How to join it all up
In this section we think about total immersion in the process of spatial thinking. There is no end to how far you can take this and it requires you to reflect in much more detail on how you prepare for a race and how you respond to the challenges within it. This requires a more sophisticated understanding of what is going on when you are navigating and learning how to optimize your ability to use all that you know and have practiced.
Most orienteers are somewhat aware of what will be discussed in this section, but not so many apply it in any depth because it cannot simply be read and then done. You will need to go through many cycles of attempting to implement these ideas, then analysing what could be improved and trying again and you need to relate this evaluation to your personal strengths and weaknesses. for example, if you are good at Terrain Visualisation then a more risky route that will require some Relocation on contour features becomes more viable than a safer longer one.
The discussion in this section is only introductory and once your orienteering is at this level, if you are performing well, further in-depth coaching will be invaluable to help you personalize these ideas and others too. The highest level of orienteering is a fascinating reflexive process e.g. you try, reflect on what went well or went wrong then try again in a continous cycle. Even though orienteering requires exceptional fitness it remains more about the mind than the legs, so to speak.
It is also worth remembering that orienteering navigation at speed is such a complex set of skills that you will never have it all sorted and needing no improvement. There is always room for improvement and it is common for even the most experienced elite competitors to find that as they work on one area of weakness and improve that, they then have to turn their attention back to another area that needs working on again. Its a never-ending process, but hopefully an enjoyable one. You can think of it as a continuous cycle of fine tuning. The winner is the one who is best managing to combine their entire skills set and experience as an orienteer with a very high level of fitness.
It doesn’t have to all be in words
A music analogy is helpful. A beginner at the piano struggles to translate every note on the score into an action on the page. A better pianist sees phrases and can also look ahead as their hands reliably play the notes. A concert pianist is so totally immersed in playing that they are hearing the orchestra as much as themselves, they are lost in the emotion of the music and can bring a piece to life. They simply couldn’t have words in their head when doing something so complex. Did you realize that top level orienteers experience a similar phenomenon?
Are you overloading your brain with too much chatter? We said earlier, “Don’t talk to other people”. It can also be worth talking to yourself less in your inner monologue. Orienteering control descriptions are pictorial. Can you picture in your mind the feature you are seeking without having to put it into words? Or can you abbreviate it to the minimum? You can then picture the feature placed in the overall shape of terrain, associated with Notable Features en route, an Attack Point and maybe a Catching Feature. Your mind is an awesome spatial information processor, try out what more it can do in terms of visualisation!
Most people process images faster and more reliably than they process written words. Orienteering is a visual processing task and that part of your brain needs to be switched on and getting the highest level of attention from your mind, but it doesn’t need to always be interfaced by the verbal part of your brain. I suspect that orienteering selects for what might be called ‘Hyper visualizers’, who are especially good at visualization. One piece of evidence I have observed, is that severely dyslexic people can still be exceptionally good navigators because it is a different type of thinking, not requiring reading words.
Visual processing is easier and faster than verbal reasoning which leads to our next point about Mental Maps and Terrain Visualisation.
Improve your mental maps and visualisation
When you know a journey well you don’t need to narrate the turns and directions needed to make the journey. If you think of undertaking it, you see it in your mind; you visualize the journey, then you carry it out. To get to a high level in orienteering you need to be able to form confident, reliable visualizations in your mind’s eye and then use them to navigate successfully.
Try to stop seeing the map as collections of symbols with corresponding words attached to them as though you are reading a book, the words are an extra processing task you don’t need. Start to see the map as a pictorial summary of a 3-dimensional landscape that you can envisage as you move through it. Perhaps the problem is that we call it map reading which immediately associates it with words, rather than Terrain Visualisation, which is what is really going on.
Map reading is the process of uploading spatial information and forming a mental map and a visualisation of the terrain, that you can place yourself within and to which you can add information and focus in more closely where needed during a leg. The better the mental map and visualisation, the more confidently you can use it when moving through terrain. Some orienteers say they are flowing through their visualisation of the terrain with hardly any words going through their mind. They don’t need them and are too busy with other navigation tasks.
Your mental map is an edited version of the real map with selected features. Your visualisation is how you expect to see those features as you encounter them. It is worth noting that they are strictly speaking not the same thing. Your mental map is built from a simplification of the actual map. You then visualise that in 3D and you monitor the terrain you see with your eyes against the visualisation you have built in your mind from your mental map. It is of course a two-way process where what you see links back through your visualisation to the map. That may seem like a seamless process when you do it, but there are steps to it and weaknesses in any part of that chain can lead to navigation errors. This could be a much longer discussion, but that is enough detail for now.
When you are orienteering, there is the terrain, then there is the map summarising that terrain created by a skillful mapper and there is the mental map/ visualisation in your head. You can’t change the terrain. Orienteering maps nowadays are awesome. The weak link here is the mental map and visualisation in your head! It is what is needing the most improvement.
The aim is to go as efficiently as possible from paper map to mental map to visualisation, to accurate movement through the terrain.
Forming your mental map/ visualisation means drawing together many skills in Terrain Visualisation – map reading, contour interpretation, route choice, route simplification, identifying notable features in a corridor and more. There is no quick way to get good at this and you can always improve it. Fine navigation immersion in detailed map reading is one of the main training techniques you can use to help you actively work on your Mental Maps.
A Sat Nav analogy – When navigating you need to zoom in and out of the detail of the map in your head as needed by different navigation challenges and your place within a leg. In an earlier section we used the analogy of a Sat Nav zooming in and out of detail. As you start a journey it shows you an overview of the route with several options and you make a route choice. Then it zooms in, showing lots of detail, to help you set off in the right direction but as you move along a hand rail (road) it zooms out again to a simplified view. It zooms in again at critical points along the route and finally zooms in again as you near the destination. At any point it can zoom out to the whole journey or a section of it to give an overview and simplify what you are seeing or can zoom in for more detail of a decision point such as a junction. This analogy of zooming in and out is quite helpful for thinking through the different types of interaction you will have with the map in planning a leg and making your route choice, then executing the leg with further micro-route choices on route. When you look at the map frequently whilst running, you will be looking at it with different levels of zoom depending on what information you are updating in your visualisation at that point.
Heads Up Display analogy – With time you also learn to juggle the clarity in your head related to the physical effort you are putting in (oxygen debt) such that your mind is able to perform at the right level for navigation tasks you are undertaking. Backing off the pace the right amount is essential, to allow you to get your visualisation updated from the map, so that you can “see” where you are going next before you get there. Rushing is probably the main cause of mistakes in top level orienteers. You must always have a reliable visualisation in your head, that you are running into as though you are stepping into a heads up visualisation or a 3D computer game simulation. The challenge is to be creating and pre-loading a good visualisation in real time. The visualisation is created in your mind from the map and your library of orienteering experience that allows you to generate those visualisations. With more experience you get better at visualising different types of terrain. If you don’t manage this, you will be forever either making avoidable mistakes or having to slow down unnecessarily to update your location. So, the visualisation comes first, at bit like a head up display in a pilot’s cockpit in a plane and your task is to keep updating that head up display in time, so that you can keep moving into it as fast as you can. Imagine that if someone were to run the course before you on the optimum route and create a perfect head up display for you to follow, you could then run through the terrain wearing a head set showing that route and information overlaid on a transparent map in front of you, and the only limiting factor would be your ability to run.
The challenge of orienteering navigation is to build such a good visualisation from the map that it is in effect a head up display you can run through limited only by your fitness. Whatever you see with your eyes in the terrain in front of you, the visualisation in your mind’s eye must already be ahead of, so that you are recognising with your eyes what your mind has already predicted (or visualised)!
Videos following orienteers and showing their route on a map get part way towards illustrating the full heads up display type visualisation I have discussed and may help you picture what is being described.
Headcam videos can take this a stage further. O-Training.net by Jan Kocbach has a helpful discussion of the use of headcam footage in orienteering analysis. The headcam video replayed alongside the GPS trace on the map gives an insight into the map reading and visualisation process and gives a better impression of what elite orienteers are doing when navigating.
The example video (from O-training.net) shows how you can follow the navigation of elite orienteers as they progress through the terrain. It gives a clear idea of what you can aspire to as your navigation improves.
Visualising well is hard to do consistently. When competing in a new area on unfamiliar terrain I have found myself handicapped as much as if I was running with my shoe laces tied together. I can’t visualise ahead of myself and I’m thrown back to trying to match what I can see with my eyes to features on the map. The terrain keeps coming at me too fast to process and I have to slow right down, progressing from one feature to the next, unable to confidently speed up, feeling totally frustrated that I can’t see in my mind’s eye beyond a few meters in front of me. My ability to process the map to a good visualisation is overwhelmed. This has happened several times in multi-day orienteering events in totally new terrain on the first day – I feel out of my depth. However, on the second day I know what to expect am able to visualise it effectively and the flow comes back and I can speed up.
Then, when returning to training on an area I know well, or even helped map, the visualisation is totally robust again. I can see the overall shape of the terrain. I have a good overview of the leg and I can zoom in to detail on the map as needed to make sure I am track and it all begins to flow really well again.
The amazing thing is that the best orienteers, even competing in a new area, are visualising almost as well from the map as if they had run the course before and know the area like the back of their hand. No wonder it takes so long to get to elite level in orienteering!
Thus, the process of getting from the paper map to the right Mental Map and Visualisation for the leg is a composite skill that requires accurate Map Reading (Terrain Visualization), Simplification and Route Choice. You can extend those skills by seeking Notable Features to use on route. This process is illustrated in this SLOW video on Intricate Contours, however the principles can be implemented on legs with other types of challenges than just intricate contour detail.
Click on the video below and select video 8/9 Intricate Contours from the playlist.
Feeling the terrain!
Are the ways you have learnt to respond to problems, challenges and mistakes elsewhere negatively affecting your orienteering? Generally, when we fail at something we are more cautious next time we try. When we succeed we are typically better at the same thing the next time. Some of the change is the skills we have learnt, but an important component is the emotions we associate with problem we are anticipating.
Try this for an idea. One orienteer says with real enthusiasm, “I love complex sand dunes full of contour detail. I love being totally immersed in fine navigation with contours”. Another says, “I always mess up on sand dunes” and is anxious and tense about the race. If they are both at the same broad skill level, the one experiencing the positive emotions will have more mental processing capacity available for the navigation and typically do better.
Fear, apprehension, a sense of failure from previous bad experience, close our thinking down and we are less able to tackle demanding tasks, because those emotions are dominating. Those emotions are appropriate for some situations to keep us safe. But orienteering is not a life and death situation, it is sport for fun! So why let your mental processing capacity be narrowed by unhelpful emotions? If the orienteer who looks forward to sand dunes also relishes the challenge of relocating in such complex areas they are freed up to approach the course positively and not have to hold back excessively, as long as their technical skills are well practised and up to the task in hand.
You can try to identify how you felt about different legs and where those feelings are negative and limiting, practice skills that would enable you approach the same type of leg with a different mind set that sets you up for success. Don’t do this obsessively, just pick out where negative emotions, such as fear of leaving a path into complex contours, got in the way of your navigation, then plan how to turn that situation around.
Develop an extended race routine
Your routine for a successful race starts well before hand. Here are some key steps to build from. Each of these could be a very lengthy discussion in its own right. This is just a starting point:
1 Researching the map, previous courses, terrain. Identify different types of leg and challenge you will face. Build a Mental Map of the overall shape of the terrain. This easier if you have been there before.
2 Form the right mind set to respond to the pressure you feel and the challenge of the upcoming race.
3 Eat well, get mental and physical rest not just training, sleep well.
4 Start well. Get there in plenty of time to avoid a feeling of pressure and rushing which you then carry into the race. Develop a process of concentrating into spatial thinking before the start, so that you are fully tuned in before you actually start running, and you no longer have to take so long to get into the Flow on the way to the first control.
5 Understand how to manage your concentration through the race to be able to stay the distance, especially on long courses.
Plan your own training
Once you are carefully analysing your races you can identify what you need to work on to improve. Take control of your own development as an orienteer! It will help to discuss this with other experienced orienteers and club coaches. You can find many ideas to develop your training at O-training.net
Conclusion – How far can you take your skills?
In conclusion, if you are wondering how much further you can take your orienteering technique, well the answer is a very long way indeed!
Take a look at multiple World Champion Thierry Guergiou’s approach and be amazed! The simplest messages to take away from his approach are that there is always room for improvement and that all time spent running with a map navigating is invaluable.
These articles on O-training.net give just a flavour of what else you can explore:
If all the material on Better Orienteering is already familiar to you then you may find the book ‘The winning eye’, by Thierry’s coach (and father) Michel Gueorgiou helpful. It takes a much more in depth look at how to develop your navigation. If you are coaching others this book is of obviously direct relevance. If you want to use it for self study I would suggest that really do need to be at the point where you are comfortable with all the material we have covered in Better Orienteering for it to make full sense to you. I would suggest that for most people that will probably mean 5 + years of orienteering experience to give sufficient experience to draw on to make sense of the detail of what he discusses. Of course feel free to read it at any point of your orienteering development since it can give a store of ideas to work towards implementing at some point – like a glance at a mental map of where you want to take your orienteering in the future.
Details of the book are under the Books and Resources section
A final video suggestion, this time from the International Orienteering Federation, IOF. Here Thierry is at the World Orienteering Championships in 2016 on the Middle Distance course on route to a win. The Control Flow and GPS traces on the map are truly impressive. Be amazed.
So, finally, happy orienteering dreams and may your technique become closer to the the very best even if you do not share their incredible fitness.
Duncan Bayliss, 2019