Occassional thoughts about orienteering

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Klas Karlsson's Systematic Orienteering


Years ago (maybe 1999?), I translated an article Klas Karlsson wrote about his ideas on orienteering. I think Karlsson's ideas are good. Back in 1999, very few people looked at my page. These days the audience is growing. I'm reposting the original translation in the hope that it'll reach a broader audience, and that at least someone out there will find the article interesting.

Systematic Orienteering

By Klas Karlsson

This is an electronic version of a paper I wrote in the fall of 1994. It is a good description of my philosophy of orienteering. It is aimed at juniors, but I think everyone can benefit from reading about how others think about orienteering.


I wrote this to help you think about your orienteering. It is aimed at juniors who are moving up to the senior classes. Everyone knows it is a big step to take. I wrote this to help juniors improve and to use my own experiences to describe and think about the problems I have struggled with.

First, I thought about my strengths and weaknesses.

I quickly realized I don’t have any problems with running at the level I aspire to (assuming my physical training is going as it should). Of course I can be better, but it is not the highest priority. I have had physical problems during my first years as a senior, but that is another story...

The problem I need to work on is that I often feel stressed in the forest. I know how good the others orienteer -- how little they miss. As a junior my orienteering was not as secure and reliable as it has to be at the senior level. Just getting older won’t help that. So, how do I solve the problem?

First, I analyzed what the differences were between races that have gone well and those that have gone poorly.

When races have gone well: (1) I felt secure and had self-confidence or (2) I had the right attitude. (By the right attitude, I mean I was thinking -- “I am not going to make any mistakes no matter how much time it takes,” or “I am not in good shape, but I am going to keep up by making no mistakes.”).

What these situations have in common is that I have really been “thinking orienteering.” In the first case, I felt -- “the only thing that can hold me back is if I make mistakes...if I don’t make mistakes I will succeed.” In the second case, I have always been concentrating on not losing any more time than necessary.

I concluded that I need to copy the technique I used during my good races. This technique -- which I called “thinking orienteering” above -- is what I call Systematic Orienteering.

Goal, Strategy, Realization

These words will help to think about orienteering. It might seem a bit theoretical in the beginning. But, I think it is helps to make it clear what you should do and what it takes to succeed.


The goal is to run an orienteering course as fast as possible and to do your best when you choose to.


The strategy to reach the goal is being systematic. I do this by planning and simplifying. I will come back to what that means.


How will I succeed with planning and simplifying? Will I be able to do that? When can I do that? When won’t I be able to do that? Can I train my ability to plan and simplify? These are the hard problems and questions that are very individual.

I am going to describe what I mean by “systematic orienteering,” why I believe it is the way to go, and how you can train orienteer systematically.

Systematic Orienteering

What do you do when you orienteer? A course is built of legs. Each leg is a problem. Orienteering involves running a series of legs faster than your competitors; in other words, solving a series of problems better than the competition. It is common to think of each leg alone and try to run faster than the others on each leg. I don’t think that you need to do that! The winner isn’t the one who wins the most legs. Rather it is the one with the least slow legs.

In training and races it is interesting to see how hard it is to have the fastest time on a leg, but how easy it is to be among the fastest. Test this sometime when there are a lot of good orienteers around to compare split times with. Pick a few legs where you try as hard as you can and some where you take a bit of extra time to be careful. The result will be that when you try as hard as you can you will win some legs and have some bad legs. When you take a bit of extra time you might not win any legs, but you will never be far behind.

Every leg can be thought of as a trap to avoid. Run the legs fast, but systematically. Being systematic will guarantee you don’t make mistakes.

What is systematic orienteering? It is planning and completing each leg the way you would if you were sitting at home at the kitchen table looking at the map. Orienteering is really easy when you are sitting at the kitchen table! The difference between the kitchen and the forest is that in the forest you are tired and your thinking is as sharp as a butter knife. To solve problems in this condition it is important to have a tactic, strategy, or whatever you want to call it, to be able to easily concentrate on what is important. This is what I call “systematic orienteering.”

Systematic orienteering should begin with the problem. Orienteering problems can be split into two parts -- route choice and control taking.

1. Route Choice

Experience and practice teaches you to be able to see which route is fastest. It usually isn’t a big problem at the kitchen table, but during a race....A correct route choice is not made in an instant. To be able to make a good route choice it is important that you are not completely worn out when you make your choice. In the easy-running parts of a course, you don’t lose much if you don’t run as hard as you can. You can take a look at more than one leg ahead. As a rule you should always know how you will do the next leg before you punch. This will reduce stress and you get a “flow” in your orienteering. Less stress also helps you keep going longer and an elite course is really long!

2. Taking Controls

Simplify! By simplifying and enlarging controls you are safer, have better “flow” and have more time to think clearly and be systematic.

Simplifying means looking for a larger feature that is easy to find and near the control. You can think of a control as a “big control” and the real control. The big control is nearly impossible to miss. Once you find the big control it should be nearly impossible to miss the real control. A control that looks difficult and makes you feel uncertain can often be simplified by taking it the right way. By feeling safer the whole way to the control, you don’t feel stressed and you keep your sharpness and “flow.”

In summary, systematic orienteering means taking a few extra seconds to ensure a better route choice and safer control taking leads to increased “flow” and better energy.

Do I have time to be systematic?

A big problem when you first move up to the senior classes is that your self-confidence takes a hit. It is tough because as a junior you may have been used to always being on the top and the center of attention. When your self-confidence goes down, you feel stressed in the forest. Maybe you take some chances; thinking you don’t have time to take an extra look at the map. I’ll try to show you that you actually do have time to take one or two looks at the map.

The objective of competitive orienteering is to be faster than the others around the whole course.

Faster than the others....There are two ways to be faster than the others:

1. (a) You run faster than the others;
(b) You always make the right route choices and don’t miss anything;

2. (a) The others run slower;
(b) The others make worse route choices and also miss some controls.

It is important to think about it this way. We often hear that we should “run our own race” and not think about how others run. I’m not saying this is wrong, but I think that by including others in the picture (after all, they are our competition) it is easier to understand the reason why you should do something in a particular way. If you know that your competition is going to make mistakes, you know that by avoiding mistakes you will have extra time. So you can orienteer more carefully than your competitors who are missing.

1. (a) You run faster than the others. Only one person in each race can run faster than the rest. The differences in speed are small; so there is not much time to be gained here. It is, of course, important that you do not run much worse than the others, but it isn’t in running fast that you’ll find your biggest advantage.

2. (a) The others run slower. This just isn’t right. The others run just as fast, or nearly so, as you do.

1. (b) You always make the right route choices and don’t miss anything. This is where you can make big gains. To always make the right route choice -- is this possible? No. But, you can improve your average. To never miss any controls -- is this possible? This is definitely possible and is the basis for having better times than the competition.

2. (b) The others make worse route choices and also miss some controls. This is an important area that is often ignored because you can not affect it. As I wrote above, you can’t hope that the competition will make bad route choices and miss controls. But, you can work on the assumption that they will. I would like to see how many people can say they always take good routes and do not miss anything. This happens once in a while, but is not very common. Don’t misunderstand me -- I don’t think that since every else will take bad routes and miss controls, I can also. I think that since most others miss and take some bad routes, I have some “extra time” compared to if they didn’t.

This is a good way of thinking because it lets you avoid the most common stress that I think affects younger seniors.

I think that I have to DARE to take the right roue and not make any mistakes. You do that by taking a few extra seconds at certain times during an orienteering race. Taking this extra time can feel like a waste of precious time, but it is not.

I have often felt stressed when I’ve “gotten stuck” (e.g., going up a slippery steep hillside). It feels like time is running away and I am standing still. But, I am convinced that if you had a film of this you would hardly notice the loss of time.

I think the “experience” of time is not the same as actual time. The seconds you sacrifice for thinking may feel like a lot of time, but actually they are just seconds.

How Do You Learn Systematic Orienteering?

To learn to orienteer systematically is not hard. Just follow these simple rules:

Plan -- know your route choice one leg ahead.

Simplify -- take controls the simplest way.

The difficulty is not learning to follow these rules, but to be able to follow the rules always and quickly. It is important that you believe in your strategy before you begin to follow it. Believe in the concept of systematic orienteering. Not because it is the only way, but because it is a way to orienteer that is relatively simple. The most important thing is not that you buy into my concept, but that you have one. If there is a part that doesn’t fit with your beliefs and experiences, just change it. You have to believe in what you do. I believe in what I do. If you have trouble coming up with your own philosophy, buy someone else’s and change it.

Problems and Risks

Systematic orienteering takes more time! The advantage is not that systematic orienteering means going faster than others. The advantage is that you are more careful at the cost of a few seconds. You win through avoiding mistakes. In the long run, this leads to faster times for the entire course (but perhaps not the fastest split times).

If you thoroughly implement systematic orienteering you will feel like you are going slow. In the beginning, your race times will also go down. To follow the rules described above, you have to slow down, perhaps stand still. You will feel time flowing away. It is very important that you are prepared for that feeling. When it happens you will be ready to accept it.

You will feel that you could orienteer much faster with your old technique. And that is true. But, you couldn’t orienteer more safely with your old technique. To hold your own as a senior you have to have that safety. The speed you can run and at the same time systematically solve orienteering problems will soon increase. The time it takes to be safe will be less-and-less and eventually it will be negligible.

One problem is that there are a lot of races and everyone hates to be beat...motivation might not be the highest. It is tough to learn a new technique even if it is not very different from the old one. It doesn’t make it any easier that in the beginning you might get worse results. In those situations you have to keep your belief in systematic orienteering.

I remember how I thought when I was a junior (it wasn’t so long ago...). I thought that the most fun was to beat my competitors. I wanted to run times that no one else could run. Sometimes I succeeded, but often I was a bit down. In those cases I had big mistakes to describe afterwards, just to show that I was the best after all. I was satisfied; if I hadn’t make those big mistakes I would have won easily.

Training Systematic Orienteering

Obviously, systematic orienteering is not something that happens immediately, it has to be trained.

How to train systematic orienteering?

There is a lot to keep track of, so take it one step at a time. Begin by practicing on a short course and by being totally concentrated. Do everything just right and let it take as much time as necessary, but don’t be lazy. This emphasis is very important. Plan a leg ahead. It is going to feel like it is going VERY slowly, but just let that happen.

Then try to practice systematic orienteering a little bit more each time you do technique training. If you feel unmotivated and unconcentrated just use your old technique or decide that there are 3-4 controls that you will practice systematic orienteering and run the rest of the training as usual. Before you start you should decide exactly what you will practice. Don’t get down if it goes badly and you make mistakes. The most important thing is that you practiced what you decided to practice.

During a technique training when I practiced systematic orienteering it began well. Planning worked well and my mental state was good. After a few kilometers I made a big mistake. I had extended the control and should just go in an punch. But, I got a bit off. The forest was dense. I lost a few minutes. The rest of the course went well. After the training I was mad that I had missed the control and was not satisfied although what I’d planned to practice -- systematic orienteering -- went well. This is the sort of situation where it is important to decide beforehand what to practice. And then after the training I should think about how the training went by thinking about how well I did what I’d planned to practice.

To make a few mistakes when I’m concentrating on practicing systematic orienteering is not a big deal. The more you practice systematic orienteering the less thought it takes and you will start to miss less.

When to train systematic orienteering?

It is very important that you begin to learn systematic orienteering without the stress of competition. You can, for example, skip some less important competitions and instead run the direct course or just go to a technique training. Don’t begin to use systematic orienteering in important competitions too soon. There is a risk you’d lose your self confidence if you used systematic orienteering before you were really comfortable with it. If you do use your new technique in competitions, be prepared to have a bit slower time than normal. It is not a big problem if someone else has a time that you couldn’t match even if you take away all of your misses.

During the time it takes to learn you will surely fall back on your old technique. Be prepared for that to happen. Don’t be upset or feel powerless. Motivation and concentration vary and, in the beginning, your success with a new technique will vary also.

The Junior Syndrome

“The junior syndrome” is a term for what often happens, especially among boys, when they move up to the senior class. Things don’t go well! I think there are two causes: physical limits and bad technique.

Physical limits: It takes a few years of hard training to be able to run the long courses that are normal in the senior class. The solution: keep training and have patience.

Bad technique: Poor (sloppy) technique isn’t penalized as much in the junior classes where the differences in running abilities are relatively great. A “junior star” can finish in the top 4-5 even with a bad race. In the senior class the same race would result in 40th place. “Juniors” gets stressed, run harder, get more tired, and make more mistakes. They feel worse than when they were juniors.

What to do? Lower your expectations of top results. Compare yourself to your old competitors. It is interesting to see that it is often those who were a bit behind as juniors who have the best success when they begin as seniors. Those who were aggressive with their technique -- and won junior classes by several minutes -- rarely have good results during their first years as seniors. They don’t have good systematic orienteering!

And finally, learning takes time...


Systematic orienteering: Take a few extra seconds to pick better routes and select safer ways to take the controls, which leads to better “flow” and better energy.

Reduce stress.
Lower expectations (in the beginning).
Think about orienteering.
Have fun.
You have time to think a bit more.

posted by Michael | 7:57 PM


Someone asked about a Swedish copy of the article. I haven't seen one online for a few years. You might try contacting Karlsson (and you could probably find a way to reach him through his club at www.ikhp.nu )
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