The Fencers Body

No one really cares about an old sprinter, but old fencers? That’s not a bad thing to be. An aged fencing master is a pretty revered thing. We expect them to be brilliant, cranky, capable of the occasional brilliant bout that puts the current champion in his place, and constantly spouting Yoda-like mysterious wisdom. If Yoda swore a lot.

It’s not a bad goal for every fencer to aim for that lofty goal at the end of their performance arc. If you’ve got the talent, the knack, why not? The only real bump in that plan is that competitive sword work and longevity are two things that do not go hand in hand. Competitive sword work and repetitive strain injuries go hand in hand…or reconstructive surgery. Or rehabilitative physical therapy. Rapier and longsword training for performance can trash the body…unless we take the right approach to training.

Fitness isn’t just a trick up your sleeve that makes you a better fencer. It’s a support mechanism that keeps you training. If you take the weekend warrior approach to swordfighting…like so many people in the SCA…you are going to be constantly straining your body. Every time you fence, you’re pushing yourself to do an activity you aren’t prepared for. If your only physical activity is a once a week HEMA class where you do a half-assed warm up and some drills, you aren’t really prepared to compete.

Sure, you might have some fine shots. You might have a knack for one or all of the aspects of swordplay, and you win a lot of your fights. But you aren’t doing your body any favours. And you aren’t performing anywhere near your best, either.

Building an athletic body isn’t easy. You can’t just run out and start working out like a champ every single day. It takes time. Time and knowledge. Building a fit and healthy body that can support good training is something you have to plan for and work up to in stages. You put the effort into learning all the plays of the sword, put that same effort into have a body that do those plans day in and day out without pain. If you are starting out from a place of no fitness, you should plan on spending at least a year to get to a correct base level of fitness.

Start with one strength workout a week. Two a week is better, but one will do. Strength is the foundation for everything. It even makes aerobic work easier. The beginning phase might last you three to six months. You move past that phase by adding in a third day a week of exercise…and yes, these are in addition to your martial arts training. The third day should still be strength training.

From three days a week of training you make the jump to five or six days a week. You have to judge your own capacity. Recovery is the most important element of training. You should feel completely recovered by your next session. Lets say we add three days of running to our three days of strength. We strength train Monday-Wednesday-Friday, we run Tuesday-Tursday-Saturday, and Sunday we watch TV and drink beer. On Wednesday when we strength train, we should feel as strong as we did Monday. On Friday we should feel as strong as we did Wednesday. If we feel weak or tired, we are probably overtraining and need to slack off. We may not have the capacity to train more than three days a week. Or we might have to change our nutrition or other factors.

From six days a week we can start to work on training more than once a day. This should only happen after the first year. When we hit this stage of training, we start to incorporate technical martial arts drills into our training program. We might also look at training in 10, 14, or 28 day splits, working seven days or more in a row. You start to mix up the intensity of each block of training…some weeks being easy, some being very hard. Performance is measured in volume of work done or weight lifted over the course of a week.

That’s the world of the competitive athlete, anyway. All that heavy work just to sustain the body for elite competition. Most of us should aim for a five or six workout a week pace if we want to get and stay fit. If we want to just maintain health over our life, three days a week is the minimum…some people can do with two days a week if they have the lucky genetics. One day a week doesn’t do much.

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