Asymmetry in Fencing

With the fencing season in full swing, I thought it would be a good time to return to the topic here. Today I’m going to point out how strange fencers’ bodies are, how that may lead to injuries, and how it may influence any fictional fencers you are writing about.

For a beginner, fencing presents some unique challenges that can be encountered before one even picks up a blade. The en garde stance, the movements forward and back, and the lunges are not a movement that most people would encounter in day-to-day life. Compare this to a sport such as soccer, where anyone can start play on a basic level because you already know how to run. There are certainly rules to learn and techniques to practice, but even a newbie can run across the field. Many beginning fencers that I have watched over the years have a lingering level of awkwardness that will persist for a month, six months, even longer, depending on their development.

Lunging fencer. (c) Sylvain Sechet, reposted under Creative Commons license

Lunging fencer. (c) Sylvain Sechet, reposted under Creative Commons license

Fencing is also asymmetrical. It might be fun to swing one sword in each hand, but for now that isn’t in the rules for the sport. This will lead to more muscle development in the dominant arm, although fencers don’t typically grow “big” arms from their sport. The weapons are all lightweight, but the repetition will eventually lead to some disparity between your limbs.

This asymmetry extends well beyond the weapon arm. All that footwork practice builds muscle in the quads, hamstrings, gluteals, calves… really the entire lower body. Most fencers will find that as their footwork improves, their front leg grows larger than their rear one. Even the muscle on the front of my right shin is larger than that on the left. If you are writing about a character who is new to fencing, that person will be SORE when they are learning the footwork. I remember feeling this mostly in the quads. Nowadays, if I return to practice after a break, I will feel it more in my hamstrings and gluteals.

In my own experience, I have found that I can lunge all day with my right leg forward. After so many years, it feels like a natural movement to me. However, switch to the left and I nearly fall over if I try to lunge with any sudden force. (I also run into walls at home, though.) Switching from the use of your dominant hand to the opposite one will also require that your footwork reverses itself. This is more challenging than it sounds.

A few years ago, I strained a muscle in my side. I stood in front of a mirror and tried to figure out what exactly I had done. I raised my shoulder, poked at my ribs, and in the process, I discovered that I had weird muscles on one side of my body that weren’t present on the other side! Okay, that’s not completely accurate. The muscles existed on both sides, but on my right side (I’m right-handed), they were more developed, and thus more visible because of the nature of my fencing movements. Fencing requires a lot of strength and coordination in the core muscles – the abs and back. The legs propel a fencer, but the core muscles allow the fencer to remain upright and coordinated when changing the direction of movement suddenly.

Even more experienced fencers may struggle with long hours of footwork practice. That lunge is never quite good enough, and there are patterns of footwork that must be repeated in practice so that they become second nature in a bout. Most fencers would rather fence practice bouts than drill footwork, but good footwork translates to good distance, which is critical to putting all your skills together to score the touch. For more about the importance of distance, read my earlier post here.

Graphic by Jen Christiansen, Illustrations by MCKIBILLO; Source: Lars Engebretsen, University of Oslo

Graphic by Jen Christiansen, Illustrations by MCKIBILLO; Source: Lars Engebretsen, University of Oslo

In terms of injuries, fencers will be more likely to have bruises on the side that faces their opponent. For example, a right-handed fencer will tend to get more bruises on the front of the right leg, the right elbow (ow!), and the right shoulder. I have over-exerted myself and developed a minor strain in my right hamstring more times than I can count. I have jammed my toe into the front of my shoe on my front foot and had my toe nail fall off months later (also multiple times). I’ve had tendinitis in the elbow of my weapon-arm. I’ve had blisters on my right hand and thumb (and not my left). I don’t know that anyone has studied the incidence of front-leg versus rear-leg injuries when looking at more serious incidents. I have torn ligaments in both ankles. Overall, fencing is still an extremely safe sport. For those interested though, I go into more detail about other types of injuries here.

Has anyone seen a truly ambidextrous fencer? I have, and there are rules about how often you can change which hand you use. What other sports share the same type of asymmetry? Does anyone else have any experiences or injuries that might be related to this asymmetry?


Fictional Fencers – Conditioning and Athletics and Zombies

Oh hey, it’s time to return to a post about fencing! Today, I’m going to talk about what types of athletic activities a fencer might participate in outside of regular practice. Or another way to look at it would be – what athletic feats might your character be good at if he has done some fencing? What would he struggle with? And most importantly, would he be able to effectively run from zombies?

First off, any character has motivations and goals. How often is she fencing and why? If your character is obsessed with swords and uses every opportunity to train at fencing or other martial arts, this person will have a different physique and abilities than one who runs daily, trains for marathons, or perhaps picks up a fencing weapon only once a month. Maybe your character used to fence ten years ago, but hasn’t picked up a blade or made a lunge since then? What skills would this character retain?

What other types of exercise would a fencer do?

I think it’s easiest to group our fencers into three types. First off, you would have the novices. This group would include those beginners that may have aspirations for competition, but are still trying to figure out the footwork, rules, and proper blade positions. You could also put those who fence more as a hobby than a sport in this group. These fencers would have some degree of fencing skill, but since they either have not been working at it for long, or perhaps pick up a blade once a week or less, their physical condition can vary greatly. Fencing alone at this novice level is unlikely to give this character much additional strength or endurance for other sports, running from zombies, or trying to fight off a serious threat.

The second group of fencers will be those who have the basics down and attend practice regularly (or at least seasonally). This type of character will have more muscle development in the legs and the weapon arm. She will also have some degree of cardiovascular conditioning from footwork drills or bouting practice. However, since fencing uses a lot of fast-twitch muscle fibers, this character may have limited endurance for a long day of competition or running further than a few miles from those zombies.

The last type of fencer is the elite athlete. This fencer will be attending regular practices, but will also work out in other arenas. Weight-training and conditioning are critical to a fencer who wishes to compete and win in anything other than a local tournament. This article gives a great overview of the types of exercises that are helpful. Some competitive fencers may work with a trainer to maximize the benefits of training and to minimize the risk of injury. This type of fencer may be able to lift heavy objects, run several miles, or sprint short distances faster than an average person. Any athlete that has done cross-training in multiple types of activities will be more coordinated and could tackle unexpected obstacles with more success than the average person. One caveat to this would be that the elite athlete would be more likely to have sustained injuries due to the intensity of the training. So while your athlete may have the cardiovascular fitness, coordination, or mental toughness to survive that run from zombies, at the end of the day, she may also have caused an old knee injury to flare up to limit her activity the next day.

The elite athlete cannot be good at everything, and fencing is still more similar to a boxing match than a marathon. If you need your character to be able to run a marathon for your story, then the training associated with fencing will contribute less to this and he had better be doing a lot more running than fencing.

An additional category of fencer that could be involved in a story would be the character that used to fence, but has not done so much as a lunge or a parry in several years. I have seen many high school and collegiate fencers that stop training and competing once they have graduated. What if one of these fencers picked up a sword after a long absence from the sport? What would he remember and what would be tough?

Unless this former fencer was physically active in other sports, his footwork would be awkward and clumsy after such a break. He might remember how to do a lunge, but his legs and core would not cooperate in the same way that they used to. The bladework would be more easily remembered. The muscle groups there are more localized to the fingers, wrist, and elbow, and there is less overall balance and muscular strength needed for these motions. Of course, if he fences for very long at all, he will certainly have muscle soreness afterward. This would be most pronounced in the legs, but could also involve the forearm or back.

Lastly, for a specific example. What do I do for my training and conditioning? I practice specifically fencing three times a week, for an average of two hours each practice. I lift weights at the gym at least twice a week, although on occasion I manage it three times. Cardiovascular conditioning is split between short runs (1 – 3 miles) and cycling (5-11 miles). I throw in interval training and sprints, yoga classes, other cardio (elliptical machine, rowing machine, etc), jumping rope, and footwork drills, depending on my energy level, schedule, and any soreness or injuries.

Could I outrun the zombies? I don’t want to find out, but I think I’d have a better chance than others.

So, what type of feats have your characters performed when forced to it? Have you written a zombie chase scene? You don’t have to outrun the zombies, right? You just have to outrun everyone else.

Do You Write What You Know?

This week, I decided to take a break from the posts about fencing. Don’t worry, I’ll get back to that soon – I’m obsessed with swords and there are many fencing topics that I can still write about.

Maybe you’ve heard the oft-muttered writing advice to “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW” or perhaps you haven’t. But either way, I’ve read several debates on this idea. The gist of it is this: if you fill your writing with settings, subjects, scenarios, or technology that you personally have experienced, then that will give your work greater authenticity. For example, if I’m a  professional chocolate weevil exterminator and I write about a character that is an exterminator, I’ll bring my personal knowledge of that trade to the story. There are details about my life that will infuse the plot and character with some sort of intangible credibility.

The opposite to this would be to “WRITE WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW” which for any author of fantasy or science fiction becomes a necessity at some level. I mean, how many of us have been to another planet? How many of us have worked magic or slain a troll? At some point in our craft, we have to extrapolate and do the best we can with this sort of thing. There is a subset of this that encompasses those subjects or places with which you personally are not familiar, but perhaps thousands or millions of other people are. To me, this is the most difficult type of story to write. This is where the research becomes key. Sure, you can write what you don’t know, but if you do a terrible job of it, someone will pick up on that and that can take them out of of the story. It can ruin their reading experience and cause the story to fail at all other levels.

So writers, do YOU write what you know? It turns out that I usually don’t. Professionally, this is what I know:

Chocolate dog vomit. With wrappers.

That’s vomit.

Dog vomit.

Chocolate dog vomit.

In my day job, I make dogs vomit. I work (nights actually) as an emergency veterinarian. If dogs didn’t eat things that they shouldn’t be eating, I wouldn’t have nearly as much to do. I have to induce vomiting quite often on poor pups that ate a sock, a bottle of medication, or…chocolate.

I don’t often write about dogs, cats, or veterinarians, however. This occurred to me as I started to write a story last week that DID involve dogs, cats, and a veterinary office. Of course it also has a zombie and one of these guys in it:

This little alligator was left in a box on the doorstep of the hospital.

I don’t see alligators very often at my job. I went to school in Florida, where I saw them sunning themselves besides drainage ponds while I walked to class. But here in New Jersey?

I have noticed that there seems to be more hard science fiction written about extrapolated physics, astrophysics, and technology than there is advanced biology, genetics, or medicine. Some writers blend the hard sciences and the life sciences in their fiction, but usually one field has a greater influence in the story than the other. Is this a side effect of authors writing what they know?

What do you think? Do you write what you know? Have you tried to write what you don’t know? Have you ever found an alligator in a box on your doorstep?

Oh and hey, I’ll be at ChiCon this weekend (at least the first half of it). If you see me wandering the con, come say hello.

Ouch! Fencing Injuries

When someone mentions fencing and injuries, probably the first thoughts that come to mind involve bloody stab wounds. In sport fencing, actual stab wounds are rare, even though we’re playing with swords. However, there are many other injuries that can happen to a fencer. The goal of today’s post is to discuss the common injuries, aches, and pains that happen almost every day to fencers, as well as some of the more debilitating injuries.

My injured ankle. No, I wasn’t stabbed. It was a bad sprain.

If you’re writing fiction that involves a fencer, it would be good to keep in mind that this person will likely have all types of bumps, bruises, calluses, and other minor afflictions that can annoy them on a regular basis. Fencers have a different level of tolerance for these things. While one fencer might whine about any small bruise, others will show off their scars. What type of character are you writing about?

I think that bruises have to be the most common minor injury in fencing, so much so that I can’t even consider them to be anything unusual. It’s just part of the sport. You’re going to get hit and sometimes it will hurt a little. Sometimes it will sting. Sometimes it will leave a mark. Other times it will make you suck in a deep breath and have to stop to shake it off. Blows on the hand or the elbow can hit a nerve and cause you to drop your weapon. This can make your arm tingle or not respond correctly for a few moments.

The types of bruises vary with the weapon that is being fenced. Since foil and epee are point weapons, most of the bruises will be round. Sabre is a slashing weapon, so most of the bruises will be linear and will fall on the shoulders and arms. Sometimes a sabre attack will have more of a stinging sensation to it. Of all the weapons, I have seen the worst bruises in epee. The epee has a stiffer blade than a foil, so it is less forgiving on impact. I have seen bruises from epee in which not only was there a bruise as large as my hand, but the central part of the bruise was more of a bloody scrape (through the protective equipment). Sometimes novice sabre fencers can get too…enthusiastic. A beginner tends to swing the sabre and to put more of their shoulder strength into the attack. This also makes for more bruises when they land, and will quickly cause the more experienced fencers to show the novice how to lighten up their attacks.

The off-weapon hand has no protection below the wrist. A fencer is supposed to keep that hand back and out of the way, but sometimes it will still get struck. With no glove, it is more likely that the skin will take the brunt of this blow. I’ve often had my knuckles or the back of my hand scraped up, but at least for me, these injuries have never needed more than a few band-aids. On both hands, you can also get your fingernails smashed and bruised.

Oddly enough, the hand seems to be a common place for stab wounds to occur. I know of three fencers that have had a blade go through their hands. I know of another fencer that had a blade go up the sleeve of her jacket and into her arm.

Blisters and calluses are commonplace. As a sabre fencer, I have calluses on my weapon hand – on the thumb and along my palm at the base of my fingers. I’ve had blisters in the same places. Foot blisters and calluses are inevitable for anyone that engages in athletic activities regularly and I’ve had my share of these too. I’ve also slammed my toes against the front of my shoe in an overzealous lunge. A few weeks to a few months later, my toenail fell off.

Fencing is an asymmetric sport. Fencers have one arm that is larger than the other. Fencers will also have a disparity in the size of their legs. Even though both legs are used strenuously, the front leg will tend to be the more heavily muscled one. With all of the quick footwork and lunging that is involved in fencing, it is very common to suffer minor muscle strains in the hamstrings or quadriceps muscles. Some fencers will also get cramps in those muscles or in the calves.

One hazard of sabre fencing is that when an opponent is making at attack with too much of a swinging motion, the blade is flexible and can whip around the weapon’s guard, the shoulder, or the mask. This will sting and can cause more bruises, but one special type of unpleasantness happens when the blade whips around the mask and hits the back of your head. There was a rule change in 2000 that made the sabre blades stiffer, so this is not as common as it used to be.

After being used for some time, the blade of any of the fencing weapons will break. If it breaks near the tip, there is a small piece of metal that is launched out at great speed. I don’t personally know of anyone being injured by this fragment, but I suppose that it is possible. Once the blade breaks, it isn’t sharp, but it is sharper than the unbroken blade. There is a greater chance that this piece could be driven through the opponent’s jacket or mask, but even so, this is rare.

The broken tip from a sabre blade.

A fencer’s mask fits tightly around the chin. If the fencing action becomes too close, sometimes one fencer will inadvertently slam the guard of his weapon into his opponent’s mask. This force can be transferred to the chin and can cause a scrape or bruise there, depending on the exact style and fit of the mask. I don’t know of any fencer that has been knocked out by this.

The non-electric masks (used for foil, epee, or sometimes in practice in sabre) have a painted coating on the mesh surface. When the mask is struck by a blade, sometimes pieces of this paint chip off and can pass through the mask. I have had bits of this go into my eye. It has never been more than an annoyance to me, but I know of one fencer that had to see an ophthalmologist because of a piece that went into his eye.

While I don’t know if there is something officially known as “fencer’s elbow”, the motion used in fencing is repetitive and there is a risk of having various overuse types of injuries like in other sports. I have had tendonitis in my elbow, and I know of other fencers that also have dealt with this.

My foot in a cast. Ow!

As far as serious injuries go, it is much more likely for a fencer to injure a knee or ankle than it is for her to be stabbed. Anything that results from overextension or twisting of a joint could happen. Some of the specific injuries may include a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament, meniscal tears, ankle sprains or fractures, or Achilles’ tendon rupture. I’ve also heard of fencers falling and breaking a wrist or arm. My own ankle sprain involved torn tendons and cracked cartilage, ultimately leading to three surgeries, but was also a bit of an unusual case.

So, are there any fencers out there that have had your own experiences with injury? How did you deal with it?

For the writers, do you need to give your character a weakness – why not an old fencing injury? Or if you’d like to add more realism to a fencing scene, you could use some of the details above.


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