Sword Play Needs Physical Conditioning, Too!

Or, Three Biggest Areas of Risk to Swordplay That Can Be Mitigated Through Appropriate Physical Conditioning. That’s a Lot of Words.

You pull your mask down over your face, stand tall and raise your sword in salute to your opponent. That accursed drip of sweat trickles down the side of your nose and into the corner of your mouth. Your safety gear feels tighter against your torso now than it did at the start, if only because you’re breathing heavier. And now you notice a drop of perspiration threatening to glide over your brow and into your eyes.

The marshal calls and the bout continues. You’ve been at it for a couple of minutes now. Or is it only 30 seconds? It’s your fourth bout of the afternoon and your master arm feels tired. It doesn’t feel so masterly now!

You pass forward and adopt a high hanging guard. Instantly, your opponent leaps at you, two hands on the sword, and you see — or do you kind of just feel it? — their pelvis move slightly, as the right hip slides a little to their right — your left. Lifted straight from the text, their hands punch forward and the right shoulder turns toward you as their feet lift off the ground.

It’s almost in slow motion now — you see the body fly toward you, blade projecting in an almost-zornhau, and track it’s change of direction at the last minute. You know the cut will fly across the body at your forearms. You see it before it happens, you know exactly what you need to do to break it, to win the point, but ...

your arms won’t move fast enough.

Your opponent wins the point. You had the skill, the knowledge and the wisdom to do what had to be done. But your body was no longer physically capable of doing the thing you wanted. All was fine at the start of the day but here, now, tired and weary worn, there was nothing left.


In this short series of articles, I’ll unpack one or two key points surrounding the three things that contribute most to injury and lack of enjoyment in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). I promise you I’ll be biased in what I decide to cover and let you fill in your own gaps as you will. Enjoy the ride! We start by covering the idea of physical conditioning.

Physical Conditioning

My school, the Glen Lachlann Estate College of Arms (GLECA), thoroughly embraces physical conditioning. We do not believe that practising the skills alone is enough. We do not believe that practise alone makes perfect (practise, rather, makes permanent. What happens if your practise is flawed? Think on that for a moment). We do not believe that every person should look the same when they hold a fencing pose.

We do believe that physical conditioning makes a better fighter. We do believe that physical economy of motion makes a better fighter. We do believe that physical conditioning significantly reduces the risk of injuries. We do believe that having a scientific approach to training makes a better fighter, a safer fighter and a safer College.

And that’s the point that gets the most resistance. Seriously. People acknowledge the need for physical conditioning and then belittle the immense impact and importance it can have on what we do — even if it’s a sin by omission. This concerns me greatly because an unconditioned fighter is a dangerous fighter.

I’m going to say that again, but in bigger words, to make sure the point gets across:

An unconditioned fighter is a dangerous fighter

What I Don’t Mean
It’s easy for you to take offense at this point. It makes sense, I suppose. The most common misunderstanding of what I just said — and that causes offence the most, I think — goes something like this:

“So what you’re saying, Stumac, is that I can’t fight because I’m not as fit as you?”

And that’s it. People erroneously take offence because they think I’m making a judgment call on their health or fitness capacity and that I write them off as an incapable fighter there and then. I’m saddened when this happens — or when people say something like that to me — because it shows a deep misunderstanding of what I’m saying, a deep misunderstanding of what I do for a living and a deep misunderstanding of the amazing potential I see in every person at every level of capacity. And that belief in people, by extension, is what we bring through GLECA.

By way of explanation, I had an introductory session of an extremely physical martial art, Arakan Martial Art, yesterday. It was fantastic. This is a smart, fast, tough and physically demanding art. Here’s the thing, though. I am still in recovery with chronic fatigue syndrome. High intensity exertion is a big problem for me, and usually wipes me out for a few days at least. But the instructor was amazing and he very quickly picked up the signs in me of when I was fatiguing. He moderated the intensity, decreased the duration of drills and the number of repetitions and encouraged me to have a seat when I needed it — after the first self-imposed break he didn’t need me to tell him anything. He just adjusted the whole lesson for me as the student to learn what I could in the safest way possible. In other words, my physical conditioning was low and I was still able to thoroughly enjoy a martial arts lesson of a thoroughly physical art, safely. That right there is an example of exceptional coaching.

No, I’m not saying that anyone has to be a certain fitness level, strength or skill level to fight. I’m simply saying that the more conditioned you are, the less likely it is that you’ll have certain types of injuries in your training and combat. I’m also saying that to reduce the occurrence of those injuries, the best thing to do is to physically condition yourself, slowly, so that your body has time to adapt, as well as increase your skill level.

What I Do Mean
What I’m really on about here is the intensity of training (or fighting) an individual would be wise to undertake, if they are of a certain level of physical conditioning. This intensity moves along a continuum, and the position along that continuum determines the intensity, duration, and speed of training and fighting. As you improve your conditioning level you can increase your intensity and other elements. If you go beyond your current capacity you run the risk of personal injury (tissue damage, for example) or of injuring someone else (fatiguing suddenly, such that you can’t control the blade as well as you could 30 seconds ago, and so hit your opponent in the neck unwillingly).

Come with me to my chalk board and let’s explore some scenarios!


Scenario 1: Low Physical Conditioning
In Scenario 1 we see a sword fighter who is currently in a state of low physical conditioning. They have not yet progressed their body’s capacities far beyond the state of novice. Notice the three scales we are exploring at the moment:

  1. Physical conditioning has to do with physical fitness elements such as strength, speed, power, endurance, flexibility, active range of motion and cardiovascular fitnesses.
  2. Speed of training has to do with how fast you can perform practise drills and how fast you engage in freeplay/bouting/combat.
  3. Intensity is to do with how extreme or strong the force and effort required is. To qualify this, engaging in a difficult, fast fight is a high intensity. Engaging in tasks that require a lot of thinking and cognitive effort is high intensity. Performing lots of cardiovascular exercises that increases the heart rate above about 120bpm could be considered high intensity for many people; bodyweight exercises such as pushups, burpees, pullups and squats can all be high intensity. Intensity levels are often relative — what one person considers high intensity another may consider moderate intensity.
  4. Duration Duration has to do with how long you do something — 10 minutes or an hour?

The triangles represent the level a person would be at in each of these scenarios.

Scenario 1: Low Physical Conditioning

Notice in this case the fighter with a low physical conditioning level should engage in low speed training with a low to moderately low intensity and short duration. In other words, if you are not well conditioned to the sport, your safest bet is to go slow and don’t go too long while you gain the ability to perform safely.

Scenario 2: Low Physical Conditioning
That’s not the only possibility for safe training. Have a look at the image below.

Scenario 2: Low Physical Conditioning

Notice that in this case the fighter with the low physical conditioning level can change the parameters slightly. You’ll notice the intensity and duration have been dialled right down while the speed has been increased to a moderate speed. In other words, you can increase the speed but you need to do it for a shorter period of time and at a lower intensity.

By understanding these two scenarios we can easily moderate the enjoyment for the participant (or ourselves!). A longer training session, drill or fight can be sustained safely if it is of a lower speed or intensity. Or, the speed can be increased as long as the intensity is kept to a minimum to reduce the risk of various fatigues.

To be fair, that’s just summarising it for the low conditioned student. What about the highly conditioned student?

Scenario 3: High Physical Conditioning
When we explore the opposite end of the spectrum, we can fill in the gaps. We can get an idea of the sliding nature of what we do and lay a foundation to appreciate the increased safety this approach brings.

Scenario 3: High Physical Conditioning

In this scenario, we discover a place where everything is harder, hotter and higher. The body that is well conditioned can perform drills, fighting and other tasks at a higher speed with less concern than someone less conditioned. They can perform at a higher intensity and go for longer. Notice that the intensity and duration is not as high as the speed. This is the safest approach to training. There is another possibility I’d like us to consider.

Scenario 4: High Physical Conditioning
In this final scenario, we see once again a shift in the continuums.

Scenario 4: High Physical Conditioning

The physical conditioning has remained high. The speed of training has decreased — so the person is fighting slower, performing drills slower, doing warm ups slower — and their intensity and duration have increased. In other words, we can manipulate the variables to increase the intensity to be significant but we do so only at a lower speed. The lower speed allows us to increase the time slightly.

We can see a direct relationship between intensity, duration, speed and physical conditioning. It’s a sliding scale, which allows us to moderate the experience depending not just upon the goal of the lesson but on the physical conditioning of the student and on how far through the lesson they are. Closer to the beginning will allow greater intensities and speeds, while closer to the end will mean the student is more fatigued and needs to do things slower and with less need for neurological processing and muscular effort.



Passing Through the Longpoint

Everything comes down to something, I suppose. And in this case, it all comes down to physical conditioning. That’s my longpoint. Everything passes through it.

The end of the point, then, the very tip, is that if someone is at one end of the conditioning continuum but you train them as if they’re at the other end, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Their failure. Or if it’s you, your failure.

So please, don’t do it.

We can predict where those failures will be. We really can have a reasonably accurate idea of it. That’s why we do risk stratifications in my industry. That’s why we use the Australian industry standard risk stratification in GLECA at the start of each year. The thing that’s not as predictable is when the injuries will occur. But that’s okay because we can implement management and conditioning strategies designed to protect against their occurrence regardless of the probability of a hazard occurring.

The Three Areas of Risk

In every fight or training lesson, then, I can generalise the primary areas of risk into one of three categories. The wonderful thing about this is that most of the risks associated with these categories can be significantly reduced (and maybe even eradicated) through an appropriately progressed physical conditioning program that is actually quite simple to incorporate into the weekly training schedule. These articles aren’t designed to give you that program or one like it. They are designed to highlight the areas of risk and how they are impacted through lack of conditioning — and how they lead to injury in the training and competition space. I desperately hope that people will read this material and realise a need to change the way we do things — from the ground up.

Below are the three areas of risk as I see them.

1. Tissue Load

This has to do with the various forces that tissues in the body are placed under. Some examples are friction, tensile force, compressive force, shearing force and torsional force. Then there are the different tissues at play, all of which have different properties. They may be elastic, inelastic, lubricative, excitable, resistant to great compressive forces, able to generate great tensile forces, able to withstand forces through one plane but not another. The ill-conditioned fighter who puts the tissues through too much of these over time is likely to experience some kind of fatigue which can lead to injury of their own body or injury of someone else’s because they can no longer control the tissues well, for a time. And let’s face it, it only takes “a time” for someone to get hurt.

2. Neurological Fatigue

This one is huge, underrated and misunderstood. Learning new material, physically training, feeling emotions, relating to strangers, thinking and making decisions all tax your nervous system’s reserves. Heat, being tired, hungry and dehydrated all do the same. That’s a terrible thing to have happen in something so complex and important as swordplay because the only thing that is managing your body is your nervous system. The only thing. I’ll say it again, but bigger.

The only thing managing your body is your nervous system.

If your nervous system is fatigued and you’re in the middle of the fight, if the thing that has control over your judgment of distance, speed and your control of the movements of your weapons, if that thing is fatigued, is unable to function at its optimum, then we find ourselves in a most unfortunate — and preventable — state. You can’t control your blade — even though you think you can — you aren’t making good decision — even though you think you are — and you are putting yourself and your opponent in danger of being harmed. Do you have a plan to avoid that scenario??

The physically conditioned fighter is one that has trained to develop a higher fatigue threshold and has trained to sustain higher training and combat loads without as much compromise in their control or judgment. It’s a slow process of conditioning and must be done in very small, stepwise progressions.

3. Cardiovascular Fitness

This one seems like a no-brainer, so it’s intriguing that so many people think it has no place in what we do. “Go for a run on your own time,” they say. Well, forgive me, but running is extremely different to fighting, and that’s what this is all about, the specificity of your training.

There is firstly a very real risk of sudden heart event. By this, I mean onset of atrial fibrillation or perhaps heart failure. A sword fight is the perfect place for something like this to happen — a person’s heart is working hard, it’s a highly competitive, slightly dangerous environment where anxiety may be increased and the fighter is dressed in multiple thick layers of clothing. They are likely to be overheated and dehydrated. The heart is working hard and, well, let’s just say that this is the perfect place for an unconditioned body full of cardiac risk factors to experience not just risk, but reality. It’s no different to having people start doing high intensity gym programs after years of inactivity. And like people going to a gym or personal trainer, the risk can be screened and managed very safely.

Or what about taking and using oxygen? If you can’t take the oxygen in, or if your muscles can’t use it efficiently, your tissues get fatigued quicker and you can physically no longer control the muscles well. They are physically incapable of activating properly. It’s impossible. It’s both physics and chemistry and it’s immutable. That’s a big word for, “argue with me and you will look like a fool”. Blunt. A little offensive. But seriously, this stuff has been around for about 100 years. There’s enough science behind it to fuel a trip to the moon. Well, I don’t know about that last bit. But you get my drift.

Increase your fitness for the fight and you’ll increase your chances of success. Not only that, you decrease the chances of you being incapable of sustaining control of your weapon — it’s not just your safety, it’s your opponent’s we’re talking about. And then there’s the problem of lack of oxygen to the brain and how it impairs judgment. And then there’s the problem of hyperventilating to get enough air in, leading to increased CO2 levels, leading to increased anxiety, leading to poor judgment and on it goes. This is no fairytale, peoples, this is real life.

By improving your cardiovascular fitness appropriately, you can significantly improve your performance in the fight and significantly decrease the risk of harming yourself self and others. Seriously, what’s not to be happy about?


Conclusion

Physical conditioning is so important for life — and no less for swordplay! It makes it more enjoyable, sustainable and safe, especially when progressed slowly and smartly. There are three major areas of risk that are present in every training lesson and competition (tissue load, neurological fatigue and cardiovascular fitness) and they can all be significantly reduced through appropriate physical conditioning.

In the near future, I will have an article related to each of these elements. We will explore why they are important, some of the biology behind their function and how appropriate physical conditioning can improve performance in these areas and significantly reduce the risks associated with them.