Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Footwork for the Competitive Fencer

2015 Edit
This is my most popular post, possibly because it might have a good title for search terms, but it also needed a bit of editing. The idea is sound and I have applied it to different types of fencing, not the specific forms, but rather footwork being the foundation of swordsmanship. I believe that all martial arts rely on having a firm foundation in the basics.

Even though I am less competitive in general I still had issues with people and their distance causing them and me to have injuries when they were insistent on burying the foil much too deep. Really it is much more pleasurable to fence with someone who gets touches that are just over to pound of pressure it takes to push the foil's tip.

As it gets to winter and we are settling in to our new area I will definitely have to look into fencing around the area more. I do have longer term injuries, possibly from right after this was written, that bother my knee. However, I notice that fencing correctly often keeps my knee from hurting. Just as not having a death grip on the pistol-grip means my hand doesn't hurt as much.

I certainly hope that over the last 4 years the people who have read this post are still out there fencing with a good foundation.

A building's foundation is often the deciding factor in whether the building crumbles or survives a catastrophic event, and how long it will survive over the years or millennia.

Footwork, the  fencer moving the feet and legs, is the foundation to one's fencing. Bad footwork can lead to collapse under an onslaught by the opponent, tripping and meeting the floor. It also steals attack opportunities where a lack of directional change skills means a fencer just has to ignore an opponent's opening. And finally, bad footwork can cause injury over time, knee, ankle, or foot problems that may permanently take one out of the game.

A fencer looking for a club should be watching for a few different things during practice and bouting that should raise flags, if you are lucky enough to have choices of where to fence:

  • Hard hits - Are there many times during bouts where a fencer has to unbend a sword from a 90 degree angle? Grimaces that turn into grin-and-bear-it? Post fencing bragging about how bad bruises are going to look?
  • Missed opportunities - Is a chased fencer so far down the strip when their opponent stops they have walk/run just to be back in the bout?
  • Sloppy fencing - Are the blades just clashing because the steel sounds nice?
As much fun as it is to tease the Epeeists about being the problem, it really isn't their fault. It might be that the club really doesn't care about the basic foundation of fencing, and learning from them will need a huge dose, not a small pinch, of salt.

Who cares what the feet are doing as long as you get the clashing of swords and the satisfying 'beeeeep' of an ambiguous point scored? Right?

But for those who actually want to progress in their fencing, and maybe even compete at a level they are happy with, there is much to practice to get a solid and flexible foundation. Running stairs, squats, calf-raises, leg-press, the list of exercises to train for strength and explosiveness in footwork goes on, so does agility training. I will not cover those as they are not specific to fencing and can be researched thoroughly. I might do a post on that later.

First, basic footwork, just back and forth. This is to keep smooth, correct footwork, not a race to how many lengths of the strip or gym can be done. Take the time to pause and adjust what falls out of form. The feet should be mostly 90 degrees with the heels in-line, the front toe pointing straight down the strip. The heels should be approximately directly under the shoulders. Keep the knees bent and let them be the shock-absorption between feet and hips. They should, at most, be directly over the toes, any further over and long-term injuries are possible. The hips should be rotated to allow the torso to be at the desired angle with the strip. And finally the back should be as though sitting in a chair, not hunched forward. I only mention the back because it will cause over-balance if in a weird position.

Do 60 to 70 meters of this slow, smooth, checking footwork in each direction. Try to keep the head and shoulders level, not bobbing up and down. Use a point on the far wall and focus on keeping that from bobbing. Of course too far and you get parallax issues.

Now do patterns. 2-1, 3-1, 4-1, 2-2, and so-on, mix it up. The focus of this practice is not just the patterns, but also the change of direction, known in fencing circles as COD. COD is extremely important in throwing off an opponent. Another thing to think about is shifting tempos. Try slow, slow, fast for a retreat, advance, advance and many others. This footwork should mostly be done without pauses, not because pauses are not important, but because pauses should be controlled movements, or lack there of, be aware of them and if unintentional then it needs to be removed. Standing still without realizing you are doing so will quickly lead to a situation that could have been avoided. But a pause can also be used to great effect as a lure for your opponent.

After getting more comfortable with this then start fencing ghosts, add in lunges and parries. At first go slow working on form and warming-up. Then start to pick up speed and explosiveness. Use your mobility to its greatest effect.

Lunges are an important part of footwork. A lunge of the correct distance will help to bring the point on target, but a sloppy lunge will definitely allow the opponent a better opportunity.

A good lunge is a combination of two things:

  • A push by the back leg
  • A kick by the front leg
The kick gets the front foot to where it needs to be for the lunge and the push powers the whole action. One should end up with the back leg straight and the front lower leg 90 degrees with the floor. The knee too far over the toe means it is harder to get out of the lunge while putting strain on the knee joint. And too far behind the ankle can mean a collapse inward that can cause knee cap problems. To get out a lunge backwards the back leg needs to pull and flex. If it does not flex then it causes the fencer to stand up, effectively trapping the fencers for a few precious moments while they get their fencing form back.

Partner exercises should be fun and start getting you in the mind of distance, but not in this post. They way of being a good partner is to give feedback on what you observe, positive criticism would be good, so that both of you can improve. A few different ideas for exercises:

  • Step for step. Match footwork with your partner as they lead the exercise. Watch carefully their feet at first, but when comfortable you should be able to see the whole body including the feet without directly staring at any one piece. After a few minutes stop and trade feedback, then switch roles.
  • One partner comes on-guard and starts to do advances and then retreats, about 10 each. The other partner walks holding their foil at eye height. Watch for bobbing or rocking. Give feedback and switch roles a few times.
There are many more ideas out there and I will get into more drills and exercises with the distance drills with partners.

Fencing on the Strip
I know that everyone wants to get out there and have a grand-old-time, but if your footwork drills are lacking then it is hardly likely that you will keep good form when under pressure. Last night Tom Lutton definitely showed me that I could be doing quite a bit more footwork practice as well as distance and timing. Given, he is an A rated fencer and has very good form, so not to listen to him would be folly. Some more advice and teaching he gave to us is not to pause in your footwork, either move or do something, do not just hangout in the most dangerous zone, and especially bad if you stop moving. Lots of things to think about, but one of the most important is that with practice the footwork should become second nature, then distance and timing comes more easily and can be built on a solid foundation of footwork, not to mention building bladework on that solid foundation.

This Last Week or So
I have been running and walking for cardio exercise. I haven't started to do any drills at home, need to add that to my routine. A bit tough to do when it is raining outside and inside is so small. Not really an excuse. Would like to know what you are doing. Cardio, strength, drills?

Monday, November 07, 2011

If Fencing, Learn to Fence!

When I was growing up practicing meant sitting on the hard piano bench and maybe playing, but mostly waiting for a half-hour to roll by. Homework was a once or twice a school-year occurrence mostly consisting of a science fair project or some other large project, even through high-school. So I do not have a stellar record for discipline and practicing, but I am beginning to see the purpose.

Right now there is a severe lack of discipline in our fencing group, everyone wants to fence, by which they mean sparring, not learning to fence but just beating each other about the head in hopes of landing a point. It isn't that bad, but it is getting worse. I am not the most disciplined person in the world, but somehow my meager practice and discipline stand out over most of the rest of the group.

A Call for Discipline
We could all use more discipline as a group. The good thing is that there does seem to be a bit of warm-up discipline, most fencers will jog around the gym a couple times and do high-kicks and side steps. This is a good thing to keep up, however, it should be slightly expanded for most to include arm stretches and individual footwork.

The point of the warm up is to get muscle groups working together and warmed up. This may help to develop muscle groups for those who don't do anything else throughout the week, but for someone in decent shape the warm up will do nothing but get the blood, muscles, and bones moving. If a fencer were to commit a solid thirty minutes to working on cardio, muscle group strengthening, and fencing specific individual things such as footwork and point-control, then and only then would I say that is a start.

In fact I would say that 30 minutes once a week of intense individual fencing practice would be for those who plan to never go to a tournament, who enjoy fencing just for fencing, but who need to maintain a level of activity and skill in order to keep up with those who plan to be competitors.

The leisure fencers should also work to maintain their bladework and distance skills by doing partner practices for about 30 minutes a week as well. This is to keep from injuring their fellow fencers. This is a sport based off of three weapons, there will certainly be injuries and bruises, but they can be lessened by in large by good form and decent control.

Competitive fencers, or really any fencer who plans to go to a tournament, even if they claim just to be fencing for fun, should be held to a higher level.

Cardiovascular Condition: Should be able to maintain intensity through a 3 minute fencing period. For direct eliminations, or larger tournaments, should be able to maintain 3 of those periods with 1 minute breaks in between. Smartly choosing intensities and tactics for different bouts in order to conserve/be ready for all day fencing. I run 5 to 10 miles a week currently, but I have very little good experience and knowledge at correctly choosing intensity and overall tournament strategy. I feel stronger and more energetic on the strip than I have for nearly 3 years before I picked up running again. I would suggest anything from power-walking for 2-3 hours a week to running 5 to 20 miles per week.

This could get very long pretty quickly so I will be writing up several more posts of what a competitive fencer should be doing each week in order to advance beyond just talent. I know this is hard for some to take as it seems that I am just pointing a finger, but truthfully it is something i need to consider to. Some questions we can ask ourselves: Do I want to get better? What bad habits should I try to eliminate? Do I want to be fencing as strong at the end as I was in the beginning?

Until next time work on some cardio. Next time is footwork.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

AI Class is Really Interesting

So the week after getting back from Colorado and Wyoming I started an interesting free class: an AI class offered by two professors from Stanford. It is an intro course but even from that I am learning quite a bit.

I just finished homework #3 all about machine learning. It was quite in depth with derivations of equations to get the equations needed to answer the questions. It is well put together and usually makes sense. My one complaint is when a huge long equation magically appears. I am happy that they edited the videos to be a bit shorter and the sound isn't choppy at all, it's just that those huge long equations that I might need later just appear, fade-in, drop in like it came as a pre-assembled part. I have to pause the video to be able to write it down and hopefully not forget what it is about, although Prof Thrun does a good job of explaining all of it, if quickly.

I unfortunately did not manage my time right to get Homework #2 done, but this last week I managed to get #3 done with time to spare. But I have to seriously start in on the videos tonight probably after fencing, otherwise I will be doing all of them last moment. I hope they posted them already.

This class also helps me to know if I am ready to do online courses from somewhere that I will have to pay for. I believe that I am not burnt out as I was when I finished college, but I definitely need to carefully keep track of my time before it comes to get me. Let me know if you are taking it too.

Monday, October 31, 2011

A Fun 10k and Still Sore

So I ran the 10k that I linked last time, and am still sore. It was quite a race and a nice day to boot.

Jessie and I headed out of Hilo about 5:30 and went across saddle road. Noticed a bit of traffic then but they all passed us, might have been racers but not completely sure. Turned off saddle and went down 190 toward Kona and turned at the ranch with Pu'u Wa'awa'a on it.

I got ready and the time finally came, people wandered over to the start. It was the most relaxed starting line I have seen so far. Only one person was right up to the start, all the rest hung back so I was close to the front but tried to get a bit further back before the start.

They did the ready-set-go, and we were off. Of course I was passed by a ton of people who hadn't lined up in the 5 feet of clear space before the line, so I really couldn't help it. The first short leg was around the reservoir that had Nene actually swimming around in it... so odd to see them swim. It was a bit over a quarter mile and looped back near the start to a road that started the climb. Did I mention the climb? All 1200 feet of elevation gain? Well, now I will.

This is the craziest 10k I have run, this one being my 4th, but the elevation gain around the Pu'u (cinder cone) will probably keep this among my craziest races for a while, outdoing the 5k with 600 feet by a long shot. Outdoing it for one because it was twice the gain and twice the distance, but also on a four-wheel drive trail that had loose A'a balls (cinder) that ranged in sized from thumb to head, though mostly fist-sized. Big enough to break an ankle. Of course everyone had slowed down as we started going up the ascent. It wasn't too bad, for the first few hundred meters. It was up, but not UP, but then it started to be UP and I found that walking with big strides was getting me further than maintaining a cadence of small running steps. Also the lungs and heart were not really happy with the GO UP NOW mentality.

I probably walked most of the three miles, interspersed with running to pass one or tow other people. Leap-frogged a bit with one person. They had names of trees for the Dry Forest posted as we went up the hill, I don't remember too many of them, maybe I was focusing on other things?

As we went up there started to be dirt in between the rolly-stones. Finally cresting at 3260 feet felt great, except for the rest of me which was in agony. And then I started the descent. In general I hate going down, I didn't hate this one, but it sure was a lot of down.

At one point I was essentially sprinting down the side of the pu'u and trying not to die. I was running out of breath even going down, just from moving my legs fast enough not to wipe out and die. Lots of potential to die. Fortunately most of the surface was well packed dirt rather than the rolly stuff we had ascended.

I slowed down quite a bit and mostly finished at that pace. Came back into near the starting area where Jessie got a few pictures of me looking tired. The glasses help hide the wonderful state of mind I was in. I didn't even have enough to sprint to the finish. Came in at 1:10:27, not bad considering the course, but no where near my 57:13 PR.

To do better at this race I will have to do way more hill training and not just sprints but finding and doing long hills, which is not hard to do in Hilo. But this was a crazy race. Most others around here are flat or rolling, a few have some fun hills, but I think this one takes the cake for Hawaii Races.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Added Running, but Still Mostly Fencing

Wow, it has certainly been a long time. Who knew back then that I would start running? Not me certainly. I do enjoy it though and it helps strengthen the old legs, okay not that old, for fencing.

Fencing has had its ups and downs this last year and I am surely feeling an itch to not quite strike out on my own but to certainly teach people what to do. First we lost the gym at UH Hilo, but that might have been a blessing in disguise, it certainly got a few people riled up and we have a new place to fence at Mauna Loa School Gym on Tuesday evenings.

We have had a huge influx of people this year due to the drastic cut in cost and good recruiting by one or two of our fencers. But unfortunately it is not a class so the people that are new are mostly getting a trial-by-fire and there have been a few injuries due to that set-up. I am a bit concerned but it is hard to know what to do. I have been shot down for formalizing the club to provide a cover for our fencers and a bit of organization so that if someone is sick/injured/busy we would be able to carry on with all of our equipment as a "club."

As an individual I have taken the action to become a professional member so that I can be covered. I would love for the rest of the group to be covered as well but that is a personal choice at the moment that none others have gone for.

Now on to a lighter topic: Running. Tomorrow is an awesome 10k race at Pu'u Wa'awa'a just northeast of Kailua Kona. The course is pretty rugged "featuring 1200 feet of elevation gain in the first 3 miles," which, needless to say is a whole lot of feet. Jessie and I will be heading out bright and early tomorrow morning to get there for the 7:45 AM start. The weather should be mostly clear for this Dry Forest 10k. Now I just need to keep hydrated and eat a good supper. I will write about it Sunday, well at least I hope so. Here is the link:

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