Training for the future

Keith Farrell and Colin Farrell
Keith and his brother Colin fencing with longswords during a demonstration at Glasgow University. Photo by Rene Bauer, 2012.

This article was originally posted on Encased in Steel on 18th September 2016. It has been edited and improved for posting here.

Although I enjoy my HEMA training as it happens, I make a point of training for the future. A few months ago, I turned 30 years old – in this time, I have been practising HEMA for around 8 years, and I also have 14 years of experience in karate.

Now that I enter my 30s, I feel that I can no longer rely on my body and my physical attributes in quite the same fashion as I could when I was 18; I can’t just push myself to my limits and then expect to be without aches the following day, nor can I shrug off injuries in the knowledge that I will heal within a week. I’m still a youngster compared to many other martial artists who have my great respect, but I would be a fool if I kept approach life as if I were still a teenager.

I have been lucky enough to have spent 20 years practising martial arts without taking any long-term injuries, but I’m aware that they could be just around the corner if I don’t pay attention to what I am doing.

A large part of my current training revolves around body mechanics. I’m not very tall, nor particularly strong, and many of my training and sparring partners are larger and stronger than I am. Yet, with proper application of body mechanics and structure, and by making correct choices in my fencing, I can often perform well against people with such natural advantages. I have written previously about the myths of the short person, where I state that shorter people have no option but to learn to do things properly from the beginning, otherwise failure will be the likely outcome.

However, there is another important reason for studying body mechanics: if I do things properly, then I am less likely to injure myself in the process. I would quite like to keep fencing (and doing other physical activities) until I am 60, or 90, or even 130 years of age (might as well aim high!), and I simply won’t be able to manage this if I tear my rotator cuff a couple of times, or blow out the ligaments in my knee, or give myself permanent wrist pains. So, by studying body mechanics and learning how to perform motions without hurting myself, I can work towards ensuring the longevity of my body, my health, and my involvement with martial arts.

There are many factors to consider. For example, I pay attention to my stance and posture while training, so that I don’t place unnecessary stress on my back. I pay attention to the precise placement and structure of my feet and legs while stepping, to avoid hyper-pronation of the feet or inward collapse of my knee. The stability of my core is important no matter what I find myself doing, and utilising the muscles in my back is an easy way to improve my strength and structure in almost every action. There are many things to consider before even looking at how the sword is moving!

In every single motion with my sword, I am paying attention to my mechanics to avoid giving myself tennis elbow or tendonitis, and to avoid overworking the shoulder to the point of injuring the muscles surrounding it. I need to make sure that I am protecting myself (against my opponent’s sword and against my own eagerness and motion) whenever I strike, and that I am also able to control the end of the technique and either stop the motion instantly or redirect the motion elsewhere, without injuring myself. It would be all too easy to reach too far and to suffer the physical consequences of exceeding my ability to control both my sword and my body.

I like to think about my body a bit like a bank: the Bank of Body. I can take loans from the Bank, and they may be quite generous with their repayment period, but I will have to repay those loans at some point, and the interest rate varies. Maybe I can take a quick loan just to win this one fight; and maybe I can take another loan over a long period of time if I want to use a sword that is a bit too heavy for my current musculature; and maybe I can even take another loan if I want to push myself to match the physicality of someone stronger or faster than myself. But eventually, the Bank will call in the loans, and my body is going to have to repay them with interest. If that repayment cripples me (literally), then there’s little I can do about it, other than think back and wish I had approached my training differently.

Therefore, I prefer not to take loans from the Bank of Body if I can avoid it. I’ll pay in cash where I can, and if I find that I can’t afford something (such as winning a fight against someone faster or with a longer reach than me), then so be it. I’ll work with my body to do everything to the best of my ability, with correct mechanics and good structure, with the intention of achieving victory if I possibly can, but without allowing myself to take a loan from the Bank and risk my future health.

How do I go about practising correct mechanics and good structures in my fencing, especially during sparring? Quite simply, I set my focus on the long term, rather than the short term. I don’t really care one way or another if I win any particular sparring match; over the last few years, I have found competition to be valuable to my development, but not of such great interest otherwise. Instead of seeking to land touch after touch, I challenge myself to do everything as correctly as possible, within my limits.

Sometimes I could land my hit if I just reached out an inch or two further, but then I would be off-balance, I would be putting unnecessary and unwanted strain on my various joints, and I probably couldn’t use an over-extended technique to cut through a target with a sharp sword. This is not a trade-off that I am willing to make, just to land a touch. After all, what does it really matter if I land 50 or 53 touches across an evening of sparring? But comparatively, does it matter if I stop doing things properly and give myself three more opportunities to tear my ACL or hurt a tendon in my wrist, in that single evening of sparring?

These are two different ways of phrasing exactly the same question. If I could land three more hits by over-reaching, then I could do myself some serious damage three times by over-reaching.

I realise that this does lead to limitations on what I can achieve with my sparring, and I often lose training fights with people who expect me to win against them. It means that in tournaments and competitions, I don’t always place as well as I know I could, if I were to compromise on the standards I set for myself.

However, I know that by studying body mechanics, and by developing the self-discipline to act within my limits without taking risks to land just one more touch, I will be more likely to continue my study of historical fencing and martial arts in general without injuring myself by performing a movement incorrectly at high intensity. There is a better chance that if I play the long-term game, by sacrificing my “wins” in sparring and in competition right now, then I will still be able to fence in 20, 40, 60 years from now.

If I’m still able to train martial arts and enjoy the experience when I am in my 80s, I will count that as my “win”.