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Attackpoint - performance and training tools for orienteering athletes

Discussion: Accurate Pace Counting

in: Orienteering; General

Apr 23, 2023 3:32 AM # 
Well, I just completed my first advanced course (brown), 11 controls. Huge feeling of accomplishment. But, full disclosure, I was using Maprun7 which I consulted on two occasions when the Maprun app didn't beep when I thought I hit the control circle. Maprun 6 and 7 allow for real-time GPS tracking, which I consulted as a last resort, twice. Hugely wonderful experience to be able to consult a real-time GPS when you are absolutely stuck and then can learn from it immediately.

Anyway, I learned my pace counting was sometimes accurate, and sometimes not. The area was relatively flat, so I measured 32 paces per tick mark on my thumb compass for flat trail walking, and 40 paces per tick mark on my thumb compass for forest (walk), the only two major sources of terrain. I was sometimes dead-on, and other times fell far short of the expected final destination to which I was pace counting.

Any suggestions on how to get a really accurate pace count in different types of terrain?
Apr 23, 2023 3:56 AM # 
The terrain varies so much its very difficult to have "accurate" pace counting while orienteering. I would say better to read the map in almost all cases. Where paces are useful is where you are traversing vague or featureless terrain and counting paces allows you to cover a distance before you have to really start looking and searching. Thats only good for a maximum of 200-300m, usually much less. It kind of "gets you into the right area" to look for your pre-chosen attack point or collecting feature.
Apr 23, 2023 4:04 AM # 
You'd need to do a lot of pace counting in different types of terrain and figure out your trends.

However, pace counting is just one tool, and you should also (or primarily) be using other things to figure out how far you've gone. Unless the area is really bland, there will be features on the map that you can check off as you pass, and then you will know exactly how far you've gone. With more practice you'll also develop a bit of a sense for how far things are by look and "feel".
Apr 23, 2023 5:10 AM # 
Also check how the map was made. LiDAR-based maps tend to be spatially pretty accurate, but some older/non-LiDAR maps can have warping or localized distortions that will throw off the accuracy of pace count and bearings.
Apr 23, 2023 8:51 AM # 
I used to use pace count in rogaines but the distances were sometimes so large that I'd lose track of my counting.
Apr 23, 2023 10:22 AM # 
Your 32:40 proportion between trail and relatively flat open forest seems good.
The proportion could grow to 1:5 or so for trail: rough terrain.
A good thing to increase the accuracy of the pace count is to decrease the distance you are trying to count. That is start a new measure and count every time you come to an identifiable feature.
tRicky: you need to take a trip back to the 1970's to pick up one of those compasses we had that had a counter (to 10) built in to the base plate. Every time we passed 100 meters we were to advance the counter by one notch. I think a lot of orienteers have watches to do that for them now!!
Apr 23, 2023 11:09 PM # 
Mr Wonderful:
tRicky, you can try ranger beads - I have been meaning to use them for AR/rogaine where I might need to have some sense of distance in a long haul but my meandering brain would otherwise lose count along the way.

3rd-ing "use features to keep track of position whenever possible"

re: "steps per tick", I always learned it as x left foot steps per 100 m (mine is 63 for example at around 6' tall). Your options are memorize a set of pace counts per map scale (was your brown at 1:7500?) or switch to per 100 m, then do a little math for ticks to get to 100 m and figure out the count from there.
Apr 23, 2023 11:58 PM # 
I could try these things (taking a trip back to the 1970s would be a tad difficult) but that would involve actually signing up for another rogaine. It's been a few years now.
Apr 24, 2023 12:31 AM # 
Night navigation during a rogaine is when pace counting is most useful (easy to miss features in the dark, and the map may not be that detailed anyway).
Apr 24, 2023 6:13 AM # 
In the years 1970s, ..., maps were less precise, 1/15000, 1/16667, 1/20000, orienteers relied much more on pace counting and were good at it.
Apr 24, 2023 11:30 AM # 
Ah, Ranger beads. An artifact of the azimuth and pace-count style of military land nav, but often quite appropriate in rogaining in a way that it's not so much with orienteering. That works!

I just use my fingers for every 100m when I'm counting a long rogaining leg, resetting every time I pass through a known point along the way. Gets "close enough" and also helps with the issue of juggling too many things in working memory, especially white tired/hungry/struggling with focus.
Apr 24, 2023 12:24 PM # 
I always recommend this pacing tactic but not sure if anyone else does it - pace to and from something on a leg eg if running on a track and there is a junction a third of the way to where you want to leave the track, pace to the junction and then pace double that after. Works really well in terrain. I always pace, but as a back up and very rarely use it, I just do it without noticing. Comes from growing up in North Yorkshire and finding tripods in the middle of plain blocks of forests!
Apr 24, 2023 1:13 PM # 
I'm not saying you shouldn't learn pace counting as it can be useful but it is a slow technique and with modern detailed orienteering maps isn't nearly as useful compared to other techniques.

I'm pretty sure none of our (Team Canada's) current roster of athletes have ever used pace counting as a tool in their toolbox during a race. I'd be willing to bet that is true of 99% of World Champs athletes too.
Apr 24, 2023 1:49 PM # 
I am the 1% ;) the way I use it, pace counting doesn't slow me down at all. Probably a lot harder to integrate later in orienteering years though...
Apr 24, 2023 2:06 PM # 
I know several young orienteers who occasionally pace count when they disc golf and like to estimate the putting distance to the basket.
Apr 24, 2023 2:52 PM # 
I will suggest that pace counting will NOT slow you down, and can be faster than reading the map (certainly less mental energy).
Apr 24, 2023 5:08 PM # 
Some thoughts on pace counting well.
- Make it automatic. Count every other step (I do every left foot), and always count the same pattern in your head. (I think 12345679 ten 23456789 twenty 23456789 thirty...).
- Practice pacing on your training runs/walks. Compare oval athletic tracks with hilly trails. Run the same dirt trail uphill and downhill and see how your stride changes.

Long term: Pacing is backward-looking (it says how far you have gone). Try to build vision-based distance estimation, which is forward-looking. Train yourself to identify an object 50 m away, 100 m away, etc... Execute your routes by running from object to object. This sense of foward-distance will also help you identify terrain features and prevent navigation errors.

In fact, the more you lean on vision-based distance estimation, the more accurate your pace counting will become. Pacing estimates get bad when your route wanders. Your line will be straighter if you are focused on the horizon.
Apr 24, 2023 5:18 PM # 
When I was training more seriously for orienteering, I used to do regular training runs on hilly trails that had every 1/2 mile marked. It was really good for tuning my sense of distance, because I could start counting at each marker and try to guess how many steps to the next. I built a sense for how steepness and speed affected my stride length.

After I had finely calibrated my pace on that trail, then I would make a game of guessing how far to the next bend, and use my pacing to see how close I was.
Apr 24, 2023 5:18 PM # 
Just going to put in a good word for counting every third step, if you’re going to try to count. I find it very natural because it’s basically one count per second if you’re going at a good running speed. Also natural if you swim and breath on alternate sides.
Apr 24, 2023 5:22 PM # 
You just broke my brain Cristina. After two decades of counting every other step, even the idea of changing that pattern is inducing a minor panic attack. LOL.

Edit: I had to go test in the hallway. At first I was afraid it would be like syncopated jazz, but it's actually more like waltzing :-P
Apr 24, 2023 6:00 PM # 
Try a foxtrot, that will really screw up your running! ;-)
Apr 24, 2023 6:40 PM # 
blegg, the idea of counting every other step raises my heart rate, it seems like such an frantic pace.
Apr 24, 2023 7:32 PM # 
I don’t claim to be a good orienteer, but I still default back to pace counting for particularly tricky looking legs or portions of legs. I know my walking pace count is ~60 paces/ 100m and running is ~45/100m. I know it varies with terrain, woods va trail, hills etc but I never modify my count based on those, I just factor it in. If I’m pacing 200 m uphill, I know that I need “a little more than 120” to be where I want to be. It gives me a ball park to start looking for a feature or a flag, without it being a handicap for me that I need. It has saved me from way overshooting or coming up one parallel feature short a large number of times, which is why I keep it as a tool in the toolbox.

Edit: I also don’t let it replace reading the map, it’s an extra helper to verify that I am where I think I am.
Apr 24, 2023 8:11 PM # 
Mr Wonderful:
I'd be willing to bet that is true of 99% of World Champs athletes too.

2023 US team trails middle red winner pace counted during that race.
Apr 24, 2023 9:00 PM # 
with modern detailed orienteering maps isn't nearly as useful

Yes, whenever you have a steam of unique objects that you can reliably identify as you use compass to keep direction, IMO reading this info as you move is the way to go. The genuine need of pace count is quite rare these days, yet there are types of terrain/courses out there, where pace count can be of use if you are good at it.

Say flat terrain with lots of trails and chaotic pits, knolls and other point objects, like after carpet bombing
Apr 24, 2023 9:33 PM # 
I once had an old-timer explain to me how he would pace-count each 100 meters and keep track of how many 100's on his fingers. So far so good, but his unique variation was that he counted in binary on his fingers because he could then count way more than 10 100's.
Apr 24, 2023 11:02 PM # 
That's how I always count on my fingers. 31 with one hand, 1023 if I use both.
Apr 25, 2023 12:54 AM # 
I don't know any international elite athletes who use pace counting or train the skill.

That said it can be useful in very specific situations.

But I'm not convinced it's worth the time to train it when there are far more useful skills.
Apr 25, 2023 1:41 AM # 
This kind of terrain/course

for illustration only
Apr 26, 2023 12:30 AM # 
Here's a question: can we say with any certainty that the elites who don't use pace counting now never used it when they were first learning?

I think how we navigate tends to evolve over the years, and it's often hard to remember how it felt to be new to orienteering and still figuring out the map. I appreciate the input from some of our top navigators that they don't find the skill useful to them now, but I won't stop teaching it as I coach new orienteers. Being able to measure the distance you have traveled is a valuable skill, and pace counting is probably the easiest way to teach someone new to do that because they won't yet have a sense of their own time-distance pacing.
Apr 26, 2023 1:07 AM # 
I am certainly no top navigator... but I also do not pace count. I was taught to do it and have taught others how to do it, but I could count on one hand the number of times I've ever used it on a course. I do feel it's worth teaching to people, along with all sorts of other skills and methods, and then they can pick out which tools are best for their personal use. Personally my brain is usually way too busy to add counting and keeping track of what number I've actually reached...
Apr 26, 2023 2:18 PM # 
I pace count a lot, usually as a backup, just to reassure myself that I'm seeing what I expect to see when I expect to see it. I'm really bad at distance estimation and I have very poor depth perception so it's very helpful at times to know that I just need to keep going or that I should slow down and check what's going on.
Apr 26, 2023 2:44 PM # 
I'm the other way around. I almost never pace count, but I often stop and think, "Ooh, that should be about far enough", and find that what I'm looking for is in fact nearby.
Apr 26, 2023 10:40 PM # 
I pace count when someone at street O sets a MapRun control on a lightpole partway down a straight street. There aren't any markers and I just use the GPS - not the app - to record my trace so I don't get confirmation. I invariably go one lightpole too far.
Apr 27, 2023 12:54 AM # 
cmpbllv, I've never been an elite orienteer, but I've watched several elites go from youth training to national team in Norway, and I don't recall anyone ever teaching or talking about pace counting.

I don't teach pace counting to beginners because I think it gets in the way. You shouldn't need it for beginner/intermediate courses, and the focus is on interpreting the massive amount of information on the map. I've met a few experienced orienteers who seem to have learned pacing and bearings early on and still rely on it, to the detriment of their success, because they have never gained full confidence in their map reading.

This isn't to say that no one should learn or practice pace counting, just that I think it should come in to play once the map reading is solid, when the orienteer is able to do it in the background or as a supplement to map interpretation, not as a primary mode of getting from one control to the next.
Apr 27, 2023 1:31 AM # 
Fascinating. I had no idea this would be so contentious. I wonder if verbal vs. spatial spatial working memory strengths plays into such strong preferences? Personally, I have no problem with maintaining a running pace count in the background while I'm staying in touch with the map. Not all the time, but I use it as a backup when I'm finding a map difficult to interpret. I am *not* advocating teaching people to run with just a bearing and pace.

Some people will absolutely need distance estimation to begin to understand where to look on the map to identify the features in the terrain. They will likely need to learn pace count early. This may be particularly true for those who learn differently, as I've discovered in working with my students at school.

Ultimately, we all learn differently - just because we learned a certain way doesn't mean that way will work for the next person we try to teach. As a teacher, I remind myself of this often when my students are struggling!
Apr 27, 2023 3:01 AM # 
I know I was taught pace counting in my first few years of orienteering. But, I thought remembering numbers and counting while running was too much to keep up with while on a course. So, I never used it.

I have used pace counting recently, however. Ironically only after teaching it to others. I think after not using it, I just forgot pace counting was a tool I could use.

I find I use it in almost exclusively after I've already failed at attacking a control. And every time I use it, I navigate directly to the control feature, at the pace count I expected. But that may be due to slowing down and reading the map as much as the pace count itself.
Apr 27, 2023 7:16 AM # 
@Cristina: How much do you teach beginners about the compass -- if anything?

Re pace counting: Some time back, I measured my pace walking, and at a speed similar to off-trail running (not much faster now...). It's in my O'toolbox, but I only use it when map reading has failed -- or I'm on one of DVOA's French Creek maps.
Apr 27, 2023 9:19 AM # 
An anecdote.
As a planner, one seldom has the chance to watch what people make of the challenges you set. But for a WOC test race once I sneaked out into the woods to watch a leg I thought was hard - diagonally downhill on a gentle slope where all the terrain and vegetation dragged you left. Sure enough people were missing left. Tero/TGIF (then the world #1) arrived and went ... too far left (graeme smugness levels went off the charts).
He ran *precisely* the right distance in the wrong direction. Stopped dead. looked at the map, corrected and went straight to the flag. He did he whole thing so fast it scarcely registered as an error in the splits.
I can't tell you exactly *how* people judge distance - but its definitely a skill the top elites use, and if counting paces is your personal best way to do it, you should.

Me, I hardly ever count paces because I find it a boring way to navigate. I prefer to read the map and look at terrain; that's why I go orienteering FFS. Whenever I do count paces, I'm impressed and depressed at how effective it is.
Apr 27, 2023 9:20 AM # 
Pace counting sure can be nice tool for some rare cases, but I see it as a special elite tool, something some experienced elites might want to learn after mastering everything else to get some edge over rivals. Usually when someone struggles with accuracy of pace counting the real problem is not in pace counting, it is lack of other far more essential skills that makes you rely on pace counting instead of proper methods.

So instead of learning more accurate way to pace count it would be more useful to look at the course and figure why you had to pace count, was it really a viable method and if not what would have been the proper way to execute the leg. But without seeing the brown course in question this is just a guess.
Apr 27, 2023 9:59 AM # 
pace counting was introduced to me when I was a kid and I sometimes tried it, but I felt like it never gave me anything.

My main problem was the fact it was not that compatible to the rest of my technique. See, if you don't directly compare map and features around you, but instead read map features you don't yet see, memorize them, look ahead and as soon as you see them from some distance you read next features behind them (not yet visible), memorize, look ahead and so on, you kind of never get to the point where pace count matches the location your brain is thinking of. And also when you are in the place where you should start counting you have already been for quite some time focusing on some other future features further away. Reverting all the way back to where I am to start counting or check counts was so disturbing. And pace counting just the last steps to the flag did not give anything over simple distance estimation by feel. But like graeme wrote, if you feel it is the way for you to do it, you should, especially for last step to the flag it can be useful. But make sure it is not limiting you from learning other skills.
Apr 27, 2023 8:25 PM # 
Apparently I am old school. In anything but a sprint event, I always pace count. I will acknowledge that as the quality of maps has improved pace counting is less needed because you can rely on the map details. That wasn't the case in my early days when maps sucked, weren't totally accurate, and generalized things so you couldn't be sure if what you saw was what was mapped. For all you younger orienteers who don't recall these days, you are welcome.
In terms of training, I pace count when running so I keep in practice. I only count every other step (when my right foot hits the ground). I also do distance estimation, I.E. pick out a object down the road, estimate how far it is and then pace count to it.
Although I don't do it anymore, I use to do road runs with orienteering maps and pretend I was on a course, pace counting from imaginary feature to imaginary feature visualizing things in my head. Without pace counting I don't think you can do that.
I also still encourage everyone to pace count (or use some other distance estimation technique) so they always know how far they have gone.
Apr 28, 2023 2:53 PM # 
It's funny, I always think of it like a specific pre-planned response. Example:

-With a map with normal density of features, it is not useful. Follow the compass to the next stepping stone / terrain shape. That provides constant confirmation and is superior.

-When there are no features, shapes or excessive features, then use it with precision (meaning measure and count and go 20% further before panicking). If the map is available before the race, these areas can be located ahead of time as "danger zones". Also useful for simplifying short legs that are shorter than the length of your compass tip (2cm short compass). Just pace count for a few hundred meters and focus on the control circle enter/exit.

In other words, in flat and featureless terrain, (measure and) use it. Excessive complexity leading to the control circle, (measure and) use it. It is a pre-planned response in only those two situations and the only difficulty is in identifying the situation that it is handy. Other than that, just stay in contact with the map or practice until you are able to. Certainly distance estimation/execution is a huge weakness in inexperienced orienteers. In my analysis, most orange-green transition orienteers make huge mistakes in this category about 1-3 times a race and end up stopping before getting to the target zone. The experienced ones do not. Rarely do pace-counters stop too short because they are pulled off by a parallel error or confusing terrain they didn't expect; they just simplify that info into the ether and keep moving. They usually stop short because they don't know their own pace count for the given terrain:).
Apr 28, 2023 5:24 PM # 
I guess I count as an 'elite' orienteer and I do pace count (see my pace-counting at TT was even mentioned above! =)) Anyways, like many have mentioned, it's just one and a pretty minor tool in my o-technique tool box. It gets pulled out in vague terrain, *or* in detailed terrain, where I can still run at a good clip that I feel like I know my pace count at and it lets be ignore/not double guess features on my way in. Without it, I would sometimes stop at a similar feature too soon and lose time.

So that's how I use pace counting most often -as a confidence booster to continue far enough to the control.
Apr 28, 2023 10:48 PM # 
One of the disadvantages of thumb compasses is that with most of them is hard to measure distance with. A baseplate would usually have at least one ruler. In contrary to what was mentioned above, in my opinion, the more accurate maps have become, the more reliable measuring distance and pace counting afterwards has become. I think that even if you have a good time/distance travelled feeling and/or an amazing depth perception, it would still be difficult to know the distance travelled accurately if you are running in a dense forest or anywhere that is not open enough to see at least a few hundreds of meters forward. Long ago I measured and memorized different pace counts for different scenarios (e.g. 1] up on a moderate hill on a trail, 2] horizontal sandy trail) both for walking and running and am using it till date. Also, and although it is considered a big no-no by many experienced orienteers - I do occasionally use an attack point that is not a discrete feature and is just based on a random point that I got to using pace counting (e.g. on a trail, 75 meters from the previous trail intersection). For me it is a powerful tool. I do agree though that this should not be the primary tool and in fact, if orienteering would be just shoot an azimuth -> measure distance -> go -> pace count, it would be a very technical and boring sport :-)
Apr 29, 2023 10:56 AM # 
Pace counting takes a lot of practice and if you use it every time you are out there. Eventually you will get to know your own pace count and you should not even have to measure with your compass. It should be one of those tools that comes naturally. You should not be using it only when you need to. The count should be in the back of your mind at all times and not even realize it. Different terrain, vegetation and scale all matter so it ain't easy. It is only easy when you get so used to it that the habit becomes natural and you know something feels wrong if you are NOT pace counting.
Apr 29, 2023 1:51 PM # 
I learned to pace count early in my o career, and the person who taught me told me to count every *fourth* step (ie, every other right footfall). While perhaps a bit less accurate, it has the benefit of not getting into reply high numbers.
But I almost never pace count.
On the other hand, PG counts constantly, almost subconsciously, and it’s there when he needs it.
I like Ali’s point that it can be useful in vague, featureless terrain as well as terrain with many features (like West Point, with a mapped feature nearly every 10 meters!).
Apr 29, 2023 5:46 PM # 
PG also pace counts vertically, and his brain works in other ways unlike the rest of ours. On more than on occasion, I saw him, shortly after finishing a long, difficult course (once was a US Champs Blue, the other a Highlander) rattle off the number of lines of climb on each leg without looking at the map. I don't know if he can still do this, but I've never been aware of anybody else who could (maybe there are some out there).

He also has a story from his army days about needing to estimate the distances to some targets in order to aim artillery. He would take a look, decide which golf club he'd choose, and translate that to yards.
Apr 29, 2023 6:31 PM # 
Apr 30, 2023 5:18 AM # 
I suspect that semi-subconscious pace counting is not a skill that is possible for all orienteers.
Apr 30, 2023 9:55 AM # 
How bad can the orienteering get if the orienteer is not taught pace counting and its importance?
Sadly, we get to see the answer to that a lot at orienteering events in Florida. We get a lot of school teams coming to our events. Their instructors are supportive but not very experienced in competitive orienteering. For many the instructors’ ideas of orienteering are garnered from the military or the Scouts. That is ‘shoot an azimuth and follow it’. Stop when you go the right distance. But in many cases the instructors neglect to make sure the students know how to measure to the correct distance either on the map with the compass or in the terrain by pace counting.
Further exacerbating the situation is that much of the Florida orienteering terrain is in extensive pine flatwoods where there are often only four types of distinctive features – oak trees, palm trees, palmetto bushes and young oak thickets- and those are spread few and far between. One can go a long way on compass before getting to the desired feature.
Frankly, students can get through the novice level courses by following line features where the need for pace counting can be overlooked. Then the move up to intermediate (orange) and advanced (green) courses happens. ‘Shooting azimuths’ across a couple of hundred meters of flatwoods or running along a trail to a certain attack point are difficult to do if the orienteer does not know how to measure those hundreds of meters or can’t use distance measurement to pick out which is the correct attack point.
How bad can it get? Go to, select Results and pick any event and then the Livelox tab. Select any of JOF, JOM, JGF or JGM courses and see the crazy amount of overshooting that takes place. Some of the overshooting is so bad that it is a wonder the students ever find their way back. (Good thing we use Livelox live recording and monitoring. We can phone the over-shooting students to get them turned around and heading back.)
In conclusion: When should we be teaching pace counting to the new and up and coming orienteers? Probably not at the beginner level. Don’t teach it if they are not going to need it. That just suggests they can ignore the skill. One series of lesson plans I saw in Sweden stresses the map, the map and the map as the three most important tools to learn in beginning orienteering. The same series brought in distance measurement and pace counting at the next level, including varying the paces needed according to the difficulty of the terrain.
Visualization parallels such as how far can I hit that golf ball as suggested above? Or throw the football, baseball? are useful tools too. You may not use a sports analogy but do you find yourself looking ahead and saying something like 'that tree is about 100 meters ahead'? If you are doing it and getting it right then you are on your way to simplified pace counting (or should it be known as the Gagarin technique).
Apr 30, 2023 7:26 PM # 
@JJ Foxtrot? I recommend the waltz when orienteering. Viennese in 401 Open land.

Buidling on KFish's post: Someone once promoted to me the idea of working out both one's walking and running paces, in a pace-counting-adds-value situation. Their rationale was that reaching one's running paces means, "starting seriously looking for the feature," while reaching one's walking paces means, "consider the possibility that one has over-shot the feature.
Apr 30, 2023 7:34 PM # 
Another $0.02, somewhat tangential and certainly not very profound...

For newbies in my skills development events, I have them obtain their 100m pace count, explain 'orienting by reference to features,' and send them on a short Yellow-ish course to complete without using a compass.

Having then proven to themselves that one can basically do orienteering without a compass, I give them compass instruction and send them on a short no-map course with decoy controls near the correct controls.

Lastly, I send them on an Orange course and find that they are much relieved to have a map to work with again.

The whole point of this approach is to pull newbies away from the common fascination with compass gadgetry and focus their time on getting comfortable with the map.
May 19, 2023 1:09 PM # 
yurets - pretty intriguing map. Where is that? And what are all the pits from?? Thx.
May 19, 2023 8:01 PM # 
What are all the pits from? Probably from 1939-45.
My dad served in WWII for the RCNVR aviation and for a while was assigned to a RAF squadron flying mosquitos on bombing missions over Germany. He told me that he and a considerable number of others did not agree with bombing civilian targets so they took it on themseves to pick on forests and fields when they could find them. Perhaps that was why he was soon assigned back to the RCNVR.
May 19, 2023 8:17 PM # 
Voronezh 1942-43
May 20, 2023 1:13 AM # 
Oh. Wow. Thank you both!

This discussion thread is closed.