orienteer as well. If you can't manage this then option 8a is to choose your school carefully so that it has teacher who is willing to do all of the above.

9 - Be male

Remember that men don't listen and women can't read maps. Decide for yourself which one of these attributes is more important when orienteering. Men also tend to be bigger and stronger than women, which gives them a significant advantage when running long distances across rough country. The difference in running speed is around 10% at the top level. This is not enough to prevent severe embarrassment for many men when the good girlies run M21L. But it is enough to make a difference if all you are interested in is beating as many people as possible.

10 - Make no mistakes

On the face of it this looks like it should be number one, and everything else is unimportant. But life (and orienteering) doesn't work out like that, and the chances of you turning in a perfect race even once or twice in a life are very small. Steven Hale famously missed a World Championships medal by one second in the United States when he "ran the wrong side of a tree". In a perfect race he would have run the right side of the tree. How many trees do you run past in an event? And what are the chances that you will ever run the right side of all of them? By all means aim to make no mistakes, but don't expect it to be easy.

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