Beyond Advanced

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.

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

Most orienteers are somewhat aware of what will be discussed in this section, but few 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 that even though it requires exceptional fitness still remains more about the mind than the legs, so to speak.

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!

Visual processing is easier and faster than verbal reasoning which leads to our next point about Mental Maps.

Improve your mental maps

Photo: Steve Rush BOK

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. 

Map reading is the process of uploading spatial information and forming a Mental Map 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, the more confidently you can use it when moving through terrain.  Some orienteers say they are flowing through their Mental Map of the terrain with hardly any words going through their mind.  They don’t need them and are too busy with other navigation tasks.

When you are orienteering, there is the terrain, then there is the map summarizing that terrain created by a skillful mapper and there is the Mental Map in your head. You can’t change the terrain. Orienteering maps nowadays are awesome. The weak link here is the Mental Map in your head! It is the one needing the most improvement.

The aim is to go as efficiently as possible from paper map to mental map to accurate movement through the terrain.

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 Visualization, which is what is really going.

Forming your Mental Map means drawing together many skills in Terrain Visualization (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.

Thus, the process of getting from the paper map to the right Mental Map 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 top left.

Intricate Contours

We process images faster and more reliably than we 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.  One piece of evidence that backs this up is that severely dyslexic people can still be exceptionally good navigators because it is a different type of thinking not requiring reading words.

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 practiced 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.

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 give just a flavour of what else you can explore:

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