Today I ran an orienteering course near central Kiev that reminded me quite a bit of some US terrain, particularly some parts of DVOA and Quantico: good contour detail, steep, and full of trails.
It was also the location for the Long Distance in the 2007 WOC in Russia.
Anyhow. I also got to compete recently for the first time against Elite Orienteers in the WOC 2021 Selection races. Seeing how the elites really orienteer got me interested in how they actually gain so much time on myself and other less experienced athletes. Turns out there are a lot of very important and interesting things that I’ve noticed them doing which hopefully will help take my orienteering up another level (because I got absolutely stomped on).
1. Attacking the Terrain
Truth is that speed through terrain is the KEY physical component of orienteering. It doesn’t really matter how much faster you can run on a track compared to someone else if they can run faster through the terrain.
Elite orienteers run WAY faster than me. When I would really nail a leg then I’d still be 15-20% behind.
Training to be a physically stronger runner does certainly help with your ability to move faster through terrain, but I severely underestimated how big of a role confidence played in terrain speed.
You will frequently see the best orienteers take on an aggressive posture when faced with challenging terrain: forward lean, eyes looking straight ahead, and a smooth stride.
Here you can hear the announcers talk about what I mentioned above:
How to practice and improve terrain speed? I think terrain intervals and overspeed training are the best options. Ever heard of the famous marsh intervals? I believe that the Swedes are particularly known for doing intervals in marshes to prepare for the swampy terrain.
In general, terrain intervals (and terrain running frankly) should be practiced frequently and in many different types of terrain (marsh, rocky, green).
Overspeed training is orienteering at or above your map reading speed. There are a number of uses for overspeed training, including improved speed through terrain by forcing you to run faster than you normally would.
2. Route Execution
Now I know it sounds simple, but it surprised me a lot when racing against elites that I could pick the same route as someone else and lose a lot of time just because of bad execution.
What defines “bad execution”? I think a lot of things play a role: poor planning, micro route choice and lack of confidence primarily.
Take a look at this leg for example:
If we look at the splits, I was OVER DOUBLE the winner’s time. That was largely because of route execution, primarily a lack of confidence and hesitation, which just eats into your time.
So what actually happened? Here’s my best guess.
And that’s only what I remember. Surely some of the 4 minutes lost were because of macro route choice (I believe blue was almost a minute faster). But there was still a lot of micro route choice and hesitation that went into the loss of time.
How to improve route execution? Pretty much any training strategy that helps improve your confidence and your moment to moment micro route analysis (which is pretty much any training strategy).
3. Control Flow
It is pretty well known that the control circle is one of the most critical parts of a leg: entry, exit, control description and zoom map reading are critical components of executing an excellent orienteering race.
However, I definitely underestimated the importance of good flow. Even optimizing 3-5 seconds PER CONTROL can save almost 1 minute on your typical Middle course.
Now that might not seem like a lot, but if you factor in both the entry and exit and approach to the features, there are definitely legs that I’ve lost 15 or maybe 20 seconds on just being plain inefficient.
Here is an example from the Middle selection race I did recently.
Most clearly, the exit from control 8 to 9 was a disaster. What happened? It was a pretty short leg so I didn’t really check my compass and just started running downhill following some tracks made by other runners.
The bad direction probably ended up costing about 15 seconds in itself, but also led to another 15 seconds of hesitation because I had to reorient myself after exiting in the wrong direction.
Also a notably bad entrance to number 8, but that was a result of a parallel mistake and not necessarily carelessness into the control circle.
If you look at the splits I lose about 40 seconds to the winner on control 9. I ran 1:06 compared to a blazing fast 27 seconds! All because of having really bad flow through control 8.
It’s important to understand what actually makes up good control flow. Simply put, you are trying to minimize the amount of time through the control circle.
I’m sure everyone knows the feeling of running to the incorrect feature or the wrong side of a big boulder because they didn’t read their description. Or doing a 180 degree error while leaving the control point because you didn’t bother reading ahead.
How do you improve control flow? Again, it’s largely just practice, but control pick trainings (lots of super short legs typically in very detailed terrain) and direction drills (see The Winning Eye)