Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Category: Learning Swordsmanship

We have to move. If a shark stops swimming it dies- and if we stop moving it doesn’t take long before the problems mount up. We can get away with it for a bit longer than sharks, but sooner or later the bill comes due.

Swords are cool- cool enough to get people who have never even considered taking up a physical activity for fun before to actually start training. There are huge long-term health benefits to regular exercise, pretty much regardless of what that exercise is.

But no historical martial art is optimised for long-term health. It can’t be: the immediate needs of surviving the sword fight are more important than the possibility of eventually developing knee problems or back pain. 

The specific ranges of motion required by a given sword fighting style may be quite extreme (such as in a rapier lunge), but they will never be comprehensive: in no style ever do you do a gentle forward stretch with a curved back, or indeed arch as far back as you can sensibly go, or even just touch your heel to your arse to stretch your quads. Those ranges of motion are good for us, but not included in the martial arts themselves. 

I intend to be swinging swords around in various historical manners for decades to come, and I’m already 48. It is therefore necessary to have a physical practice aimed at filling in the gaps, and keeping this carcasse in sufficiently good shape that I can be whacking my friends over the head with blades when I’m 90. I also need to be able to teach my students how to do the same thing- and there’s the rub. Every body is different, and so every training regime should be tailored to the individual. And every body changes over time- ideally getting fitter and stronger, but at least not deteriorating any faster than we can help. Which means that you can’t just learn a routine now and stick with it forever, if you want the best results for the least effort.

I cover the fundamentals of how to train in my book The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training  and we follow those principles in class. But the book doesn’t include much in the way of specific exercises, because it was intended to lay out the principles, not cover every possible practice. The book will tell you how to train, and how to prioritise your training time, but it doesn’t tell you whether you should be doing push-ups or lunges right now.

 To create our practice we need a comprehensive suite of exercises to select from, and the skill to choose from that suite wisely. We also need to know what it is we are training for at any given time. Here are some possibilities:

  • Pre-hab. Long-term injury prevention through movement, range of motion work, breathing and strength training. This is perhaps 50% of all my training.
  • Conditioning. Increasing our strength, speed, range of motion, or other attribute, through exercises of various kinds. This is about 40% of my training.
  • Warming up and warming down: preparing for a specific kind of movement (such as strength training, rapier footwork practice, a longsword tournament bout, or any other high-intensity activity), and promoting recovery afterwards. You may need to warm up for pre-hab or conditioning, of course.

A specific exercise such as an overhead press, or a push-up, or a hamstring stretch can be used in all three of these situations- but how we use it will differ. 

I run a Trainalong training session over Zoom three mornings a week, and usually structure them like so:

Section One- warm-up.

1. Running a diagnostic. Gentle joint rotations from toes to fingers, with a few squats and some gentle range of motion work. This tells me whether I need to pay attention to a specific area, and whether the session I had in mind is likely to be a good idea.

2. Full range of motion of the spine

3. Shoulder stability work

Section Two: conditioning, focusing on my own areas of weakness, especially forearms.

1. Some kind of strength work, often bodyweight or kettlebells

2. Leg stability work such as seven-way legs, or kicking practice

3. Forearm conditioning

Section Three: skills practice

1. Some kind of footwork

2. Some kind of weapon handling (though often disguised as stick conditioning drills or bladebell exercises). These are often combined with the footwork, of course.

3. And/or breathing training, such as the Breathing Form.

Section Four: recovery

1. Some breathing

2. Some stretching, especially of the legs

3. Forearm and leg massage (which you may be familiar with from my free Human Maintenance course)

4. A very short meditation

5. Deliberately finishing.

Seeing it broken down like that doesn’t reflect the experience of it. The sections will blend into each other, and overlap- we may intersperse arm weights with footwork, for example. I very often include planks and other “core” work in with the spine range of motion or hip/knee stability exercises. The full-body survey at the beginning and the warm-down ending sequence tend to be quite consistent. I also adjust the training depending on my own health and current needs, and incorporating any requests that the students bring up on the day. 

Some of the weird stuff we do sometimes includes jaw relaxation exercises, toe yoga, and finger dexterity drills. 

I’ve attached a fairly comprehensive list of the exercises we do as a pdf below. Be warned, it’s just a list, and “Granny’s Scarf” may not mean anything to you just yet. But it should give you an idea of what I mean by ‘comprehensive’. 

What about the skill to choose wisely from the list?

That is primarily a matter of mindset. If you go into a session with the intention of finding out what your body needs, and then carefully doing that, you will probably avoid injury, and certainly become better at listening to your body. As every body is different, I encourage my students to adapt or adjust what we’re doing to suit them. I may be recovering from an injury or illness, and be doing some gentle recovery work when we’re twenty minutes in- you may need to be doing push-ups or kettlebells while I’m resting. While the class is doing Turkish Get-ups, a student with a knee problem may be doing her prescribed rehab exercises.

Every exercise can be done at various levels of difficulty. Let’s take the humble push-up for example:

1. Knees on the ground, go down an inch.

2. Knees on the ground, work up to going all the way down.

3. One leg extended

4. Full push-up position, hold

5. Working up to a full basic pushup

6. Different hand positions- three knuckle, two knuckle, one knuckle, prima, seconda, quarta, hands wide, long, staggered, etc.

7. Going for more repetitions

8. Slow push-ups (eg 30 seconds down, 30 seconds up)

9. Plyo push-ups, eg clap push-ups, or push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpees

10. One-armed push-ups

11. One-armed push-ups with different hand positions

12. Plyo one-armed push-ups

And so on.

I may be working on 6, while one student is on 2, and another on 11. Literally every exercise has easier and harder versions, so can be adapted to anyone’s current level.

It is very relaxing to just show up and do as you are told for a while, and indeed having a personal trainer who knows you well and pushes you as needed would be great. But as martial artists, more is expected of us. We can’t be dependent on external forces to guide our training- we must take ownership and responsibility for our own development. And outside a one-to-one coaching session, no trainer can perfectly adapt the class to your needs. But you can. 

One way to learn to do that is to come to my Trainalong sessions. You can find them here: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool

Sessions are free, or you can chip in some cash. Everyone is welcome, whether you’re super-fit or not fit at all (yet). You won’t hold up the class (or be held up) because we are all moving at our own pace.

Other useful links on this topic:

You may find The Windsor Method helpful: https://swordschool.com/library-item/the-windsor-method-the-principles-of-solo-training/

I cover a lot of the exercises in the Solo Training course, though that course focusses primarily on weapons handling. https://swordschool.teachable.com/p/solo-training 

You can have a go with a sample session here:

You can download the exercises list here: Trainalong Curriculum

You may find my conversation with biomechanist Katy Bowman interesting: https://swordschool.com/podcast/movement-matters-with-katy-bowman/

I wrote Max Your Lunge in 2007, long before this blog was conceived. It's past time it became a properly formatted post!

My research into Capoferro's Gran Simulacro (1610) has lead me to rethink the lunge (which he calls l'incredibile accrescimento della botta lunga, “the incredible increase of the long blow”). He is absolutely clear about how long the lunge should be, and how much each part of the body moves, and famously defines them on plate 5 of his book. It occurred to me that when following his instructions to the letter, the resulting lunge gives the longest possible strike, in a very short motion of the foot.

The distance that any blow can travel is determined by the position of the fixed foot: how far you can move in a single pass forward is determined by the position of your front foot (as the back foot moves); so in the lunge, the maximum reach is determined by the position of the back foot. Whether your front, moving, foot is next to your back foot or a yard in front of it, affects only how long the action takes, not how far it can go. It is interesting (to me at least) that Capoferro defines the shape of the basic guard position, specifically the distance between your feet (the passo) only in the picture of the lunge; suggesting that the length of your lunge may determine the length of your guard. (You can find a copy of this plate on page 66 of The Duellist's Companion.)

So, how long is the lunge? The distance between your feet is the same as the length of your sword, or “twice the length of your arm” (as Jared Kirby pointed out in his seminar here in February 2007, this is a reference to the proportions of the Vitruvian man), your front knee is advanced slightly past your toes, and your front shoulder is above and slightly past your knee. The back foot pivots slightly on the ball, allowing the heel to slide forward. Your swordarm is completely extended. Drawing a line from the point of the sword to the toes of the back foot shows that the rear leg is almost exactly in line with the swordarm. This led me to wonder how long the lunge was in proportion to the maximum anatomically possible strike.
To discover this length, I lay on my back with my sword in hand, and had a student measure the distance between the outside edge of my left foot, and the point of my sword. This gave me a length of 328cm (129 inches).

We then measured out the same length from the centre of the thrusting target to a point on the floor, and marked the distance off with tape.

Standing on that mark, I placed my sword on the floor and lunged to its length (it has a 42″ blade).

Recovering to guard, and rechecking the position of my left foot, I took up my sword and lunged at the target, following my interpretation of Capo Ferro's instructions, leaving out only the turn of the back foot (which had not been allowed for in the initial measurement). The point of my sword touched the target.

I then turned my back foot, and the sword bent: the increase in the distance was about 10cm, or 4″.

By leaving out the foot turn in the initial measurement, I ensured that the lunge would penetrate a realistic amount, not just touch.

I then marked the spot where the back of my front heel landed,

and withdrew my foot until the toes were a little behind the mark (Capoferro shows the place of the front foot in guard as being directly behind the foot in the lunge). This gave me an exact length for my passo.

I then established my guard position according to the instructions, and lunged again from this position, making sure that the extension came first, and when that was complete, my hips moved forward, my knee went over my toes, and my back foot turned all in the space of time my front foot was in motion. This gave me the longest anatomically possible lunge, with a front foot movement of only about 12 inches, the maximum possible exchange of measure for time.

As a cross-check, I then measured the length of my lunge from front toes to back toes and found it to be about 57 inches, the length of my arm from armpit to fingertips to be 27 inches, so the length of my lunge was a trifle longer that twice the length of my arm.

Having done this myself, I then repeated the whole procedure for a small class of rapier students. Of course, with different length bodies and weapons, the maximum possible lunge was a different absolute length for each student. Out of six students, four men and two women, both women could reach their maximum lunge, and none of the men, primarily due to hip flexibility. However, none could easily recover, or felt comfortable in their maximum positions. More importantly, each student caught sight of an exact, measurable goal; to be able to lunge easily to the maximum distance, and recover fluidly to the correct guard position.

So, it is my belief that Capoferro describes the perfect lunge for his weapon. It is practically impossible to execute any kind of blade action with a full-size rapier while lunging, so Capoferro has us be able to strike from as far away as possible, in as short a time as possible. While your foot is in the air it is very hard to support your blade with strength, and so it is the ideal time for your opponent to counter; minimising the foot movement (by keeping it as far forwards as practically possible) while maintaining the maximum distance of your face from his point (by keeping your weight back) gives you the ideal tactical compromise. Of course, the sword still has a long way to go, but for most of that distance, you have both feet on the ground and can therefore execute blade actions more easily.

So, how do you train to achieve this ideal lunge? stretching, for flexibility, strength training for support and recovery, and going at it little by little. A short lunge that doesn't hurt you is much more useful than a long one that pulls a muscle. But by having an ideal to work towards, we can measure our progress towards an achievable goal.

With thanks to Kevin O'Brien (photographer), Heikki Hallamaa, and Karolina Suominen

What the world really needs right now is obviously a better beginners’ guide to training in Fiore’s Art of Arms, right? So I have created one. So what's special about that?

I always, always, try to instil self-direction into my students. My job is to make myself redundant. I do this in practice by giving even beginners in their very first class some agency to choose what we cover. By the time they get to the seniors class (usually in a year or two), classes are entirely student-led: we cover whatever they need my help with that day.

Books are a very linear model, and while I can lay out my usual path through the enormous range of the Fiore syllabus, that restricts the reader’s agency to an unfortunate degree. But actually, very few of my readers ever read from cover to cover. Everyone skips ahead to the things they are most interested. And why not? They’ve bought the book, they can do whatever they want with it. 

So I have figured out how to include gradually increasing levels of choice for the reader/student in these workbooks. The series will comprise several workbooks. The first is the Beginner’s Course, of eight lessons each with about as much stuff as I’d cover in a single 90 minute class. In the first class of the first book, you get one simple choice. In the second class, there’s more freedom.  At every stage, if you need prior material to successfully approach the topic at hand, that will be flagged up. So even if you skipped that section for some reason, you can go to the specific prerequisite material and practice that before returning to the thing you want to do next.

There are as many correct paths through the syllabus as there are students to walk them. In this new series I have finally figured out how to represent that on the page. 

Every technique, every drill, is presented as written instructions with images from the source manuscript, and over 40 video clips. Each video is linked to with a QR code on the relevant page, so you can just point your smartphone at the page and it will open the video for you. There is abundant space for your own written notes, which is especially necessary when you are not working through the material in the order it appears in the text. 

It’s a choose your own path training manual.

Part One covers the following material:

Unarmed techniques

The four guards of abrazare (wrestling)

The first six plays of abrazare

The four steps (footwork)

The three turns (footwork)

With the Dagger

The four blows of the dagger

Disarms against forehand, backhand, and rising dagger thrusts

Counters to the disarms

Arm locks and counters

How to fall safely

A basic takedown/throw

With the Longsword

Six ways to hold the longsword

The seven blows of the longsword

How to parry and strike

How to counter the parry with a pommel strike

How to counter the pommel strike

The exchange of thrusts

Breaking the thrusts

Training on the pell

 

That's a lot of material- but thanks to the format it’s presented in, it should be thoroughly attainable.

The book is in layout now; all the video clips have been edited and uploaded, the QR codes created, and so on. We even have the covers. 

There is a limited number of pre-order slots available, which will help pay for the layout and cover graphic design work, and the editing costs. Pre-orders are for the print version, but also include the ebook. 

I hope to get the ebook version out to those that pre-order in a week or so, and the print workbooks ready to ship by the end of this month.

The workbook should be more widely available in May.

You can preorder the right-handed layout here: https://guywindsor.gumroad.com/l/aw1RHpreorder

And the left-handed layout here: https://guywindsor.gumroad.com/l/aw1LHpreorder

One of my students mentioned tendonitis problems in his wrist on the Swordschool Discord server this week. It’s probably caused by holding his sword incorrectly, which forces the small stabiliser muscles to do more work than they evolved for. He is by no means the first student I’ve seen with this problem. It has been my experience that almost every sword student at any level in any style is either holding their sword incorrectly, or at the very least, there was room for improvement. This is partly due to most modern sword makers producing handles that are a bit too big, or a bit too round; and partly due to most people simply not understanding how the mechanics of sword holding is supposed to work.

In essence, your grip strength and wrist stabilisation strength should be acting as back-up systems only: the sword should stay in your hand with almost no strength being used at all, and when you strike, the force coming back from the target should be routed through the bones of your hands and wrist, and thence through your body to the ground, with no need to tighten up on impact at all.

Seriously. Not at all. 

Have a look at this video of me hitting the wall target with a rapier, and bashing the tyre with a longsword. My hand is not just relaxed, it’s actually open, to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that grip strength is not required. 

I have been banging this drum for many, many, years now (I first posted that video in 2012!), and have written this up in many places, and posted endless video content about it, and yet still the sword world has crappy sword holding skills. This is for three reasons:

1. the sword handle is too big 

2. because this is very counter-intuitive

3. and also because most people are strong enough to fake it for a while; they think it’s correct, when actually their muscles are faking it for them. Until the pain in the first joint of the thumb kicks in. Or in the elbow. Or indeed anywhere along the chain from fingertip to toes. 

So how should you hold the sword? 

That depends on what kind of sword it is, and what you want to do with it. 

Generally, the sword is either held back in the hand, like so:

Or extended in the grip, like so:

This is also how most chefs hold their kitchen knives when chopping and slicing.

There are exceptions: we do sometimes support the flat instead of the edge, like so:

The sword is usually held back in the hand when it’s also held back near the body, and extended in the hand when the sword arm is extended from the body. Some longsword folk have half-understood this concept and hold their longsword in the extended grip even when the guard is chambered (such as in posta di donna). Some swords are almost always held in the extended grip; rapiers, foils, smallswords are good examples. The basic rule still applies- the sword is supported by the bones, not tied in place by the muscles.

The extended grip does not depend on grip strength; you can perfectly well hold the sword with one finger, if it's aligned correctly, like so:

I'm not recommending fighting like this, but it's worth making sure you're not depending on grip strength by opening the thumb, forefinger, ring finger, and little finger, and seeing what happens.

One common error is to extend the wrist, rather than extend the sword in the grip. You need to be able to distinguish between at least three positions of the hand relative to the forearm. Three-knuckle, two-knuckle, and one-knuckle. The easiest way to learn the differences between them is through “Eurythmic push-ups”. You can do them on a mat if you prefer, and you don’t actually need to do the push-up bit; just getting the feeling of the different wrist positions is very helpful.

Cocking the wrist between the ‘three-knuckle’ and ‘one-knuckle’ positions instead of allowing the sword to shift in the grip between the ‘chambered’ and ‘extended’ grips is another common cause of wrist problems.

Please pay attention, this may save you a lot of pain, as well as massively improve your general sword handling.

For my Medieval friends: 

I introduce the basics of how to hold a longsword in this video borrowed from my Solo Training course

For my Renaissance friends:

This footage from a rapier seminar I taught in 2012 goes into the correct grip for the rapier in some detail; you can watch the whole thing of course, or skip to about 22 minutes in, where we get into the grip.

If you are already having wrist problems, for any reason, you may find my Arm Maintenance course useful. It’s free, and bundled in with my Human Maintenance course. 

I get asked a lot of questions about the nitty-gritty of swordsmanship mechanics, and interpreting historical sources. I recently received a very long and involved question about the mezani blows in Il Fior di Battaglia from Dustin Jones. In short, he believed that I’ve read the manuscript incorrectly, and these horizontal blows should be done with the false edge from your forehand side, and with the true edge from the backhand side. He came to this conclusion from getting stuck with a specific technique: the breaking of the thrust from the left.

This was one of those times when it’s really tempting to retreat into authority: “I’ve been doing this for 20+ years, this is how it is, shut up and stop bothering me”. I have absolutely no doubts about my interpretation of these blows and which edge comes from where in terms of the written sources, and I have tested pretty much every imaginable way of doing them, so I am 100% satisfied with my position on this. We hashed all this out in depth and detail many years ago, and have tested it with hundreds of students over the last decade-plus. 

And that’s really, really, dangerous, on two fronts. Firstly, it’s simply wrong for a teacher to answer in that way. Any student (someone who is working from my books and/or courses) is entitled to at least a considered response, explaining why I think it is the way it is. Sometimes that is something along the lines of “check pages x-y in book z”, sometimes it’s something I haven’t covered in detail elsewhere so I need to write it up. And secondly, as soon as an interpretation becomes unquestionable it becomes dogma, and the learning process grinds to an abrupt halt.

Examining your assumptions, and the parts of your interpretation that have become so ingrained they are assumptions, is an essential part of continuing to grow in the Art.

But of course, there is a limit. Having listened to their side, and explained my views in depth, my obligation ends. I have on occasion had to block a person’s email address because they behaved like a five-year old with the ‘but whys’, or insisting on a definitive answer to a question that doesn’t have one. 

Dustin’s original email included a 1,450 word explanation of his point of view, which is too much to quote in full, but referred to the mechanical difficulties he was having with the mezani as I do them, and laid out his position drawing on his reading of the Italian, and mentioning the zwerchau which indeed is a horizontal blow done with the true edge from the backhand side, false edge from the forehand side.

I wouldn’t normally read such a long question- I have been known to reply with a request for the edited highlights- but the tone of his request felt appropriate, and understanding his position did require the background he was providing.

So here is the answer I sent:

Hi Dustin,

Thanks for getting in touch. You’d be surprised how many questions I get from folk who haven’t bothered to read my books, so it’s nice to hear from someone who has.

This is a pretty long and detailed reply, so I’ll work it up into a blogpost- you’re probably not the only person out there who’s had trouble with this. Would you like to remain anonymous, or should I mention you by name?

It seems to me that you’re having mechanical difficulties with the forehand mezano, and extrapolating from that to ‘the interpretation is wrong’. Let’s start with the language issue. Let me quote you:

“When it comes to Fiore’s instruction for the colpi mezani he does say “E andamo cum lo dritto taglo de la parta dritta”. Which you interpret as “and we go with the true edge from the forehand side”, but it seems this can be interpreted as “and we go with the true edge from the right” and you could then read “E de la parte riversa andamo cum lo falso taglio” as “and from the left side we go with the false edge”.

Fiore does not explicitly say “from my” or “from your” or “from your opponents” right or left. This does kind of leave this up to interpretation.”

There I’m afraid you’re simply wrong. Dritto can mean ‘right’, of course. But ‘roverso’ does not ever mean ‘left’. It means ‘backhand’. A left-hander would strike a roverso from their right hand side. (Left hand side would be lato sinistro.) And the blow goes from you to the target. “Andare….de” means “To go…. from”. Not “to.” So you cannot reasonably interpret Fiore’s instruction as going with the true edge “to” the right side. This is standard Italian usage, and is consistent across all sources I’ve studied. Viggiani even goes off on a riff about how the forehand blow is more noble because it hits the left side of the opponent where his heart is. (Never mind his poor understanding of anatomy- the usage is consistent and clear.)

The cut to the throat after the break is a mezano simply because a sottano would get caught on the shoulder. To get to the throat, you have to cut horizontally. And the mezano is clearly illustrated as a horizontal cut to the throat. 

So the next step would be to have a look at why you’re having the trouble. You can see me doing a basic version of the breaking of the thrust from the left in this video:

You can of course flick the false edge across the throat from your right side- it works just fine. But mechanically, the true edge is stronger and more stable from that side. It’s also true that the roverso tondo described in the eighth play of the master of coda longa on horseback, done to the back of the opponent’s head, would be done with the true edge. But Fiore doesn’t call it a mezano.

I should also say that I can make perfectly good false edge cuts from left-side high guards (I’m a right-hander). And while it’s true that the zwerch is done the other way round, it’s only ever done with the hands above the head, and the sword opposing the opponent’s weapon from above, which changes the mechanics considerably.

I’ve shot a video for you of me doing the mezani from the break on both sides, and from posta di donna. You can find it here:

Please don’t share it at this stage. I made it with the blog post in mind, so it’s not addressed to you directly.

If that doesn’t sort it out for you, send me a short video, shot from the front (max 30 seconds, no talking required), of you doing the mezano the way I describe in the book, and I’ll trouble-shoot it for you.

It’s always a tricky moment when you have to point out a clear error in the student’s line of thought (in this case the translation of ‘roverso’ as ‘left’). It’s a test of their character. I’m glad to say that Dustin took it like a champ, and replied back saying that the technique is working much better now. He also mentioned that the key to making the forehand throat cut after the break from the left work properly for him was seeing how it related to the first part of the motions for the break and/or exchange from the right. I shot the video off-the-cuff, before breakfast, and threw that bit in because it just occurred to me at the time- and it turned out to be the most useful moment! You never can tell what will work for any given student.

So here are the takeaways:

1. For any interested Fiorista: “This is how Guy does mezani

2. For students who have done the reading/training/reasonable due-diligence: this is the sort of response you can reasonably expect from your teachers, and an insight into what they might actually be thinking when they do respond.

3. For teachers: beware the instinctive retreat into authority. It’s a chasm you may find it hard to climb out of.

[Update:] One reader of this post, Jukka Salmi in Finland, who has been a student of mine for many years and knows a lot more about mounted combat than I do emailed me with this comment:

I wholeheartedly agree with your interpretation on mezzani strikes, but I'd argue that even the tondo on horseback should be done with the false edge. If I recall correctly Fiore doesn't specify the edge used and a false edge cut would be more consistent with the overall mechanics regarding horizontal strikes in his system. But more importantly it has some significant advantages in said situation. With a false edge cut you can reach further and having the palm up you're not limiting the rotation of your sword arm. One can easily test how far behind them they can reach with raised arm palm down versus palm up. This makes a tangible difference when riding past one another and not stopping – a true edge cut easily falls short of the target. This can also be easily tested on a pell while walking or slowly jogging.
He raises a very good point. We have abundant examples of true-edge roverso tondo blows in the Bolognese, and it can certainly work, but Jukka's observation about measure does suggest that it's likely that this particular tondo should be done with the false edge.
You can't eat too many vegetables…

Last month’s challenge was very simple: prioritise sleep. While sleep quality varies hugely, it’s still basically the same thing for everyone: there’s good sleep, there’s bad sleep, and there’s enough sleep or not. We all know what we mean by ‘sleep well’. But what do we mean by ‘eat well’? ‘Eat well’ is incredibly varied. Eat well for what? The challenge this month is simply this: pay attention to what you eat and why.  

No area of human health is more riven with controversy and ill-feeling than discussions around what we eat. Very few people are actually rational about it, and I’m certainly not one of them. 

You can optimise your diet for many different things, and they will all look different. Here are some common priorities, in no particular order:

1. Athletic performance in your chosen field. Should sprinters eat like marathon runners? Probably not.

2. Muscle gain. All serious bodybuilders have pretty strict diets, and are often eating far more than they really want to, to persuade their bodies to store so much protein as muscle.

3. Fat loss. Probably the most common reason people pay attention to their food habits, and also an area where emotions run very high. 

4. Pleasure. Many pleasurable foods are contraindicated by other priorities. If only chocolate was disgusting…

5. Ethics. The food you choose to buy has been produced, distributed, and sold by people. All three of those steps have ethical considerations. Animal welfare is one; the environmental impact of crops like soy is another. How far the food has travelled is yet another. 

6. Longevity. This usually revolves around restricting calories, fasting, and other unpleasant practices.

7. Social connections. Many food practices have social dimensions. I have dinner with my wife and kids every day. We sit down together for it, no screens. Sometimes what we eat is affected by that priority; if we’re running late and the kids are hungry, I might make something quickly so we can eat together. Making something that is a treat for the kids usually means it’s not good for my longevity, athletic performance, or fat loss. But it’s very good for my mental health to have strong bonds with my children.

8. Convenience. How often have we eaten a less-optimal food because it was right there, instead of taking the time to make or find something better?

9. Cost. Many people can’t afford to buy enough of the higher-quality food that would be better for them. Some people just don’t prioritise food in their budget the way they prioritise other things.

The principles of nutrition are quite straightforward: eat enough of the things you need but not too much, avoid the things that are bad for you, and spend enough time without eating for your gut to rest. Given that we live in a culture of abundance we tend to classify diets by restrictions, and take the “getting enough” side of things for granted. Those restrictions are:

1. Restricting specific foods. Many cultures have a taboo food that other cultures suffer no ill effects from. Most weight-loss diets have some form of ‘don’t eat sugar’. Vegetarianism restricts all meat.

2. Restricting food quantity. You can have this much ice-cream, but no more. For most of my lifetime, most of the popular weight-loss diets have been about calorie counting, and reducing the overall quantity of food. 

3. Restricting when you can eat. Most traditional cultures have periodic fasts, and we all fast while we’re asleep. One currently popular form of this (which I actually find very useful for my body and my purposes) is the not-very-well-named “intermittent fasting”, in which you restrict food to an eating window, such as 14 hours of no food, 10 hours of food (so if you eat breakfast at 7am, you need to stop eating by 5pm). Popular versions of this include 16:8 and 20:4. 

But my own parents remember food rationing during the war. Perhaps half the people currently alive and 99% of all humans who lived before the 1950s are far more concerned with getting enough food than with being precious about when and how much they eat. There are also psychological costs to viewing food as something to be restricted, so you may prefer to think about how do you get enough of the high-quality food, rather than restricting yourself.

So what should you do?  

The Challenge this month is: examine your priorities regarding food, and make choices consistent with those priorities.

I did say that’s a challenge. It’s really, really, hard for most people.

 I would start by asking yourself what your priorities are. Are they even on my list? Then look at what you are actually doing, and decide how closely your actions match your priorities. It might be better to do that the other way round- look at what you are doing, and from there deduce your priorities.

Some priorities are mutually exclusive. Generally speaking, dietary practices associated with longevity are not associated with muscle gain, or pleasure. But most people have many conflicting priorities. So prioritise! Which do you want more? And can you balance your priorities in a practical way?

Then look at the downsides. Swordsmanship is awesome good fun: until someone loses an eye. So we wear fencing masks.  What can you do to minimise the downsides of your priorities?What are the ethical implications of your muscle-building diet? What are the longevity implications of your pleasure-focussed diet? In all things, you want to cap the downside.  Can you minimise the ethical problems of some of your choices, by choosing a different brand or supplier? Can you minimise the health problems of your pleasure-focussed diet by for instance intermittent fasting?

With your better sleep, and your ability to acquire or drop habits, you should have the internal resources you need to make whatever changes you want, for your priorities.

My only specific advice is this- leave virtue out of it. Deciding you want pleasure in your life does not make you a bad person, and deciding you’re going to cut out meat and fast every week does not make you a good one. Any extreme is self-indulgent: It is no less self-indulgent to starve yourself than it is to stuff yourself. 

If you are looking for ideas about how to proceed, then you may find my other posts on nutrition helpful:

Eat Right for Fight Night

The Myth of the One True Diet

Skittles Beat Watermelon 

How I lost 10kg in 3 weeks without effort or hunger

You can get this post as an episode of The Sword Guy podcast, here:

 

On March 17th 2001 I taught my first class as a full-time professional instructor of historical fencing, at the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki. I had expected five, maybe ten people to show up, but to my astonishment and delight, the place was packed with perhaps 70. Some had driven for hundreds of kilometres to be there.

Over the twenty years since that day, my school has grown from a small club in Helsinki training in parks and school gyms, to having its own permanent salle, branches popping up all over the world, and since 2016, online classes too. The online courses have literally saved us during the pandemic, when my usual travelling to teach became impossible. In all that time, my sword people have made it possible for me to do the work I love.

Usually, we'd have a seminar and a party at the salle to celebrate. But that's out of the question, so instead I've decided to throw the doors open, and give anyone that wants it a full month of free training.

This magic link will take you to the Master Historical Swordsmanship (Access to Everything via Monthly Membership) course page, where you can sign up for a free month. https://swordschool.teachable.com/p/the-everything…

Or you can use this discount code here: SWORDSCHOOLIS20

This is valid only until March 18th. The coupon will expire then. Because birthdays don't last forever.

Feel free to share this as widely as you like, on the socialz, etc. Everyone is welcome.

Be warned though, at the end of the month the subscription will automatically start charging you, so if you want to just take the free month and then stop, you'll need to remember to cancel it. All the content is downloadable, and it is perfectly ok to sign up, download everything, and then cancel. I'm working on a few assumptions here:

1. People who can't afford the monthly fee won't pay it anyway- so they might as well have the material and train. Swords are good for you.

2. People who just want free stuff won't pay anyway- so they might as well have the material and train. Swords are good for you.

3. People who appreciate the work, and can afford to pay for it, will stay on the subscription for a while at least. Swords are good for you.

So, go forth and share, my friends.

Folk who are already enrolled should have got an email from me about a free consultation session, to make up for not being able to use the free month offer (thanks to technical stuff I don't understand). If that's you, and you haven't had the email inviting you to book a time, then please let me know and I'll send you the booking link.

Ah, sleep. The foundation of all health, mental, physical, or otherwise. One bad night’s sleep can ruin a day, and get no sleep at all for 8 days and you’ll probably die.
But we as a culture do not appreciate it nearly as much as we should.
Your challenge this week is to put sleep first: both sleep quality, and sleep quantity. The key source on this subject is Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Buy it, read it, it may save your life. But for now:
Turn off those screens.
Cut out the caffeine.
Get to bed early.
You’ll thank me later.

I’ll address how to get better sleep in a moment, but first I’ll catch you up on how last month’s challenge of adding a good habit went for me. As many of the participants have told me, it is much easier to create a new habit than it is to break an old one. Really, I should have switched the order around, but nobody’s perfect. My habit for February was to start each day with creative work, not reactive work. Creative work includes things like teaching a class, writing an article, working on the next book (current working title: The Principles of Solo Training), shooting some video. Reactive work is responding to emails, admin crap, that sort of thing.
This ties in nicely with this month’s challenge, because I found that for no reason I was waking up horribly early- maybe 2 hours earlier than usual. So I decided that when that happens, I’ll just get up, do some meditation and light exercises, then storm ahead with the book. Which is why the draft currently stands at a bloated 82,000 words. And on days when I haven’t woken up so early, I’ve still put creative work first. The feeling of having made something is so much more rewarding than the feeling of having answered an email. Really. Even to someone I like.
On days when I’ve woken up early, I’ve gone to bed early. Our bedtime has generally shifted an hour earlier, and sometimes I manage to sleep through to a reasonable hour- one glorious night I managed 9 hours. Oh, my, goddess.
On the subject of getting up early, there are some truly insane famous people out there who seem to fetishize the time they wake up. Mark Wahlberg springs to mind: he gets up at 2.30 in the morning. I’m glad to also report that he goes to bed at 7.30pm, but simple maths will tell you that’s only 7 hours. I’d suggest getting up an hour later and skipping the fucking golf.
Perhaps even stranger is Jocko Willink. Don’t get me wrong, Jocko is the real deal: ex-Navy Seal, very tough, very strong, very disciplined. But he gets up at 4.30 every morning, and posts a dramatic black and white photo of his manly watch (a Timex Ironman Triathlon, in case you care), on his manly wrist, at about 04.32 every day, and many of his followers are now doing the same. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this behaviour, except I’d like to see him posting his bedtime too, and have that be 8.30pm. 8 hours, people. As it stands, it’s incitement to sleep deprivation.
If you listen to him describe his routines such as on the Tim Ferriss podcast, he is hauling himself out of bed because he’s deeply conscious of there being terrorists hiding in caves planning to get him. That may be literally true in his case, but it’s a terrible example to set: it borders on paranoia. Honestly, I worry for his mental health. And as he is so influential these days (I think 500k Twitter followers counts as influential), it also worries me that his followers will be becoming sleep deprived trying to follow his example. That is not cool.
Getting up early in the morning to get the things that matter most to you done before the day can get derailed is a great habit to have.
But it must, must, must, be balanced by getting to bed early, or by compensating with afternoon naps.
So, as for sleep quantity, you probably need about 8 hours (Walker says so). If your alarm wakes you up, you’ve not had enough sleep. Simple as, and I’ll hear no arguments to the contrary.
Sleep quality is harder to measure. Sadly the wearables on the market (such as the oura ring) are woefully inaccurate on pretty much every measure except heart rate. My oura ring once had me in “deep sleep” while I was walking briskly across downtown Helsinki at about 1.30am. But here are the general guidelines (borrowed from The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts):

• Go to bed and get up at the same time every day. Earlier to bed is better: my Grandma used to say that “one before eleven is worth two after seven,” and as usual, she was right.
• Avoid caffeine (for at least six hours before bedtime). Even better would be to cut it out altogether, as it stays in the body for hours and hours. I don’t touch caffeine after 12pm, usually.
• Avoid alcohol (for at least four hours before bedtime). I find that a couple of glasses of wine make no difference to sleep quality (as measured by heart rate during the night), so long as the alcohol is out of my system before going to bed.
• Avoid eating a heavy meal for at least three hours before bedtime. This makes a huge difference, I find. If my body is working on digesting a big meal, my heart rate remains much higher all night than if I go to bed long after the last calorie went in. If you’re waking up too early due to hunger, then a light snack before bed may help.
• Avoid screens for at least an hour before bedtime. If you absolutely must be using a screen, on an iOS device enable Night Shift, or use F.lux or something similar to adjust the wavelengths of light your screen emits.
• Avoid social media for at least an hour before bedtime. There is nothing more likely to keep you awake than some foolish thing said on the internet. Remember that social media companies hire really clever people whose only job is to get and keep your attention; and nothing says you’re not paying attention like falling asleep.
• Keep your bedroom as dark as possible: use black-out curtains, and cover or switch off any sources of light pollution such as luminous clocks or devices with LED lights on them. This to me is one of the hardest things to get right when travelling. One hotel room I stayed in had an illuminated light switch in the middle of the headboard of the bed. I had to get my old boarding pass out and stick it over the damn thing with chewing gum to get any sleep.
• Create a wind-down ritual that persuades your body that it will be going to sleep soon. Keep it gentle. I find reading a good novel is hopeless, because I stay up late to get to the next bit, but reading a fairly dull but useful non-fiction book is great.
• Get a decent mattress. It’s worth it. You literally cannot put a price on sleep.

So, what are you going to do to improve your sleep this March? And how are you going to know that it has worked, or not?

My Patrons on Patreon.com/theswordguy got this article last week. Want to get everything early? You know what to do…

No, this post isn't a few days late. I posted this last week for my Patrons on Patreon: rewarding their commitment with early access to the things I produce seems fair to me. Want to join them? There's a link in the sidebar.

Now, on with the post.

Challenge: February 2021

Well, that didn’t go quite as planned.
It turns out that quitting the booze in January 2021 is way harder than it might have been in, say, May 2019. Michaela and I got to January 20th, then cracked a bottle of bubbly to celebrate Trumperdink’s ignominious expulsion, and especially to celebrate the United States finally electing a woman to the Vice Presidency- and a not-white woman at that. If anything deserves bubbly, it’s seeing women and people of colour advanced to high office.


But that kind of cracked the seal, and while there have been a couple of dry days since, we’re pretty much back to drinking as normal (I'm writing on January 28th).
I’m not sorry though. Here’s why:
If not drinking is good for you, then 20 days of not drinking is a lot better than none.
The benefits I was hoping for from dropping the booze didn’t materialise. I didn’t sleep any better, have not been more energetic, and in general have not been feeling better. It may be that 20 days isn’t enough, but in my experience I would expect improvements within a day or two. Waking up feeling hungover because you got plastered last night is one thing. Waking up feeling hungover when you haven’t touched a drop for ages is quite another. It did reduce my reflux, but it seems that the wine is less an issue than onions and other foods.
Most interestingly, it turns out that literally none of my self-esteem is tied up with meeting arbitrary goals such as this one. I don’t feel the slightest bit like I “failed”. Which is not what I would have expected.
Here’s a question for you: having dropped one bad habit this month, has it helped you any? Do you feel better for it?

So what’s the challenge this month?

Having worked on dropping a bad habit, we’ll now work on creating a good one. Think of one thing you might benefit from, and see if you can create that habit.

  • Getting up a bit earlier to exercise, meditate, or write?
  • Eating more vegetables?
  • Taking up knitting?
  • Flossing? (Your teeth, not the Fortnite dance. C’mon people.)

Try it for a month, and see what happens.
Here’s how to do it.

  1. start slow. If you want to create a meditation habit, start with five minutes. Not an hour. Eating something green at every meal? That could be just a slice of cucumber, to start with. No need to parboil then chargrill a head of broccoli, served with a freshly-made aioli. At least not at the beginning.
  2. attach it to an existing routine. I get the itch to stretch when watching TV in the evening, because I’ve created that habit. It feels kind of weird to watch TV without getting down on the floor and going through my stretches.
  3. this should be a positive thing. It’s hard to get up early for something miserable, but to practice your hobby? To read a novel? To luxuriate in a meditation? To play with swords? Looking forward to the activity makes it easier to schedule and easier to actually do it.
  4. exploit constraints. I floss regularly, because I eat foods like oranges and chorizo (no, not together, you animal) which get stuck in my teeth. I have to floss to get rid of the annoyingly stuck bits. While I’m there, I might as well do my whole mouth. Make the thing you want to do that bit easier to start (leave your knitting lying around, so you can pick it up any time), or put it in the way of things that you want to avoid. Do you have to move your meditation cushion to get to the TV remote?

One word of warning: if your new habit requires getting up earlier to put first things first, as I would highly recommend, then it must be accompanied by going to bed that much earlier.

HEAR ME, PEOPLE: do not sacrifice your sleep for anything.

(OK, babies get a pass. If your child needs you, wake up for her. Everyone else, including you and your late-night gaming habit? No.) Sorry to get all shouty at you, but this is really important.

Me, I'm going for a fairly ambitious goal: meditation and progress on one creative project before checking any kind of social media, messages, emails, anything. Five days a week. So, I will get up, do whatever limbering I need to do to be able to sit or lie comfortably, meditate for at least 20 minutes, then get started on (probably) writing the book I'm currently working on. Let's see how this goes… I'll report back in a month, and issue the challenge for March. (There's a giant clue regarding March's challenge in this post.)

So, what new habit will you create this month?

It can be a lonely business running classes or even a whole club, taking responsibility for everyone’s safety, helping students to progress down the path towards mastery of the Art of Arms. My friends and I started a historical fencing club in 1994 to attract people to fight with, and we soon realised that the interested folk showing up would have to be taught how to fence before we could fight them. So I slipped into teaching swordsmanship by accident and by default. Then I found out I loved doing it.

I’ve been teaching professionally since 2001. Finding applicable pedagogical training was very difficult, but with the help of colleagues in other arts, and travelling to events to meet colleagues in my own arts, I managed to improve as a teacher, and become part of a community of like-minded instructors to bounce ideas off and get support from.

I think many folk start out teaching in much the same way, and it can be extremely difficult. You need to be able to continue your own training, and develop your teaching skills, and keep the classes running. I’ve started a monthly Q+A and support group session for us to get together and help each other. The sessions will be structured: I’ll kick things off with a question for the group, we’ll break out into small groups to discuss the question, and come back for group discussion. Then I’ll open the floor to the attendees to ask me, or the group, any question they like.

We do this for our students- they deserve the best instructor they can get. While this is intended for instructors, and we will stay at least generally on topic, it is absolutely appropriate for people just thinking about starting to teach, as well as those of us with decades of experience, and everything in between. I hope you can join us.

Training Instructors Q+A, Saturday January 9th at 3pm UK time. Sessions will last about 90 minutes.

Tickets are £12, £6, or free. https://bookwhen.com/swordschool

I know this time doesn’t work for everyone, so if you’re interested but can’t make it then, I’ll run one at any time between 8am and 8pm UK time, any day of the week, if you can find five other people to commit to coming.

See you there!

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