Orienteering for muggles

As I am now doing my exchange in Uppsala I have met lots of people from different countries. Most ways we are all same: complaining about studies, struggling in relationships, dreaming about future and suffering from hangover. But what makes difference between us is that I love orienteering and most of the people I have met doesn’t even know what it is. And because orienteering makes me avoid the last one of our similarities I decided it would be fair to explain what I spend my evenings and weekends with.


People in Finland and Sweden mostly know the sport as we are forced to do it at school but maybe this text can still change your image of orienteering from berry picking to a real sport.


What is it?

First of all, it is a sport. It is basically running in a forest with a map. On map you have a course you need to complete by navigating yourself from one control point to the next one. This you do not by using gps but by reading the features from the map, forming image of them in your head and then combining image to the forest/terrain. Or observing terrain and then combining your findings with the map. You have compass to help you with directions. This all you do while running. You can think about orienteering as trail running but where you need to by yourself decide which way you are going to run, then find that way and depending on terrain appr. 5-20% of the race is on trails, otherwise off trail.



Especially in Nordic countries there are plenty of competitions every weekend from April until October. On competitions there are separate classes for women and men and for different age groups and all the classes have different courses. Youngest class is usually for 10-year-old children and oldest for 85-year-old veterans. Kind of main/elit class is for people between 20 and 35 years. Everyone starts individually (except in relays) and co-operation is forbidden/not recommended. Timing and controlling of right control points is done by electronic punching system (orienteers are btw usually geeks studying engineering;-)). Orienteering has World Championships every year but at least not yet it is Olympic sport. However some of the best orienteers live as professionals. There is not a lot money moving within the sport so main reason for everyone to orienteer is simply because they love it – not because someone could make fortunes with it (although this barely is a reason for any athlete in any sport to do it…).


Where is it done?

Almost everywhere. If you think people don’t do it in your country you are most likely wrong. I have orienteered at Central Park in NY, Grand Bazaar in Istanbul and in streets of Venice to give few most extreme examples. It can be done in every continent. As map features are same everywhere, an orienteer can just crab a map where ever and she or he should be able to manage to complete the course.


Different distances are ran in different surroundings. Middle distance (around 30 mins) and long distance (around 90 mins) are organized in some kind of forests. Sprint (15 mins) then is ran in cities on asphalt and parks.


How to train for that?

I don’t usually stroll around telling people how much, when, where and how I train because I doubt someone would really be interested. But now to build up whole picture of the sport this topic can’t be left out. Orienteers train different ways which relate to the ways cross-country skiers and distance runners train. It really varies a lot, but I guess for the best orienteers the amounts of training in a year are from 450 hours to 650 hours. This means 8,5- 12,5 hours per week. Some run and orienteer more than others, some ski and bike. Pace on an orienteering race varies as well depending on runner and terrain but on fast terrains men can run below 4:45 min/km the whole race. The really best runners of orienteers can run 5000 m below 14:45 for men and 16:30 for women. So it is nowhere close berry picking 😉


This here could be my schedule for one week. Sometimes there are rest days as well, here now only easy day on Friday.

Monday: morning: swimming 40 mins

afternoon: running 30 mins including running technics/coordinations + gym 3o mins

Tuesday: intervals 6×4 min/2 min rest, 80 mins

Wednesday: morning: gym 60 mins

afternoon: orienteering 60 mins

Thursday: longer run slow speed 90 mins

Friday: running with few short intervals (10 sec) 40 mins

Saturday: Race with warm up and cool down 75 min

Sunday: Long cycling on road 150 mins


© Kimmo Hirvonen (http://hirppa.kuvat.fi)


Me as an orienteer

Orienteering is not a hobby nor way to exercise for me; it is more way of living. This may sound stupid or cliché but let me explain. I started it kind of even before I was born as my parents do it too and I ”ran” my first competitions inside mum’s belly. I grew up middle of maps and went to ”orienteering school” and competitions once I was old enough. First I was not good at all but got better and then got excited about being able to win. I am damn competitive and love that side of orienteering a lot as well as just challenging and winning myself. However I have faced a lot of problems in form of injuries and realized orienteering is not only about competing and doing well: it is more about just enjoying the feeling in the forest and the flow you sometimes (me not often enough) get once everything just goes as it should.



But orienteering is about people too. During my injuries I got rid off orienteering and didn’t follow it at all but still I couldn’t get rid off my friends – and I never want to. Together with friends I have met through orienteering we have done so many stupid, crazy and funny things I will never forget them (sorry for everyone we have caused pain or troubles). People in both of my clubs, now here in Uppsala and just everywhere are like-minded and always willing to help which makes them to feel as a huge orienteering family for me. And families are forever right?


PS. If you got interested, let me know and we go to try orienteering together or if that is not possible, I’ll tell you how to get started!


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