Better Terrain Running: Visibility, Runnability and Falling Safely

by Maggie Jones, Uringa training officer

Terrain running in orienteering is often the reason why some great road runners don’t like our sport. The magic ‘minutes per km’ figures never look that impressive.

Compare the 2010 City2Surf winner Ben St Lawrence’s magic figure of 2:55min/km with Olav Lundanes winning time at WOC2010 at Trondheim which was 6:08min/km. Doesn’t look that impressive, does it? And yet, as orienteers we know that Olav’s time is phenomenal. Especially when you take into account that the WOC distance had 770m of climb as well!

Let’s assume we are all great technical orienteers. And we are aerobically fit. Now we’ve isolated the only other element, we can start working on that – terrain running.

In an orienteering race there might be multiple types of terrain to be negotiated: open, rough open, open eucalypt forest, forest with brashings, granite outcrops and rocky ground to mention but a few, and of course the contour detail will add additional complexity to all those.

Visibility and runability vary massively from race to race and we need to have some techniques to help us get those under control.


Of course, changes in visibility only affect those who keep their heads up when they are running.

Are you too busy looking at your feet to see the control on that rise ahead? Getting your head up is easier if you have worked on map memory skills and are holding your map up high.

Looking ahead will allow you to pick a line through the vegetation which avoids things which slow you down – you may be able to jump over a fallen tree or ram your way through a thorn bush, but how much better and quicker would it be to have seen these obstacles in advance and have plotted a line that avoids them altogether?


Slippery, uneven ground means that the way an orienteer’s foot hits the ground is really important.

Top orienteers run with a high cadence to give a maximum time of contact with the ground – up to 190 steps a minute. How many steps do you make in a minute of running? Running very upright, with a straight heel landing is more likely to get you a nasty fall as the rock that you stood on wobbles you off.

Top orienteers run a bit splay footed, like ballerinas, as this spreads the weight and prevents trips and falls. More steps also lightens the load on each step reducing the wear and tear on your joints.

Where the ground is level the orienteer needs to think about how they lift their legs as they run, and the way the foot is held as the leg is pulled through the running action. A higher leg lift is needed over brashings and a toe down position where the foot is dragged behind the leg will help prevent snagging. In order to do this however both the ankles and calves of the runner need to be strong but flexible. Standing on a Bosu or a stability plate is one way to practice and strengthen those key muscles.

In addition, the core of the runner needs to be strong and stable to allow for movements and jarring in the lower body from the terrain. There are some who claim wearing gaiters helps reduce snagging though I have had friendly discussions with orienteers in the UK who would dispute this and say gaiters are to protect shins not help with speed.

Sad to say, for those of us who don’t get out training as often as we might, going up hills is mostly about fitness and strength.

You should shorten your stride which is the same effect as going down a gear in a car, lean into the hill and pump your arms to get you up the incline.

If weight is shifted too far forwards, however, the runner uses the forefoot as he leans into the hill and there is increased risk of calf muscle injury. Better to get your heels down a bit and use those massive glut muscles and drive through the hamstrings. It may be a bit slower but if you have ever run next to a power walker going up the same steep hill you will know that sometimes the walking action can be more efficient.

The idea is to get to the top of the hill with enough puff to continue on your way, not crushed so badly you have to stop and wheeze like a winded racehorse!

When descending using the fall of the hill to gain some speed without much effort, is only really useful on track slopes where the ground is relatively even and can be negotiated easily at speed. Leaning slightly forward will help to use gravity to propel you downhill; you will know if you are doing it right as you will feel like you are about to fall over as you speed down the hill.

Put your elbows out to slow down rather than pumping your arms, step lightly and try not to tense through the quads to grip the ground as this puts pressure on your knees – not a good thing!

It is important not to lean backwards when going downhill as this effectively puts the brakes on and puts additional strain on all the joints and muscles.

Crash! Taking and avoiding falls

Falling on rough terrain happens to us all at some point. Perceived wisdom is to tuck and roll using a shoulder to take the impact, with hands palm outwards but held close to the chest so that you can push off the dirt. This prevents you taking the fall on wrists or arms and risking a breakage.

That said, Graeme Dawson of Garingal had an unfortunate experience with this technique in WA at Easter as his elbow, tucked close to his chest, took the impact and broke his rib. The only consolation was that he didn’t break an arm or wrist instead.

TrailRunner magazine has the following tips for avoiding falls:

  • Tilt your pelvis forward to engage your abdominal muscles to make you more stable, especially on technical, rocky declines
  • Imagine you’re running on eggshells. Skim over the ground, lightly touching the ground with your feet, particularly in rocky sections.
  • Use compact form. Shorten your stride to keep your feet underneath your body which maintains your balance and conserves energy. You’re most likely to trip when fatigue slows your normal stride to a stiff shuffle.
  • Keep your chin down and eyes scanning 10 yards ahead on uphill or flat terrain, 30 yards ahead on downhill sections.
  • On steep descents, carry your arms wider than normal to help maintain balance

Further reading on this can be found at the following websites:

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