By Lindsay Bottoms (Exercise Physiologist) and Jonathan Rhodes (Sports Performance Consultant). Written for The Sword: British Fencing Magazine, April 2015.
As sports people we have all been told we should warm up prior to taking part in sport, be it training or competition, to reduce the likelihood of injury and prevent the dreaded delayed onset of muscle soreness, often felt in the 72 hours following exercise. The most common warm up, especially in fencing (from our experience), is a 3 phase one, which includes a cardiovascular element (such as running), static stretching and a task specific element such as pairs work in fencing. This style of warm up has been passed on from coach to coach for many years and no one used to question why we did it. However, in the last decade researchers have begun to question whether this is the best way to prepare the body for performing sport. Research now shows that static stretching (and foam rollering) prior to exercise can impact negatively on performance as a result of decreasing muscle strength and power, which in turn reduces jump height and speed. In a sport such as fencing this can have a significant impact on performance as explosive power is a critical component. Static stretching has also been shown to have no impact on reducing the incidence of injuries during training and competition. Therefore, we should avoid performing static stretching prior to fencing. This does not mean there is no place for static stretching, it is still important as part of a cool down to increase flexibility which will ultimately have a positive impact on performance. But static stretches should remain after exercise and not before.
In recent years many coaches have started to recommend performing dynamic stretches as an alternative to static stretching. Dynamic stretching involves more controlled movement through the active range of motion for a joint, and incorporates callisthenics movements (e.g. lunging) and running drills that include forward, lateral and change of direction movements. Research shows that dynamic stretching has positive effects on power, sprint and jump performance. Therefore, dynamic stretching would be more beneficial to add to a fencing warm up than static stretching.
Further developments into research regarding warm ups shows that a sport specific warm up is more effective than both dynamic and static stretching. Instead of having a 3 phase warm up, a 2 phase warm up would be more beneficial such that you perform the cardiovascular warm up and then undertake a fencing specific activity. I know many individuals who do fencing do not like running, therefore a cardiovascular activity could just be performing fencing footwork at a light intensity forwards and backwards across a sports hall, then gradually increase the intensity of the footwork. Following this undertake a warm up fight with another fencer. This will be the most appropriate warm up for fencing and it will put you in the right mind set for fencing. We must not forget that there is a large cognitive element to fencing and therefore before training and competition we want to make sure we are alert and going to react to our opponent. Therefore, there is no better warm up than doing fencing specific movements to prepare you for high powered, fast, and agile movements on the piste. This is not to say do not stretch, but stretch for the movements you are about to perform. This means the body is sufficiently warm and you are less likely to get injuries.
With this two-tiered warm up, it is easier to think of the warm up as “kit off” and “kit on”. Functional movements to prepare you for fencing, followed by “kit on” and fencing to warm up. To start with it is wise to talk to your sparring partner and warm up your hand and legs by telling them that you are going to perform step lunges. That way you can find your distance and timing in a safe tempo. After you have both hit a few times it is then time to fence to win. This part of the warm up is key, as you should fence at 100% intensity and focus. This completes the physical and mental warm up, and increases the work-rate in the first poule fight whilst minimising the injuries throughout.