Specialisation in orienteering

Posted on | February 2, 2017 | Category: News, Newsletter

Fewer and fewer athletes are running all five distances at WOC. Specialisation has been called an inevitable development. A super specialist, a successful coach and a former World Champion give their view on the case.

“If the Danish athletes had not specialised towards fewer distances, we would not have achieved the results we have accomplished the last couple of years. We would probably have got a few more top five positions but fewer gold medals.”

That is the clear claim from the Danish High Performance Manager, Lars Lindstrøm, referring to the three past years that have brought Denmark 13 WOC medals; 7 of which gold. In Denmark, specialisation has become a natural part of being in the national team. None of the athletes compete in all distances at WOC.

Out of season, the Danish team acts like a group with much of the same training. The closer to the big goals of the season, EOC and WOC, the training splits more and more between sprint runners and forest runners. This culminates in a Pre-WOC training camp where sprinters and forest runners most do specific training and less trainings across groups. Preparation and focus are the two main reasons for specialisation:

– Running fewer distances, you can train and prepare more specifically in the period leading up to the event. During the competition, you can stay both mentally and physically fresh when you only have to perform at a few distances, Lars Lindstrøm says.

Looking to Denmark’s neighbouring country Sweden, Tove Alexandersson’s 2016 supports the theory that specialisation is a way to improve. At previous WOCs, she has competed in both Sprint and forest distances but never achieved a victory. In 2016, she cut off the Sprint and went all in for the distances in the forest. This paid off, with World Championship’s titles in both Middle and Long.

Lars Lindstrøm after the Danish victory at the Sprint Relay at WOC 2015. Photo: Mårten Lång/Skogssport

Obvious to narrow the focus

The Belgian Sprint specialist Yannick Michiels is considered among the most specialised athletes in orienteering. During recent years he has been part of the top fight when it comes to orienteering’s shortest distance, Sprint. He combines an athletics career with orienteering and in that combination, he finds it obvious to focus on Sprint:

– I aim to be good in both orienteering and athletics’ ‘shorter’ distances 3km – 10km. In my opinion, running a good 3000m and 5000m on track, fits well with aiming for gold in the WOC Sprint and other major sprint races. The basic training for both sports is quite similar. Mostly my intervals are pure running, but close to important sprint races, I combine a good speed workout with map training. So for me, it is obvious I will continue focusing only on Sprint at major races in the next years, Yannick Michiels says.

Forest races are not totally excluded for Yannick Michiels, as he races for his Finnish club Turun Metsänkävijät, and longer trainings are also a part of his usual training. But the clear focus on Sprint at major events gives some advantages:

– I can train specifically for sprint both in my running and orienteering trainings. A sprint is won in around 15 minutes, so my training is focused on that. If I would run the long distance as well, I would have to train completely differently. Another reason is that in Belgium, we do not have the most exciting forest terrains. So, if I wanted to become a good forest runner, I would have to move away from my home. Sprint is easier to train at any place, Yannick Michiels says.

World Champion in Long distance in 2014, Svetlana Mironova from Russia, has also realized that she cannot do all races at WOC and be well prepared. For the 2017 season, she has decided to go for Sprint and Middle distance, accentuating especially three reasons:

– First, it gives better possibility to practice the specific o-skills for the chosen distance. For instance, reading the map in different map scales is very different and with focus on only two distances, I can train with maps in scales only for those two. Second, you can do more trainings in relevant terrain. Third, a couple of more rest days during WOC mean a lot, Svetlana Mironova says.

After her unexpected victory at the WOC Long distance in 2014, Svetlana Mironova delivered another great performance in 2015 with a bronze medal at Long. Her latest WOC medal came in 2016 being a part of the winning Russian relay team.

Traditional thinking still exists

You do not need to go many years back in time before most athletes did all distances at WOC, and some even successfully, such as the icon Simone Niggli-Luder, who won all three individual distances in both 2003, 2005 and 2013. Lars Lindstrøm thinks the old days when you could run all races successfully has come to an end, and the development towards athletes specialising is inevitable:

– When some first start to focus on one or two distances they get an advantage compared to other athletes. Others have to do the same to reach an equal level. It is a utopia to imagine anything else, Lars Lindstrøm says.

With one leg in respectively orienteering and athletics, Yannick Michiels has noticed some differences between the two. He thinks there still exists traditional thinking in orienteering that when you are at WOC, you are expected to run all events:

– I feel with orienteering that many runners do more distances just because they feel they have to, and you travel all the way to WOC anyway. But look to athletics, where every athlete has a specific focus on just a single distance. Why is Mo Farah [Olympic winner in 5.000 and 10.000m] running 5.000m and 10.000m and not 1.500m as well? Because he is sure, he can win those races. Of course, he could do well in the 1.500m also, but in the end people only remember those who win the medals, Yannick Michiels says.

In 2015 Yannick Michiels was close to be the first Belgian to ever win a World Cup race in orienteering. At the Sprint in Lysekil, Sweden, he was fastest but the race was later cancelled due to problems with the time keeping system.

Specialisation is not an unchangable decision

Specialisation is still just a phenomenon at senior level, with most JWOC runners running all distances, and doing it well, as the Swiss Joey Hadorn, Thomas Curiger and Simona Aebersold proved at JWOC 2016. The junior time should be used for testing the various distances and getting used to competing, Lars Lindstrøm explains:

– During the junior years, you might get some indications of where the runner has their strength, but in the Danish national team we first start the specialisation when the juniors step up to senior level. The choice of focus is a process between the athletes and the national coach, Lars Lindstrøm explains.

When deciding which distances to aim for, it is not an unchangable decision. Svetlana Mironova has changed her focus several times throughout her career. For many years Sprint and Long were her focus, shifting to Middle and Long last year, and in 2017 she will focus on Sprint and Middle:

– The three individual distances are completely different and demand different abilities. On the other hand, do not forget that trainings while preparing for one distance can improve the athlete’s abilities in another one too. I like all types of orienteering, and I would like to explore how successful I can be in every one of them, and therefore I switch my focus from year to year, Svetlana Mironova says.

Yannick Michiels has no doubt about his focus on Sprint, as long as he continues his athletics career alongside orienteering, but it is not unrealistic that he someday will aim for the forest:

– There will be one day when I cannot get any faster on the track aiming for personal bests. So I guess than I might go for a forest discipline. Probably in a non-Scandinavian terrain, which suits me the best. Maybe WOC 2021 in Brazil?

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