Guy's Blog

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

Category: Personal

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/

A very inexperienced Guy teaching class in 2001

21 years ago today I taught my first class as a professional instructor. It was in a small room in the Helsinki Olympic Stadium. I expected about six people to show up, but we had over 70, from as far afield as Turku and Tampere. My class plan went out of the window because there was no space for that many folk to take part, so I talked for a bit, and then got everyone doing some really basic mechanics. Many of the people who showed up that day kept showing up for years afterwards, and it's thanks to them that we have a school.

The rest is literally history!

While thinking about the best way to celebrate the School’s survival over the last 21 years, it struck me that I really like teaching classes and hanging out with my students, so I’ve decided to run a couple of seminars, which are free or you can pay something if you want to. Given the constraints of teaching over zoom, these classes will be on solo training- a warm-up, some footwork and mechanics, and some blade handling, followed by time for questions and answers. To accommodate the fact that most of my students are in the USA and so miss all the morning sessions, these will be at 7pm UK time on Sunday 20th and 27th March. There are more details etc. on the booking pages:

Longsword Seminar: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool/e/ev-s82s-20220320190000

Rapier Seminar: https://bookwhen.com/swordschool/e/ev-si53-20220327190000

I hope to see you there!

I have also set up a discount code: SWORDSCHOOL21BDAY for 50% off all my books on Gumroad and courses on Teachable. Except the free ones, they’re still $0.
Regarding my Gumroad shop, I’ve removed most of the free treatise photos etc. from the webshop because the file sizes exceed Gumroad’s terms and conditions for free products. I am looking around for better ways to host and share these resources- if you’ve got any suggestions, let me know!
The discount code expires on March 31st.

Thanks for being part of it!

One of the things I’m enjoying most about learning to fly is being an absolute beginner, and making beginners’ mistakes. Such as:

  • Getting my radio check and airfield information call in to the office (we don’t have a tower at this airfield), and wondering why I couldn’t get a reply even though the radio seemed to be working just fine. Turns out I had the volume turned down too low.
  • Having successfully landed the plane (yay! That’s the critical bit), when taxiing back towards the place where the planes are parked, my tail got caught in a bit of cross-wind, and I ended up getting the plane stuck in the rough grass between taxi-way and runway. That meant getting out and pushing while the instructor (Clive) drove us out. Clive has been (gently) mocking my “gardening skills” ever since. He also spent the rest of the taxi-way ride rolling a cigarette, manifesting complete confidence in my ability to go not gardening again. Planes on the ground are steered entirely with the feet, so he could actually have steered us out of trouble if necessary, but it’s fascinating to see how something I do all the time in class to essentially trick my students into relaxing, is being done to me, and I can see it and understand it, and it still works. I don't roll cigarettes, but I try to exude a sense of absolute confidence in my students.
  • Forgetting to check under my wing before turning in that direction. Instructor says ‘make a right turn’, and I just start doing it, instead of following correct procedure and actually checking for myself that it’s safe to do so and we’re not about to bump into something. Not that there’s much likelihood of that, where we are, but it’s essential to check, just like checking your mirrors before making a turn in a car. Incidentally, I had no problem with that in the previous lesson (on turns), but this lesson was on the stall,* and so the turns weren’t the focus. I was thinking about the stall, not the turn, and so forgot something essential that I had been fine with previously.

And, most interestingly for me, for the first five lessons I had practically no questions. I didn’t know enough to know what to ask. That phase seems to have passed and I am now pestering my instructors with all sorts of questions. It’s also instructive to note that there are many things that have been explained to me such that I understood them just fine, but couldn’t hold on to the idea until I’d seen it again, usually after a practical exercise in the plane that demonstrated the idea in action. Being able to follow the logic of an explanation is not the same thing as remembering, which is also not the same thing as really knowing and understanding.

I cannot overstate how useful this is to me as an instructor. It has been a very long time since I was last a real beginner at something; most of the new things I’ve learned over the last decade or so have been somehow related to things I’m already competent at, which changes things completely.

The instructors at Skyward are all nice; they don’t berate you for mistakes, just encourage you to learn. I think they’ve been a bit surprised by how I’m not at all embarrassed by making a mistake- I know many of my beginners often are embarrassed. Beginners taxi planes into the long grass, forget to check under their wing before a turn, fail to turn the radio volume up, and do all sorts of other silly things. It’s the beginner’s job to pay attention and do their honest best to do follow instructions. That’s it. It’s the instructor’s job to make sure that the beginner’s mistakes are survivable, and this is as true in martial arts as it is in flying.

I hope that all my beginners have felt that they were free to fail because I was there to create a safe space for them to fail in. But it’s been so long since I was last truly in their position that while I could be nice to them, I didn’t really understand their situation any more. In the past I have been a bit baffled by a lack of questions in a beginners’ group, or when this thing they could do just fine last time was now going wrong. I hope I met that with kindness before, but now I can meet it with comprehension too.

 

*A stall in an aircraft is what happens when the angle that the wing is meeting the air (the “angle of attack”) gets too steep, or there is not enough air flow, so the smooth flow of air over the top surface of the wing breaks up into turbulent eddies, and you lose lift. You fix it by putting the stick forward a bit, to lower the angle of attack (and gain some speed). It has nothing to do with the engine conking out- that’s a whole other problem.

You probably remember the moment you first held a sword. It’s electric. For some of my students, they hadn’t realised what was missing until they came to their first class. For others, they had dreamed about becoming a swordswoman for years. It’s not reducible to practicalities or psychoanalysis. There is no need to know how to swing a sword. And it doesn’t say anything about your mental health (or lack thereof).

I think we’ve all had the experience of mentioning our passion for the sword and had people ask “why?” And you know in that instant that they will never understand it, because it’s not arrived at rationally, and so cannot be explained in rational terms. You either get it or you don’t.

I know some folk who are simply obsessed with 18th and 19th century ceramics. I might develop an appreciation for the nuances of glaze and form, but I’ll never get why anyone truly cares about pots the way I truly care about swords. That’s fine- we don’t need to all care about the same things, and indeed it’s better if we don’t. We owe a lot of what we know about medieval martial arts to the manuscript collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries, who generally cared not a whit for swords, and certainly never tried to recreate the arts represented in the manuscripts. They cared about manuscripts, not so much about the content of the manuscripts. And thank the goddess they did, or Fiore, Ringeck, and the rest would have been scraped off and recycled for the vellum, or just burned.

About ten years ago, my friend James Prasad was given a flying lesson as a birthday present by his wife. She asked me to go along too, to keep him company, so I did. And oh my goddess. I had no idea. I wasn’t expecting anything- I’ve spent literally thousands of hours stuck in the back of big planes, and don’t particularly enjoy it. But being a commercial airline passenger is to flying a light aircraft as being on a bus is to driving a Lotus. I came down from that flight alight with the joy of flying. I was literally high for days afterwards. But flying is expensive. You think swords cost money? Try aviation. Holy shit, a half-hour lesson is north of $200. Not that the instructor is getting rich, that’s almost all fuel costs, which are almost all tax. And you need at least 45 hours of flying time to get your Private Pilot’s Licence.

I have a rule about this kind of thing. If it means denying my kids a decent holiday, or my wife having to count out pennies at the supermarket, I won’t do it. It’s taken a decade, but I’ve finally saved the money and have begun training towards my PPL. I had the first lesson last week, and the second is coming up soon.

The real reason why I’m doing this is the same as the reason that I practice swordsmanship. Just because. But I have all sorts of rationalisations too, such as:

  1. Swordsmanship is dangerous, and we as a community are still learning how to train authentically without serious injuries or deaths. Aviation is also very dangerous, which is why it is set about with all sorts of rules and protocols intended to keep aviators alive. Everything has back-ups, everything is checked (such as, a visual inspection of the level in the fuel tanks, in case the fuel gauge is faulty). I’m sure I’ll learn all sorts of things about how to get safely to a more dangerous edge in swordsmanship.
  2. Pilot training has a clear and internationally accepted structure, such that my PPL (assuming I get there) will allow me to fly pretty much anywhere. I could show up at an airfield in Australia or America, and my licence would be enough for them to rent me a plane. I’m already finding the way the material is organised and presented to be instructive; it will certainly inform my next book.
  3. A flight instructor has to literally let the student take the controls, in circumstances where the student is probably nervous, and where a serious mistake can be fatal. My instructor last week let me take off and land. I was expecting maneouvers in the air, but actually getting to control the plane from grass to grass was extraordinary. Here’s the thing: the higher you go, the safer you are, because if anything goes wrong you have time to fix it, and plenty of altitude to pick up speed with (it’s airspeed over the wing that keeps you up, and if you start to slow down you can gain speed by diving a bit). But close to the ground, there’s no safety margin at all. Being on the receiving end of this kind of instruction has already highlighted ways I could adjust my own teaching to get the student doing more. I haven’t had time to think this all through yet, but it’s going to be transformative.
  4. Aircraft are very well understood from the engineering and physics perspective. There is a complete and coherent body of knowledge that leads to good aircraft being built. There is also a body of knowledge and skills that a pilot needs. But these are not the same. A pilot doesn’t need to know everything that an aircraft designer knows, and being able to design an aerobatic plane doesn’t mean you can do a snap roll. But I’d wager that a good designer knows a lot about flying, and a good pilot knows a lot about aircraft design. Seeing where these domains overlap is a fascinating parallel to swordsmanship practitioners and sword smiths, and indeed to attempts to explain sword striking mechanics in terms of physics, versus just learning to hit stuff.
  5. Fear management. As regular readers of this blog and my books will know, I think of acting calmly when frightened to be a trainable skill. I’m scared of heights, so being in a small plane a kilometre above the earth is inherently frightening- but to fly well I have to stay calm and relaxed. And, it turns out, I can. So, flight training is yet another arena in which I can practice fear management.

But, my friends, I’m flying because it’s bliss.

For the first time in my life, on Sunday night I actually, deliberately, watched a football game. My kids’ friends were heavily invested in the outcome and so my kids wanted to watch what their friends were watching. Before I go on: to my English friends, I’m sorry you didn’t get what you wanted. E a mi amici italiani: complimenti per la vittoria. 

Normally I would rather sandpaper my eyeballs than watch 22 millionaires chasing after a leather bag, but I was happily surprised by how, when viewed through a fencing mindset, it wasn’t entirely tedious. Yes, I did a crossword in the second half, and spent the extra time fiddling about on my phone, but there were moments of actual interest. I was especially taken at the beginning by all the passing back. Surely, the ball is supposed to go in the other direction? But these are, by definition, the best players in Europe right now, so they know what they’re doing. It eventually dawned on me that while you are in possession of the ball, the other team can’t score. And, you can only score while you are in possession of the ball. So possession of the ball is analogous to controlling both your opponent’s sword, and your own. It’s better to be in control of the ball near your goal than have it in the other team’s possession at the other end of the pitch. Suddenly a lot of baffling behaviour made sense. And it became clear that the players were trying to set up specific patterns, and were pulling back and re-thinking if that pattern was interrupted or choked off by the other team. Compared to fencing, most of football is very slow, so it’s quite easy to see the patterns if you look for them.

There were also some moments of stunning physical prowess. Both goals, for example, but also many saves by both goalkeepers. They were by far the most impressive players on the field, to my eyes- because most of the time they could only react, and it is much harder to succeed when you’re on the defensive, reactive, can’t do anything until my opponent does something, side of the engagement. 

I had a couple of thoughts on how the game might be improved though. For instance, in the case of a draw, the side with the most red and/or yellow cards should lose. That might incentivise cleaner play- or it might, if you’re desperate, incite massive fouling to get ahead. It would be interesting to see that experiment (but I don’t think FIFA read this blog).

I was annoyed by the half-hour extension- wouldn’t it be more fun if they just played until the next goal? Or just had a draw and shared the trophy?

I also thought that the game would be more interesting if every player had a taser… but only one taser per team was charged, and with only one shot. So you’d never know until it fired who was dangerous to get close to, and it would be a massive waste to tase the wrong player. There would certainly be assassination tactics to get rid of the best striker (or the goalie) on the other team. That is not by any means a practical suggestion, but it would be a bit like fencing longsword with both fencers having a dagger on their belt. It would change things in an interesting way.

My feelings toward football are coloured by the behaviour of the crowds. While I was growing up, football hooliganism was a huge problem, especially among England supporters, so I associate the game with the kind of thuggery, racism, and bullying that I also associate with the Brexit campaign. The flag-waving morons that voted Brexit (which was entirely driven by English voters) look a lot like the flag-waving England team supporters. I’m not saying they are the same- I know many football fans who are perfectly lovely. But I am deeply, deeply suspicious of anything that looks like nationalism, which all international sporting events do. And when those extraordinary young men, under the fiercest pressure, failed to get a ball past Sr. Donnarumma in the penalty shoot out, sure enough a bunch of racist pricks in the crowd yelled predictably racist abuse at them. 

My feelings are also coloured by the experience of being stuck in boarding school surrounded by sports-mad kids, who looked without favour on kids who didn’t share their religion. My personal experience of large groups supporting a sports team is that they are dangerous. That’s not fair to the majority of fans, but explains some of my bias and my instinctive aversion to the group mentality that takes over fans in a stadium.

I’m also struck by a fact that I knew already, but hadn’t given much thought to. The NHS posted a message featuring women during the game: “if England get beaten, so will we”. The incidence of domestic violence in Britain go up by 50% every time there is a major sporting defeat. I shudder to think of the horrors inflicted late last night, that would not have happened if England had won (though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the same phenomenon occurs in Italy, so it really wouldn’t make any difference who wins). I’m not suggesting that banning football would solve the problem, or even help it at all. But I would be a lot more impressed by the footballing community if they deliberately worked to diminish this awful side-effect of their sport, and there yet again is a reason for my instinctive dislike of organised sports.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention three England players: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. They missed their penalty shots. Boo hoo. But they also donated their entire tournament fees to the NHS to help with the Covid crisis. These are kids: aged 23, 21, and 19, and behaving with more grace and maturity than most people twice their age. Rashford particularly, as he also forced the current UK government of heartless corrupt venal and despicable arseholes to reverse themselves twice, most famously forcing them to feed poor children with free school meals, as if such a thing should ever be necessary. 

Here’s the thing. Was it a good game? I don’t know. It seemed like there was a lot of high-level sportsing going on, between two very evenly matched teams. I’ve lost some of the best, most enjoyable, most instructive fencing matches I’ve ever been a part of, and some I couldn’t tell you who won because we weren’t counting. Wouldn’t it be good if the thing that mattered wasn’t the outcome, but the quality of play? If England fans today were thrilled and honoured that their team got to play at that level more than they were disappointed by not scoring the most points?

Speaking of level, probably the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen done on a pitch was this catch by Indian cricketer Harleen Deol. No, I don’t watch cricket either (I just can’t get excited about the positions of round objects relative to white lines and/or sticks), a friend sent it to me. This is truly stunning. She catches the ball, realises she’s going to stumble over the boundary, throws the ball up, stumbles, turns, and dives to catch it. In an international match against England (and no, I don’t know or care who won: as far as I’m concerned, she did).

Don’t worry, this is not becoming a sports blog. We’ll be back to talking about swords more directly soon!

Back before the internet, back before Wiktenauer, in the days when historical fencing treatises were photocopied and distributed by hand, one man did something extraordinary, which we benefit from to this day. Dr. Patri Pugliese was finding, reproducing, photocopying and distributing fencing treatises back in the bad old days, before many of our community's leading lights were even born, let alone had begun fencing. I did all my early work on Capoferro, Viggiani, Angelo, Silver, DiGrassi, I.33 and other systems from Patri's photocopies. I never met him, but I owe him an enormous debt.

The torch Patri lit and carried has been taken up by Michael Chidester, architect of the Wiktenauer, so it's appropriate that I reproduce his tribute here (with his permission, of course).

11th May 2021 would mark the 71st birthday of Dr. Patri Pugliese, the most important person in the history of modern HEMA that you've never heard of. I will go so far as to say that there is no one in this world who contributed more to the spread and development of the HEMA movement, and especially of HEMA in America, than did Patri.

For himself, he was a passionate student of both historical combat (not just fencing, but also drill with pike and musket) and historical dance, and founded or participated in groups dedicated to those activities around New England. Most recognizably to readers today, he co-founded the Higgins Armory Sword Guild, which not only provided online resources and public classes and demonstrations for over a decade, but also supported his friend and fellow instructor Dr. Jeffrey Forgeng in his translation and interpretation efforts (leading to his publication of I.33, Meyer, and others).

But Patri's more profound legacy is fencing manuals. Throughout the '90s and continuing until his death, he distributed a staggering catalog of fencing treatises. This was before (and while) the consumer computing revolution changed everything—he was physically mailing sheaves of paper, loose or stapled together. Some were fencing manuals that he photocopied at local research libraries, others were printed from microfilm ordered from museums. He was the first person in the community to do this, and he charged only the cost of printing and postage, or in some cases a slight premium to recoup the initial purchase.

Of this, he simply wrote “I regard myself as a student of the sword rather than a publisher, and am making these manuals available to support research in this area. It would, of course, be selfish and inconsistent with the honorable traditions associated with fencing to do otherwise.”

I will include a partial list of Patri's catalog below. As the internet became more established, most of these were scanned and placed online (with his blessing—he was happy to increase their accessibility). If you ever accessed black and white scans of any of these texts from sites like Bill Wilson's homepage, the ARMA site, the Raymond J. Lord Collection, or the Higgins Sword Guild, then you have likely benefited from Patri's work. Wiktenauer itself could not have grown so quickly or easily without these scans, some of which we still use.

I often joke that our patron saint is Paulus Hector Mair, the shady 16th century Augsburg patrician who embezzled public funds to cover the cost of collecting fencing manuals and throwing lavish parties.

It was Patri, however, who embodied our highest aspirations of disseminating knowledge and resources as widely and freely as possible, and thereby pushing the bounds of our understanding of historical fencing traditions.

Patri Pugliese died after a struggle with illness in 2007, fourteen years ago. One of my greatest HEMA regrets is that even though I spent considerable time in Massachusetts during the years between 2001, when I started, and his death, I never crossed paths with him.

Fourteen years is an eternity in the world of HEMA. It is enough time that his name is no longer familiar to most teachers and students of historical fencing, but if any one of us deserves to be remembered, he does.

So raise a glass to Patri, my friends. He was a pioneer, not just of the study of fencing, but of the sharing of it. The edifice of knowledge that we have constructed in HEMA today was built on the materials he offered us, freely.

And then tell your students about this man to whom we all owe a great debt.

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:

 

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?

Happy New Year!

Though really, this is just an arbitrary calendar change. Years, solstices and equinoxes are real, observable, astronomical events. But this dating system is entirely human and arbitrary. And wouldn’t it make much more sense to date the New Year from the Spring Equinox? But I digress…

I don’t do resolutions. They don’t usually work, and this is entirely the wrong time of year to be making serious changes, especially if you live in the Northern hemisphere. Back when I was a member of a gym, I just did not go for the first couple of weeks in January, because it would be chockablock with enthusiastic unfit people, almost all of whom would quit within the week. Which is a shame, really, but it’s an inevitable outcome of the resolutions model.

So what does work?

Good habits and good people.

A rising tide lifts all boats (though may sink the boatless), and I am blessed by the enthusiastic and engaged students I interact with. If there is one key element to my success as an instructor, it has to be the calibre of the students I get to work with. Most of the time I spend interacting with students these days is through my zoom classes, through my mailing list (there’s a link to join below this post, if you’re not already on there), and most recently through a Discord server that I set up for the students at SwordSchoolOnline.Com (If you’d like to join us, and you’ve enrolled in any of the paid online courses, please drop me an email and I’ll send you the link.)

One of the students on the Discord server suggested we do a monthly “challenge”, where I set a challenge for students to have a go at. Of course I have to lead by example, right?

We started this in November, and my first challenge was to post a video or photo of yourself working outside your comfort zone. I had just started playing with GMB Fitness online courses, and so posted this:

December’s challenge was to add at least one rep to your maximum in any exercise: I did push-ups, and went from a rather pathetic start to a much more satisfactory maximum set. I won’t share the numbers here, because they are not relevant. Depending on your own experience of push-ups you’d be either intimidated or decidedly unimpressed (probably the latter!).

The challenge this month, for the start of 2021, is different.

We all have habits that do not serve our long term goals. They vary hugely from person to person, and can range from negative self-talk to smoking cigarettes, with almost infinite variety in between.

So here’s the challenge. This month, drop one of those habits. Just for the month. You can take it up again later if you want to.

The habit I’m dropping for the month is drinking alcohol. I love drinking. Especially wine. But I tend to drink more than I should, and more often. It’s bad for my reflux, and bad for my sleep. Cutting down would make sense, but it’s really hard to quantify and stay on top of. So for the whole month of January, I won’t touch a drop.

That should help my sleep, at least. And my finances. And my reflux. I’ve been meaning to take a month off the sauce for ages, but haven’t done so for at least two years! So it’s about time.

Drinking alcohol is a simple, clear, easy-to-keep-track-of habit to break. There is no fudging it- I either consume an alcoholic beverage, or I do not. But others are much more elusive, such as negative self-talk. And the essence of a habit is you can unconsciously start doing the thing- it’s become an unconscious response. The loop goes like this: stimulus-habitual response-reward. The habit can be broken at any of those three points, and it’s worth taking some time to be very clear about what those three points are for the habit in question.

  • You can avoid the stimulus.
  • You can change the response to the stimulus.
  • You can change the reward.

Changing the stimulus usually requires changing your environment. The old adage for alcoholics is “if you don’t want to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery”. So, if you normally drink in bars, don’t go to bars. Meet your friends somewhere else instead! Or if you usually smoke when you have a coffee, switch to tea. (Unless of course coffee is an addiction, which you might need to break before you quit smoking).

Changing the response is basically learning a new habit that gets you the same dopamine hit. The stimulus for me to have a drink is usually making dinner. Changing that would be very hard, somebody has to feed the kids! So I’ll need to do something else instead, to get the ‘reward’ which is actually the feeling of “I’m done for the day”. Having a drink is for me a signal that it’s ok to switch off. So I need to find something else.

Negative self talk is much harder to break at the point of stimulus, and at the point of response. But it’s possible to change the reward to something negative. One trick that works for some people is having a rubber band around your wrist, and when you catch yourself in negative self-talk, snap the band, which stings. If done consistently over time, this can lead your brain away from the behaviour that causes the sting (brains are weird- you’d think you’d just stop snapping the band, but it’s much easier to control that active choice than it is to control an unconscious response).

It is much easier to change a habit if you have social support for the change (good people, remember?). I’ve let my wife and kids know I’m off the juice for January, so they will expect me not to drink. Do what you can to recruit some social support. This can be positive, such as joining a group that’s centreed around quitting that habit, or negative, where you set up some consequences for failure. One classic is to write a cheque for a painful amount of money, to an organisation you despise. Then give the cheque to a friend who will send it to that organisation if you fall off the wagon. Personally I don’t like this approach, seeing failure as a one-time lapse and you’re done. I prefer to think of failure as a normal part of the process. If you could quit completely cold turkey with no lapses, you’re either extraordinarily motivated, or the habit wasn’t that strong.

Expect that it may occur (snap that band if you have to), and get right back on the wagon again. No negativity, no judgement. It’s like when meditating, and you’re supposed to be focussed on your breath. When your mind wanders notice that it has done so, and bring it gently back. The practice is not focussing on your breath. The practice is returning your attention after it has wandered. Same with this challenge.

I'll post this challenge in the Discord, and will be happy to discuss it there. Especially for habit-changing, getting the support of a community is incredibly helpful. See you there!

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