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Sword play

Swish, Spar, strike. As you play at being a medieval knight, find yourself getting lighter and quicker on your feet, and a whole lot fitter. Vidya Balachander tells more.

health and fitness Updated: Aug 01, 2009 14:36 IST
Vidya Balachander

On a regular cement floor, fencing feels deceptively slight. Swords in hand, the opponents pace back and forth in quicksilver steps. Their movements are measured — this game may involve swordplay but there’s very little aggression on display. Every once in a while, a player may take a big stride and leap in the air. You may hear a clang when metal meets metal, but it lasts only a few seconds. Far from a competitive sport, fencing sometimes resembles poetry.

But don’t let the apparent delicacy of the sport deceive you. Fencing demands both skill and stamina. If the rapid movements are all about quick reflexes and sharp thinking, the long hours on your feet are a test of agility, your cardiovascular ability and your balance. In other words, fencing is a great overall workout.

So if you have tired of the treadmill and yoga isn’t doing you any good, you know what you should be trying out next.

Mighty antecedents
Fencing has its origins in European schools of swordsmanship. In Europe in the 12th century, this system of combat was considered essential knowledge for members of the aristocracy. It involved not just the use of swords, but also other weapons such as daggers, rapiers, shields and pole axes. In medieval Europe, fatal injuries weren’t uncommon during fencing duels.

Being adapted into an Olympic sport in 1896 blunted the game’s dangerous edge. The sharp swords that were used for duelling were replaced with lightweight swords without tips or edges. The focus was no longer on wounding — or killing — but instead on “touching” the opponent’s body with the sword, and preventing him from doing the same. Rules and regulations came into place: Modern fencers need to wear several layers of protective clothing as well as masks to prevent injury. With these modifications, what was once a brutal system of combat became a completely safe sport.

Tougher than it looks
Fencing may look simple, but it is tough skill to master. “It takes a minimum of six months to learn fencing,” says Kedar Dhawle, coach of the Maharashtra state fencing team and secretary of the Mumbai Suburban Fencing Association, who takes classes in several locations in Mumbai. “It doesn’t mean just touching the swords.”

It’s easy enough to understand what the big deal is the first time you try fencing. An average session is a whopping two-and-a-half hours long. The first 25 minutes are intended to get you warmed up for combat. By the time you finish the stretching and strengthening exercises, you’re already breaking a sweat. And you haven’t even got started on the aerobic exercises, which include skipping, jumping and running.

The next 15 minutes are devoted to footwork. What may that be, did you ask? “Footwork is the main thing to be able to move forward and backward,” says Dhawle. “Persisting with it till you get the footwork right can be very boring but it is very important.” Being fleet-footed is essential for fencing. There is no scope for being clumsy or stumbling over your own feet.

As part of footwork, you’re also taught the correct postures used in fencing. You have to keep both your knees bent at all times. Over time, this is sure to improve your lower body strength and coordination.

Once you have somewhat understood the basics of footwork, you proceed to the actual techniques of attack and defence.
Celebrating the event Modern fencing is divided into three ‘events’ — foil, epee and sabre — named after the swords used in these categories. The foil is a light and flexible sword. The ‘target area’ of this event is from the shoulder to the waist, which means that’s where you are allowed to touch the opponent.

The epee is the heaviest of the three weapons. In this event, you can ‘pinch’ your opponent with a sword anywhere on his/her body.
The sabre is also a light sword, but this is considered the toughest because it is very fast-paced. All three events have intricate rules about attack, defence and what constitutes a ‘touch’ or ‘pinch’. These are impossible to comprehend in a single session. So if you do plan to take fencing classes, don’t expect to be a pro overnight.

What you can be sure of is that you won’t have many dull moments while learning fencing. For a bystander, the game is a visual treat. Like the Indian martial art kalaripayattu, fencing is all about theatrical flourish and clinical precision. For the practitioners, it is a workout for both body and mind.

Ask the experts

Run longer, faster with more energy

I’ve been jogging on and off for several years but cannot jog for more than 40 minutes or run too fast. How can I improve this? Also, I find it hard to jog in the evenings after work but I have no problems on weekends. Is running thrice a week enough? I’m 30 years old, 5’6” tall and weigh 62 kg.
Monika Gupta

I am assuming that the reason you cannot run for longer than 40 minutes is due to exhaustion. Jogging, like any other physical activity, puts stress on your body and repetitive workouts can cause more harm than good. If your body is fatigued or paining, that is its way of telling you all’s not well. In your case, I don’t believe that the problem is that significant and I feel that we can assist you to overcome your 40-minute barrier.

The first step is to bring structure into your workouts. A sure way to do that is to set a specific goal for yourself. At present, 40 minutes appears to be the maximum that you are able to jog and, thus, train. You need to adjust the type of session you have planned, but make small, reasonable changes and not drastic ones that will discourage you.

There are two sessions that I suggest you incorporate into your training regime. These will expose the body to alternative training stimuli and help it adjust to those stimuli in a controlled manner.

The first is setting your goal to a 60 minute workout. There are various combinations you can use, each with its own difficulty level.

Jog 20 min – fast walk 10 min – jog 20 min – fast walk 10 min. This will expend the most calories and will allow for faster adaptation.

Jog 30 min – fast walk 15 min–jog 15 min. Although less stressful, it will assist in achieving your goal.
Jog 10 min — fast walk 10 min. Repeat thrice; the easiest of the lot.

Continue with this for 6 weeks. It will help you increase your running time, and reduce recovery time. If you can slowly increase the jogging and maintain the walk, you’ll ultimately be in a position to train for longer periods

Once you can jog continually for 60 minutes, you can re-evaluate your goal to 80 minutes and so on.

The second weekday training should see you trying something different, so work on your anaerobic threshold. This too will allow for longer training sessions and benefit the length of time you are able to jog. Plus, it will break the routine. You could do a 15 minute jog and stretch and follow it up with:

Run 100m at 60 per cent (of your maximum) — walk back. Repeat 10 times. Rest for 5 min. Sprint 50m at 70 per cent — walk back. Repeat 6 times. Rest for 5 min. Sprint 30m at 80 per cent — walk back. Repeat 5 times.

Run 400m at 40 per cent. Walk 400m. Repeat 5 times.

Run 200m at 30 per cent, 200m at 40 per cent, 200m at 50 per cent. Rest 8 min. Repeat 6 times.

Cool off with a 15 minute jog and rest at the end of each.

If you follow this type of training your body will cope easier when you revert to a 40 minute jog. I suggest that you keep your workouts to thrice a week. Once you have developed your athletic potential you can consider including another session.
One final thought regarding the fatigue you feel during the week. Work, stress and other factors use up energy, so drink more water during the day, eat foods that have a higher carbohydrate content (less fat) and avoid sugars. If at any stage, you feel really tired and don’t feel like jogging, substitute it with a long walk.

Monika’s question has been answered by Marc Labuschagne, track and field head coach, and member of the Elite Athlete Performance consultants.

Get cracking
That popping sound when you crack your knuckles ain’t so bad. Know the science, so that next time you can indulge without any guilt.

It’s all about O2
In joints like our knuckles, oxygen from the bloodstream diffuses into the fluids around the joints. These fluids do the job of reducing friction by lubricating the joint, supplying oxygen and nutrients and removing carbon dioxide and metabolic wastes.

What makes the pop?
When forcible pressure is applied, the oxygen diffused into the fluid gets expunged with a sound. That’s what we call the cracking of knuckles.

While most people can only do this with their knuckles, others can do it with other joints as well, like ankles or toes. Chiropractors and physiotherapists sometimes crack a joint when there is a restriction. This is known as ‘manipulation’ and needs to be done professionally.

What you wanted to know, but never knew whom to ask

Is it bad for you?
By itself it makes no difference. The air that is expunged is slowly replaced by oxygen from the blood stream again. So in about ten minutes, you would be able to crack the joint once again. Problems only arise if a ligament is stretched. Since the tissues are forcibly stretched into the manoeuvre this is possible, though not very likely.

Can it... cause arthritis?
No, this is an old wives’ tale. make fingers fatter? No, there’s no truth to it. lower grip strength? Not really. elongate joints? No.

So can you do it all the time?
Chiropractor Stuart Clifton recommends not getting too used to cracking your knuckles. While it’s okay occasionally, if you become a maniacal knuckle cracker, you might wind up with ligament laxity, which means that the ligament becomes loose and flexible. This adds wear and tear to the joints.

Why does it feel so good?
One theory about why the cracking of knuckles feels good is that it releases endorphins, the feel-happy hormones. However, if you really want to reap the psychological benefits of endorphin, we recommend you go running instead.