Problem: I am neither a great runner nor interpreter of maps. Which should I try to improve first, and why?
When confronted with a difficult question, politicians frequently respond with one or two of their own. Coaches often do likewise, not because they are trying to avoid the question, but because the correct answer, if there is such a thing, will very much depend on the individual. The coach will also want the individual to understand the reasoning behind the answer and be able to take responsibility for his/her development, whether that is an increase in enjoyment or an improvement in performance (hopefully both).
So, let’s begin with a few questions for you to think about - why do you orienteer, why do you want to improve and what are your current strengths and weaknesses (or put another way, what experiences before you took up orienteering are relevant and what can you learn from your orienteering experiences to date)? Below are my responses to some of these.
Why do we orienteer? I guess most, if not all, orienteer because they enjoy it; so this leads to a slightly different question – what do I need to do to enhance my enjoyment?
Current strengths and weaknesses? Basic skills, i.e. for an adult the ability to successfully complete an Orange course, are the first requirement. Some will enter the sport with significant map reading experience (e.g. from hill walking), so will quickly adapt to O-maps, whilst others with little map reading experience may require more practice (e.g. completing courses at events and appropriate exercises at coaching/training sessions), before they feel confident about their map interpretation skills.
With regard to running ability, some will enter orienteering looking for an alternative to running, and for them, physically completing an Orange course should not be difficult, whilst for others with map reading experience, an improvement in running ability will quickly show an improvement in results.
What next? For some, the running will be more enjoyable than the navigation and the increase in Trail races, or even Hill races, might be of more interest than orienteering with the courses currently offered at O events. A Long Orange course at an O event would cater for such people, but this is usually not available at Scottish events due to a small take-up and the nature of some Scottish forests making it difficult to plan such courses.
For others, an increased navigational challenge is what they are looking for, and a move up to Light Green provides this. Success at this level requires a consolidation of existing skills and the development of new ones to deal with the reduction in the availability of convenient line features to use on the course. Also, with increasing length of course, and more of this away from paths, an increase in physical fitness is required. Ideally, this is best achieved in terrain but for most people, regular running is only practical if it is done locally (e.g. along pavements, paths, or parkland). Nevertheless, a run three or four times a week gradually improves fitness.
Practice, and learning from experience, is important in all sports and particularly so in orienteering. Whilst knowing all the skills, and the ability to apply them (whether they are physical or navigational) is essential, the significance of experience in making decisions literally on-the-run should not be underestimated. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t click straight away – build a strong base of both navigational skills and physical fitness, don’t try to progress through the different levels too quickly, and keep checking your enjoyment level. Frustrations there will inevitably be, but reflect on what would reduce these frustrations and keep your orienteering enjoyable.
And finally, the short answer - map reading is key, so ensure this and other skills are sufficient to successfully complete the course you run. If not, step back to a level of course where you can refine your skills. Those required for the different colour-coded courses are summarised in the Step System chart available on the Scottish Orienteering Association (SOA) website.
On the same website there is also an A to Z Jargon Buster which may be of interest to new members.