Swashing at Bucklers

On 27th April this year I’m going to be attempting to fight my way through 50 bouts in a single day of various historical European martial arts, against a raft of opponents whose only common features are that they are both younger and more skillful than me. The precarious logic for this is that ‘fifty at fifty’ – fifty fights in a day in my fiftieth year – has a sort of nice ring to it.HEMA 002_crop1

The vehicle for this is the Walpurgis Sparathon, an event contrived for this purpose. It’s a day devoted to sparring with a variety of weapons, mainly longsword, broadsword (or sabre) and sword-and-buckler. The fights are with synthetic or rebated steel weapons, are at full speed and power, and have no technique restrictions (meaning that grappling and striking are allowed). Put another way, they’re quite demanding.

Needless to say, the ostensible objective is to raise some funds for charity, in this case the Pigrim Bandits. The Pilgrim Bandits was established by a small group of Special Forces veterans in 2007 to help and inspire severely wounded servicemen to live with purpose, not least by pushing them into physically and mentally demanding situations that they would not have dreamed possible: climbing mountains, jumping from aircraft, running races, trekking across inhospitable terrain. Their motto is ‘always a little further’, and they don’t do sympathy. I’m also hoping to be able to make a donation to the Tierfreunde animal welfare charity in Lesvos. The last few years haven’t been a great time to be a dog in Greece. If I haven’t already spammed you about this, check out my page at JustGiving.com.

Despite the slightly menacing appearance of the picture (yours truly with longsword in full battle regalia), the whole thing is a thinly disguised indulgence of my inner ten year old. All the same, the physical challenge presents some interesting conundrums.

This bout between Axel Petterson of Gothenburg and Jan Chodkiewicz of Gdansk illustrates the dynamics of a fight quite nicely. The bout lasts a few minutes, and consists of some very explosive engagements punctuated by a few seconds of rest or positioning. Physiologically, what is going on here is that the fighters are judiciously trying to fire as many (relevant) muscle fibres simultaneously as they can over a duration measured in seconds or less. This requires (a) a very well trained central nervous system; (b) as much contractile muscle tissue as possible; and (c) a well conditioned ‘phosphate’ system – the energy mechanism that fuels explosive bursts using ATP (adenosine triphosphate) stored in the muscles. This is the sort of conditioning that Olympic weightlifters (snatch, clean and jerk) are supreme at.

The exception is when the fighters come to a grapple. Then we get tens of seconds of hard but slower struggle – a challenge to raw muscle strength and to the glycolitic (anaerobic) energy system. This is the sort of exertion which, if it goes on too long, creates hideous build up of by-products (‘lactic acid’) that can leave us completely spent, and with a need for prolonged rest.

Finally, having to do lots of these bouts without much rest in between mandates a fairly well-developed oxygen transport (aerobic) system, the sort traditionally built by longer duration aerobic work, to give us a chance to recover somewhat.

And the problem of course is that these three requirements are probably incompatible at some level. Olympic lifters don’t look like ‘Strongman’ competitors, and neither would be mistaken for a marathon runner. We are left with the classical strategic dilemma of ‘trade off’. We have to make choices.

In this case, I’m reluctantly going to steer clear of grapples if I can possibly avoid them. Now my grappling is actually okay, and normally I would stress this part of my arsenal, but the main objective here is to get through a lot of fights, so grappling had better be minimised.

So my ‘strategic plan’ in the run up to the event involves strength training and anaerobics early on, morphing into Olympic-type lifting, road work and sprints as we get closer.  And oodles of sparring, of course.

And if all else fails, I have Waylon Jennings to fall back on: “Old age and treachery always overcomes youth and skill…


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