Fencing Around Injuries – Part II

Today I want to continue my post about fencing around injuries. If you didn’t see Part I – go find it here. For this second part, I want to continue with more specific tips on competing through injuries.

These are blisters that resulted from taking a different approach with my socks on race day for a half marathon.

When it comes time to compete, I want to go back to triathlon to mention one of the mantras of that sport. Nothing new on race day! While this isn’t always something I stick to in fencing, there is value in thinking about it. In triathlon, the idea is that you should be familiar with all of your kit and have trialed it in your training so that you know if it works for you. You don’t want to discover that the new top you bought for the race chafes at the beginning of a 13.1-mile run, or that the new nutrition you found at the pre-race expo is not agreeing with your stomach halfway through a 112-mile bike course. Or look at my toes to the left for a painful example.

In last weekend’s tournament I wore a new pair of fencing shoes. I had been wearing them in practice and they were the same brand, style, and size as my old shoes. But due to my elbow and shoulder problems, I hadn’t been practicing much, and after the first day of competition I found the shoe on my back foot was painfully pressing into a ligament on the inside of my foot. I couldn’t advance without pain in my warmup on the second day. Fortunately, I still had my old shoes in my bag and switching out the back foot shoe made movement tolerable.

When you know you have an injury, how can you go about fencing? If your injury is severe enough, you shouldn’t. My doctor told me to not do anything strenuous with my right arm for 1 – 3 weeks after the PRP injection I just had. I took two weeks off from fencing, and when I went back to practice, I took it very cautiously. So try to be a good patient!

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If you have a chronic injury or are recovering from something, here are some ideas that might help you get through a competition:

  • Be prepared – have everything you might need with you.
  • Warm up well and then stretch (but again, nothing new on race day, so aim for your normal warm up within the limitations of your injury).
  • Consider taping or braces (trial these in practice first).
  • Ice after the event.
  • Don’t be afraid to get help. Visit the trainers, take your injury break if something happens in the bout.
  • Don’t be afraid to withdraw if you have overestimated your readiness and might injure yourself more.
  • Get your mental game in shape. If you have been injured or unable to practice as much as you normally would, don’t hold yourself to the same expectations you would have if you were completely healthy. Accept your fencing for what it is that day and try to learn from the experience.
Photo by Esther Simpson, shared under Creative Commons license.

The last comment I wanted to make here was to add in another idea from triathlon – rest days and rest weeks. The idea is that you cycle through hard training days (usually Tuesday through Sunday) and then take a day off completely (often Mondays). Or if you get to a point where you feel very run down, take a rest day because it’s okay to skip a workout. Many triathlon training plans also run in blocks of 4 weeks where the first three weeks ramp up in intensity and distance, followed by a fourth week of comparatively easier workouts on the rest week. Right before a race, the workouts also become easier (the taper) so that your body has enough time to recover and reach peak performance by the race. Again, some of this may not directly transfer from an endurance sport to fencing, but the idea of rest days/weeks isn’t a bad one.

I hope this helps my fellow Veteran fencers and those soon to age in. Let me know any tips that have worked for you by chatting in the comments (above).

Find more of my writing about fencing here.

Fencing Around Injuries – Part I

I just returned from fencing at the March NAC (North American Cup) last week and I wanted to take some time to write about fencing injuries since that has been a popular topic in the past. As someone fencing the Veteran age groups (40+), it is also apparent that almost all of my fellow competitors have injuries. We are all taped up, icing, and limping, just to different degrees.

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So this isn’t intended as medical advice about specific injuries, but is more of a general guide to what I have found works for me to keep myself healthy enough to keep fencing so that I will still be around when I age into the Vet-80 category.

First off, I want to just list the variety of injuries that I’ve dealt with so anyone out there can compare notes if you’d like. Roughly in order of occurrence:

  • Ligament injury (back foot) caused by Morton’s toe
  • Nerve damage +/- neuroma (right hand)
  • Patellofemoral pain syndrome (back leg)
  • Severe ankle sprain (back foot)
  • Sprained knee (back leg)
  • Possible meniscal tear (back leg)
  • Subluxating tendons and osteochondral lesion of the talus (back foot/ankle), a consequence of the severe ankle sprain, required 3 surgeries to repair (Brostrom procedure, fibular osteotomy, bone graft, PRP injection for tendonitis, 9 weeks on crutches
  • Neck injury – fell on my head while snowboarding, required months of PT
  • Tendonitis right elbow – required rest and PT
  • Back injury – possibly herniated disc, ongoing problem
  • Severe ankle sprain (front foot) – 1 surgery to repair (Brostrom procedure) and another 3 weeks on crutches
  • Minor sprain (front foot) – during recovery from surgery
  • Plantar fasciitis
  • Tendinitis (front foot) – resolved with rest, shockwave therapy
  • Tendonitis right elbow – currently recovering with PT and a PRP injection
  • Left shoulder pain – presumed impingement syndrome, currently recovering with PT

On any given day, I may also have muscle soreness, bruises, or a toenail that is about to fall off. At this point, the right elbow tendinitis and the back pain are only ongoing issues I have, but as I increase my training, I’m always on alert for new problems to start. (And note, through all of this, I haven’t actually been stabbed by a blade.)

So through all of these setbacks, how have I managed to pull through and return to fencing? Some of it has to be luck. I mean with the back ankle, I’m extremely fortunate that my body healed well and I was able to regain full mobility in the joint. At one point before surgery, the topic of an ankle replacement had come up, so yeah, it was bad. What else have I learned about injury prevention and continuing to train and practice between injuries?

One thing that I had to learn as I went through my 20’s was that I had to listen to my body. Mental toughness can carry you through pain, but as your joints, tendons, and ligaments age, they don’t heal as quickly. I had to learn to identify different types of pain. Muscle soreness is one thing and is part of being an athlete. The sharp pain of an aggravated tendon is a warning sign and something that should not be ignored. There are many days at practice now where I would love to keep bouting, but I know that I need to step away so that I will be well enough to return the next day.

Another important way to avoid injuries is to maintain consistency in your practice. It is easier on my body to practice at a moderate level three days a week than to go as hard as I can one day a week. I also have to take it easy on my first day back to practice after some time away. I also see this problem when former fencers try to return to practice after a break from the sport. Take it slowly and don’t overdo it! You will be sore enough just from using muscles in a way they haven’t been in years. When getting back into a practice routine, gradually increase the amount of time you practice instead of jumping into hard training.

One other thing that is helpful if you have the time is to do it is cross-training in a more symmetrical sport. This is also valuable for general fitness and to improve your cardiovascular endurance. I took up triathlon a few years back (swimming, cycling, running) and this helped me a lot with fencing. Strength training is also valuable to help to avoid injury. It can lead to increased bone and muscle strength, decrease the risk of lower back injuries, and can help with balance in people as we age.

Coming up in my next post – more specific tips on fencing around injuries!

Part II is here.

Find more of my writing about fencing here.

Fencing During COVID

I wanted to get back to my habit of writing about fencing events, but with the COVID pandemic, all travel and sports competition was thrown into a gigantic snarl. Now much of the fencing world has resumed modified practices and competitions, so I wanted to put down my thoughts about how things have changed.

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

Get Vaccinated

First off – now that there is a vaccine available to protect you against COVID-19, everyone that doesn’t have a MEDICAL contraindication should go and get vaccinated. The sooner the majority of the population has some immunity to this virus, the sooner we can get back to “normal.” I had some not insignificant side effects from the vaccine, but I’d much rather go through that again than have COVID and risk passing it to my friends and family. The only valid excuse for not getting the vaccine at this point is if your doctor has advised you not to.

Challenges of Practice

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Once facilities were allowed to open and conduct athletic activities, I was back in the club. The number of people at practice went down, as many had decided to continue to isolate. That is fine and I figured that as an essential worker, I was more likely to be exposed to COVID at work than I was in a gym with two or three other people, all masked.

It did take some time to figure out how to workout with a mask on. Mainly I had to find one that didn’t suck into my nose and mouth when I breathed more heavily. This is one style I have been using successfully. The other challenge was that I had been so busy at work that I was dreadfully out of shape with my cardio and fencing muscles. Even once I had returned to practice, I often didn’t make it every week, so I’m afraid the practice that I did get wasn’t terribly effective.

Competitions

I don’t remember exactly when the first competitions returned in the fencing world. These weren’t on my radar as I was terribly busy with work and hadn’t been practicing consistently. At least a few local/regional events were held this spring though, while the FIE tried to hold international competitions to finish Olympic qualification.

The first event I competed in was in July in Philadelphia and was one of US Fencing’s North American Cup events. The July event has traditionally been called Summer Nationals, so this event both was and wasn’t that. I competed in individual Vet-40 and Team Women’s Sabre events. But the “National Championship” only applied to the team event and not the individual one. That has been set for August in Atlanta.

What Have We Learned?

As the pandemic continues and measures to prevent spread of the virus are still changing, what have we learned?

  • I’m happier when I can fence regularly.
  • Sometimes we need to be flexible and adapt to the circumstances.
  • It’s really hard to plan a national event that will make everyone happy.
  • You should get vaccinated.
  • Go get vaccinated now.
  • You don’t want COVID – get the vaccine!

What have your experiences been in fencing as the pandemic has progressed? How have you adapted? Let me know in the comments above.

Find more of my fencing posts here.

A Newbie Guide to Fencing (Part 3 – Practicing on Your Own)

I decided to change up this series of posts a bit since no one is having any fencing tournaments now with the coronavirus outbreak. There are a lot of coaches and clubs providing online fencing classes. If you aren’t up for a full class, read on for my thoughts on what else you can be doing to work on your fencing, even when you can’t attend a normal practice.

You can find Part 1 and Part 2 of this guide here:

One problem with trying to do a class at home is that not everyone has a good place for this. Challenges include unsuitable flooring, obstacles (furniture, pets, ceilings, etc.), unreliable internet, or noise concerns with neighbors. Other factors that may be keeping you from practice could include schedule constraints, low motivation, or illness (wash your hands, everyone!).

Many people are constructing creative fencing dummies to practice attack skills. You can also purchase targets from vendors online. However, if there is any single thing that will be most important to maintaining or improving your fencing during this inadvertent off-season, it will be to practice your footwork. Even if you can’t do anything else, keep those leg muscles active.

Here are some further thoughts on how to do some basic footwork practice and stay in fencing shape while stuck at home:

  • Use the best flooring you have. If you’re worried about a lack of cushioning or a slippery surface, go more slowly with your footwork to avoid injury.
  • Put your fencing socks and shoes on for this practice. I tried without once, and it made my plantar fascia hurt.
  • Even if you only have a small space available, that will be enough to stand on guard, take a couple advances and retreats, and hold a lunge.
  • Start simple. Stand on guard. Bend your knees.
  • Use a mirror if you have one around. Check your form.
  • Do a simple drill of two advances, one retreat. Repeat. Do the opposite – two retreats, one advance. Adjust as necessary to stay in your floor space. Set a timer. Go for 30 seconds and then stand up and relax for 30 seconds. Repeat this 30/30 routine several times. The exact number of times will depend on your current fitness.
  • Now do that same drill but vary the speed of the steps. One slow advance, one fast advance, one quick retreat. Or you could do one fast advance, one longer slow advance, and then a quick retreat. You can vary both the speed and the length of each part.
  • If you want to work on lunges, start by just holding a lunge. Time yourself. See how long it takes until your legs fatigue.
  • Add lunges to the simple footwork drills. Two advances, then lunge, then two retreats. Or one advance, lunge, two retreats, then lunge again! Whatever fits in your space. Don’t work on speed if your flooring isn’t great or you are feeling out of shape. Work on keeping your knees bent, staying balanced, and moving smoothly.
  • You can make any of these exercises a set of 20 or 30 seconds with rest intervals in between.
  • Don’t do too much on your first day or two if you haven’t been doing anything.
  • Stretch afterwards. One of my friends offers some stretching videos on her You Tube channel here.
  • Stay active in general. Go for a walk or a run outside. Do you live in an apartment building with stairs that are rarely used? Go run up and down them.
  • Try some yoga. There are plenty of online videos. I have heard good things about this one.

I hope this is helpful! Please let me know in the comments if you have any questions. And follow my Amazon affiliate links to help support this blog.

Read more of my posts on fencing here.

Fencing Tournament Report – Capitol Clash 2019

The weekend before last, I traveled to compete in the 2019 Capitol Clash just outside of Washington, D.C. This fencing tournament has been held for ten years and has historically been a youth event. This year, they added a non-regional Veteran’s category, and several fencers in my club (youth and veteran) entered.

Event Schedule and Travel

For the Veteran events, the tournament was simply a local tournament, with no points or qualifications up for grabs. However, for sabre, it ended up being well-attended, with 16 women and 38 men. The youth tournament featured Y-8, Y-10, Y-12, Y-14, and Cadet events, and was designated a SYC, so fencers could win regional points.

With all of the events for age groups, all three weapons, and men’s and women’s divisions, the tournament stretched over 3 days. I woke up very early and drove to the tournament on Saturday morning to arrive by close of check-in for Vet WS at 12:00 p.m. The organizers had communicated minor changes in the check-in time in the weeks prior to the tournament.

Location and Venue

The tournament was held at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, just south of Washington, D.C. The Gaylord chain of hotels are enormous self-contained resorts, with multiple restaurants, spa and fitness center facilities, pools, and convention spaces. I had actually been to a work conference at this same Gaylord a few years ago, so I knew what to expect.

The hotel offered a discounted rate for fencers, but I didn’t stay there. The parking was discounted for the event, and both self-park and valet options were available. The Gaylord is located within National Harbor, a larger development along the Potomac River featuring shopping, restaurants, and entertainment.

Vendors on-site.

The tournament was held in a large convention hall. It felt like a mini-NAC, having the same types of strips, scoring equipment, raised bout committee area, intercom announcements, and finals strip. Several vendors were on site for equipment needs, although I didn’t pay much attention to them, not needing to purchase anything.

The organizers did insist that all fencing bags were placed in a particular area, in delineated rows on tables and the floor. The strips for the Vet events were off to one side, near an empty part of the hall where no one seemed to mind the bags. I ended up arranging my bag near a column in a vacant area of the hall.

Format and Referees

The tournament was conducted in a standard manner, with one round of pools followed by 100% of fencers advancing to a direct elimination round and no fence-off for third place. For the women’s event, we ended up with two pools of 8. Larger pools mean more bouts of fencing, and I think most fencers prefer that to smaller pools.

We did end up delayed with the start of the event by about an hour. I’m not completely sure what led to the delay. I had warmed up, intending to be ready to start on time, but I didn’t feel that stiff or cold after sitting for an hour. I was sore going into the event, so more warm-up may have actually been detrimental.

Once we finally started, the rest of the event ran smoothly. The referees were consistent with their calls, although I had some trouble hearing one of them (and other fencers did too).

The gold medal bout was held on a raised strip and was delayed a short time because other events were also finishing up. Video replay was available for the gold medal bout.

The Capitol Clash also hosted a competition in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). I had never seen this live before and had hoped to watch some. However, the HEMA events had concluded early in the day, so I missed them.

My Fencing

I had a good day! I had been fencing pretty well in practice and had been working on a few new things that had finally started to click. However, this tournament was also practice, with nothing in particular at stake.

I had been out late the night before my early-morning travel, so I wasn’t feeling great, being a bit dehydrated, sore from my triathlon training, and just tired.

Despite all that, my fencing was very consistent and stable all day. I stuck to my plan, took a few risks when needed, and managed to pull off some of the old/new maneuvers I had been practicing (sky hooks, mainly).

One goal of this tournament was to work on my attacks against people I don’t know. I’ve been trying to get faster while still being able to see the distance properly. It sort of worked, but I have more work to do. I also found that I was more patient when pursuing an opponent down the strip, which was something I had failed to do in my last event.

By the end of the day, I found myself in the gold medal bout where I kept my cool and won 10-4. This earned me a shiny new C19! You can watch a video of the final bout below. My bout starts at 1:30. The men’s gold medal bout is at 1:38.

The final results for all the events can be found here.

My teammates in the men’s event had a great day also, with 3rd place, 3rd place, and 7th place finishes.

To see more of my fencing tournament reports, look here.

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