The Golden Rule of Orienteering

Greetings Orienteers! The objective of this article is to make you think like a champion. Everyone would like to be a champion. But what is it that makes a champion a champion?

They win all the time!

Exactly. They win all the time. Any orienteer can have a good run and do well from time to time, but champions do it all the time.

Lucky sods!

Ah, but it's not luck.

So what's the secret?

Well, someone once asked Nikki Lauda, the Formula 1 motor racing driver: "What is it that makes a champion a champion?"

What did he say?

He replied: "The ability to win going as slowly as possible"

But that is stupid! Champions are supposed to go fast!

Fast, yes, but only fast enough to beat everyone else. Pushing yourself to the limit always runs the risk of pushing yourself over the limit, so that things go wrong. Things do not go wrong for champions.

Well, that is all very well for Mr Lauda. But how does all this relate to orienteering?

Well, maybe we should hear what an orienteering world champion had to say on the subject. yvin Thon once wrote: "Every orienteer at a certain level can find his or her way through a course without making mistakes. But the problem is to know how fast you have to run to win the race. If you are going too fast, you will make mistakes. To balance the running speed without making mistakes is very difficult".

So, you are saying that any half-decent orienteer can get round a course without making mistakes if they go slowly enough?

That's right.

And the faster they go, the greater the risk of them making mistakes?

Exactly. To compete, you have to go fast. The trick is to find your optimal speed, which is just below the speed at which you start to make mistakes.

Fine. But Mr. World Champion's optimal speed is a good deal faster than mine! How does he find his optimal speed? How can I find my optimal speed? And why can't you just give me a simple golden rule, eh?

Ah, but there is a simple golden rule ...


Hmm, that sounds fairly sensible, but what does "reading the map" actually mean?

Well, it means a lot of things. The three most important are: (1) Being able to relate map symbols to terrain quickly; (2) Deciding how much information you need to take from the map to navigate effectively; and (3) Being able to read the map on the run.

Good grief! You're not asking much, are you?

Map-reading is the basic skill of orienteering. All of the above components can be improved by training. Doing so will increase your map-reading speed and thus improve your optimal speed and your orienteering.

OK, OK, so I can do with improving my map-reading. But you still haven't told me just how fast I need to read the map.

Well, you need to read the map so that, at any point in the course, you (1) Know where you are and (2) Know where you are going.

Well, the first one is pretty obvious - if I didn't know where I was I would be lost!

Exactly. Keeping in contact with the map is very important.

So how do I do that then?

This is where all those navigation skills that you have heard about come in. Things like compass work, distance estimation, and contour interpretation. These are skills which can only be learned through practice in the forest. There are loads of books and training manuals which describe the various skills and how to improve them.

So what is all this "knowing where you are going" about then? I suppose this is route choice.

Well, partly. You should be map-reading ahead of where you are. This helps prevent wasting time at controls, as you know where you are going immediately after punching. It also gives advanced warning of things like steep hills or intricate areas, which require extra physical or mental efforts. You can then 'brace yourself' before hitting them.

Hang on! I'm trying to find my way on one leg, and you want me to look at the whole course!

No. I'm not suggesting that you overload yourself with map-reading. Some orienteers may like to plan the whole course in one go. But planning a basic route choise for the next leg is probably sufficient.

So how do I practice route choice?

The good news here is that you can do a lot in the comfort of your favourite armchair. As with map-reading skills, there are a lot of books and articles dealing with things like aiming off, handrails, catching features and 'over or round' problems. It is also useful to look through old maps and ask yourself "what if I had gone that way?".

That sounds easy enough. But I can't orienteer in my armchair!

Of course, making route choices on the run is a slightly different matter. Get information on how well you are doing - have post-mortem sessions with others on your course and compare split times.

So I need to map read ahead and practice route choice.

That's right. And read your control descriptions.

Ha! I always do that.

Good for you. It is amazing how many people don't. At least, not until they arrive at the control feature.

What's wrong with that?

You would be surprised how much time can be lost by not knowing exactly where to go when you arrive at the control site. The seconds wasted in hesitating, or doing things like running to the top of a knoll when the control is at the bottom can add up to minutes for a 20-control course.

OK. OK. All of this is good advice. But to get back to your main point, how can I find my optimal speed?

Well, you should start by slowing down.

Slowing down?! Are you crazy?

No - I'm serious. Slow down and practice your map reading skills until you can go round courses without making major errors. If you make mistakes on courses, you will be training yourself - through experience - to make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes, you will be training yourself not to make mistakes. Try to develop a rhythm of hitting controls first time.

Then what?

Gradually speed up. If you start making mistakes, then slow down, work on improving your map-reading, and then try speeding up again.

Suppose I can run at full speed and not make mistakes?

Then you are very lucky indeed! Obviously, you will need to improve your running speed through fitness training. But be sure to also work on your map reading, otherwise you could begin to run over your optimal speed.

I think that I get the idea now. It's a bit complicated, though.

It needn't be. Just remember the golden rule - ONLY GO AS FAST AS YOU CAN READ THE MAP. Your optimal speed will vary from map to map, from leg to leg, and even on the same leg. Remember 'traffic lights'? You can go fast at the beginning of a leg because you only need to read a small amount of information from the map to navigate roughly. Near the control, you have to read much more information and have to slow down. It all boils down to only going as fast as you can read the map.

I see. I suppose it is pretty simple, really.

It sure is. Here is a summary:

Magnus Davidson. September 1991

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