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Want to avoid fencing injuries? Don’t be lax about the safety rules. Here are some true stories of what can happen.

The Fencing Coach

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In a recent study on Olympic sport injury rates, Fencing ranked among the safest sports listed. Given the fact that Fencing is a combat sport rooted in duels to the death, it should come as a surprise that such a ferocious sport would be safer than say, Badminton or Table Tennis.

Yet, our equipment is (mostly) refined enough to prevent any serious bodily injury outside of pulled/torn muscles or cramps. Rarely does one see an injury related to impact with the intact blade, and if you’re wearing quality gear, most forceful hits feel negligible in terms of pain.

The more comfortable we get with safety, the more more our attention to safety can slip away. As I’ll detail later on in this post, I’ve been guilty of this myself. Sometimes you’ll see folks bouting only wearing shorts without knickers. Sometimes the underarm protector will be forgotten. I’ve seen an instance where a…

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Fencing Shoes!!

I just stumbled upon this article on fencing shoes today. It is a little bit outdated, written in 2011, but most of these models of shoes are still available. It also provides a nice overview of what fencing shoes are designed to do.

The Comprehensive Guide to Fencing Shoes

If you’re prone to foot problems, be sure to find a pair of shoes that is suited to your weapon’s style, your individual practice needs, and any previous fencing injuries.

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?

Ready to fence in 3, 2, 1…

Wow, how time flies…

It has been almost 10 weeks since my ankle was surgically repaired after injury. At 12 weeks I can do “athletic things” again, and thus the countdown to fencing begins. During my recovery I went from completely non-weight bearing with a cast and crutches to a big plastic boot, an air cast, various ankle braces, and then nothing beyond a good sneaker. Physical therapy three times a week has also helped.

It’s amazing how much leg functionality you lose when you’re off your feet for a few weeks. Even up until a couple of weeks ago, my legs would tire after standing for a short time. I couldn’t stay on the elliptical machine at the gym for even 10 minutes because my calves threatened to cramp up.

I have very little pain in my ankle and it no longer limits my day-to-day activities. There is some reduced range of motion, but that should continue to improve. I have a little more physical therapy ahead of me. I can do basic fencing footwork, although I’m hesitant to lunge onto that leg with any force yet. I’ll wait out that full 12 weeks before I attempt that type of “athletic thing”.

So with the traditional fencing season that starts around September/October, I’m hoping to return to practice in the next few weeks. (Yay!!) And as tempted as I am to jump immediately back into competition, I’m not going to allow myself into a tournament until at least November. I mean, I still have to remember how to lunge…

What Is With My Ankles?

Well, I’ve been a bit lax on my blog here, but it turns out that I’ll have a lot of down time in the next month or two. I’m going to try to get back to regular posts on fencing, writing, and whatever else piques my interest.

It looks like my previous post on fencing injuries has been my most popular, and it just so happens that that is the reason for my newly found free time. I’ve managed to break the other ankle. Well, it’s not really broken, but as far as fencing goes, it is. In competition last weekend I made a counterattack and scored the opening touch in a second round bout. However, when I landed on my front foot, it rolled over and forward and made an unhappy crunch. I remember hopping on one leg for about a second before I half-fell, half-rolled down onto my back.

Right ankle, <24 hours after the injury.

Right ankle, < 24 hours after the injury.

In fencing competition, you’re entitled to a single 10-minute medical break. If it is determined that you were not truly injured, then you’re penalized. There’s not often a trainer present at a local-level tournament to bring this into question. I took full advantage of my medical break and slapped ice onto my ankle as soon as possible. I wasn’t even sure if I’d be able to stand on it, but when my break was over, I did manage to finish out the bout, losing 15-9. Since this was the second round of the tournament, a loss meant that I was eliminated.

By the time I made my way home, it was starting to swell. Having had previous ankle injuries and a relatively high pain tolerance, I babied myself at home rather than run to the emergency room. As with injuries in other sports – P.R.I.C.E. is the acronym to remember. This means: P – protection, R – rest, I – ice, C – compression, and E – elevation, and is the standard initial treatment for sprains and other injuries. A good summary of the considerations and protocol can be found here.

Once I was able to contact my doctor, I ran through a series of tests – x-rays and an MRI. Most ankle sprains are inversion sprains – meaning that the ankle rolls in such a way that the three ligaments on the outside of the ankle are damaged or torn. In my case, one is torn and the other two are damaged. For your average person, this can still heal with rest, an ankle brace, and physical therapy. The ligaments don’t regrow though. You’re hoping that maybe the ends of the torn ligament will find each other enough to scar and that the remaining ligaments toughen up enough to compensate. The ankle is a pretty stable joint, so this can work out. But there is often more risk of future sprains due to the looser ankle joint.

Ankle Inversion. Photo by BarneyStinson13, shared under Creative Commons license.

Ankle Inversion. Photo by BarneyStinson13, shared under Creative Commons license.

For athletes, there can be a surgical option, and this is what I’ve elected to do. My doctor is going to sew the ends of the ligament together so that there’s a better chance of regaining full function without the risk of ongoing problems and surgery at a later date anyway. There’s more to it than that, but it should get me back on my (fencing) feet sooner. For now, I’m practicing on my crutches to build arm endurance over the next few days before the procedure.

Has anyone else had sprains like this from fencing or other sports? Have you been through physical therapy for an injury to the ankle or other high impact joint? Have you used the P.R.I.C.E. protocol for an acute injury?

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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