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Orienteering champion Matthias Kyburz

We talked with two-time World Orienteering Champion Matthias Kyburz about training, competition and about one of the most taxing running-based sports you can do on the planet.

Matthias Kyburz is fast.


The 27-year-old Swiss runner has been counted amongst the speediest orienteering champions in the world for over 5 years, boasting three overall World Cup Championships, four World Championship gold medals and over 15 World Cup first place titles in that time. Yet despite so much success, Matthias remains down to earth and humble about his many orienteering victories. Being involved with On for years and starring in many of our most well known pictures (including the one above) we were honored to sit down with to learn more about what is said to be one of the world’s most beautiful athletic pursuits, and the growing interest in orienteering globally.



Matthias, it’s great to catch you as we know how busy you are, so let's jump right in. Tell us how it all began and how you found orienteering.


I started with orienteering at the age of 13. My parents were doing it as a hobby from time to time, but early on, I was playing football and gymnastics half-heartedly. I wasn’t interested in sport so much. But at the age of 13 I got “infected by the orienteering virus”, and from it first catching hold of me then, I rose quickly with it to the top. First I was selected into the regional squad, and then, at the age of 18, I made the leap to the junior national team. At 21 I began my “professional” career and was surprised immediately with winning my first World Cup race. Since then, I have managed to run constantly at this top level.



What question do you get asked the most about orienteering?


I often get asked about if we see the course before hand and the answer is no. You see the map with the course and controls (points to reach) for the first time at the start of the race – so no, there’s no time to sit and study the course. How you attack the controls is your responsibility. This is the interesting part with orienteering: you need to evaluate the pros and cons of each potential route and sequence (climbing effort, distance, running straights) and then decide on the best one to execute – all in the first few seconds of the race.

Every track and terrain is unique so you have to be able to adapt your strategy.

Of course, the most difficult part is to combine the cognitive and the physical aspects of the event. If you run too fast you can`t concentrate will make mistakes. Of course, if you are technically good but lack speed, you again will fail. To find the right balance between running at the edge and finding good routes and executing them well is a real mental game and makes orienteering so fascinating for me.



Talking about the balance of mental and physical, what skills especially do you think you need to be successful in the sport?


First and foremost: strong and fast legs with sturdy footing and good coordination else running through stony forests will not be fun for you. On the technical side, you first should know the symbols used for an orienteering map. Then you should be able to interpret a 2D map into reality, understanding contour lines for hillslopes, where it goes up, down etc. Finally, you need to be able to handle a compass. So in summary, as before: manage to bring running speed and technique into balance and that paves the way for you to become a real orienteer.


With speed and agility (as well as cognitive aspects) needed to be so successful at the sport, what does your training schedule look like?


Normally I train around 15 hours of physical exercise a week in winter. As I just mentioned the winning rimes in orienteering are very diverse, so likewise is my training schedule. Of the 15 hours, about 10 tend to be focused on running. There are long jogs up to 2 hours off road or track intervals or just normal jogging for an hour.

I try to put a lot of intensity into my trainings. If I go at an “easy” pace on flat ground I tend to average around 4min/km.

I also do at least one orienteering training camp in winter and some off-road trainings as well. Additionally, I do two strength trainings with bars (for the legs of course) and an alternative training like cycling or cross country skiing to mix things up.



What factors do you think that have contributed to your success outside hard work?


Ever since I was young, I loved to be outside and active. Now, that has become an itch for me and I dislike sitting all day inside. I think this love of the outdoors combined with a clear goal in mind makes it easy for me to stay motivated. Another thing I do is try to train with good friends so that the training makes even more fun.

There are some trainings which just have to be done, but if the people around you are great, you have more reason to push and stick with it I find.


Off the track and training grounds, where can we find you? What do you do when not on the run?


I am studying biology at the University of Bern, so most probably you can find me at home organising all sport related activities or at the university. Between those two things, time flies!


You’ve been one of the On test runners for years, how have the shoes changed in that time?

I really like the development behind the shoes. A great idea (the Cloud-Tec aspect) from the beginning creating a solid shoe. But the thing I like most is how you continue to improve them even further, using the latest materials to remain ahead of the rest. Since running in On, I haven’t been injured. That`s the most important point when it all comes down to it.



Finally, what advice do you have for someone looking to follow in your footsteps?


Well, you should be motivated (and a little bit crazy) when it comes to orienteering. You can become immersed in it (and should be to succeed) which can lead you to becoming a bit of an orienteering freak... of course, like any elite sport, you need a clear plan about training volume and recovery. To find this balance is essential. With continuity and planning in training you can improve in big ways right through your career. Aside from that, you need to be patient and keep on working on your goals and focus on yourself, even if the results sometimes are not as you want them to be!

You must go your way and create the projects and path that will help you specifically reach the top.