Guy's Blog

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

Category: Lifestyle

Fear management is the key skill underlying all martial arts. If you are not afraid of getting hurt or killed, there’s something wrong with you. But if you are frozen in place by that fear, prevented from acting, then your training has failed.

As you may have read, I am a great big fraidy-cat, and so am always on the lookout for ways to practise handling fear. And there is nothing scarier than the dentist. I have sensitive teeth, which doesn’t help; that metal spike thing they use to poke and scratch around your teeth feels to me like sticking splinters under my nails. But in my mouth. In addition, and for no good reason, people prodding about in my mouth has a similar shudder-inducing effect on me as scraping nails down a blackboard. Seriously, if you want information out of me, don’t bother with the waterboard; the threat of dental torture would break me in no time. Not like Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man.

Laurence Olivier setting up a generation of moviegoers for a phobia of dentists.
Laurence Olivier setting up a generation of moviegoers for a phobia of dentists.

This irrational fear is of course excellent and very useful, because as a responsible parent I have to set a good example and get a check-up once a year. I went the other week, and was horrified to hear that an old filling was cracked and needed replacing. Which meant THE DRILL. We made the appointment for the following week, and I had seven whole days in which to build up a profound sense of dread.

What can I say about the drill? Except that if it doesn’t terrify you, with its hideous shriek, happening inside your head, and the promise of pain (which never comes; what an improvement in oral anaesthesia since I was a kid!) then there must be something wrong with you. Really. It’s just a nightmare made flesh. It’s actually worse than the anaesthetic injection, and, to me, a hypodermic syringe is an object of terror. I loathe and fear those things. When someone is giving an injection on TV or in a movie, I close my eyes. It’s just wrong on every level. I spend my professional life working on ways to NOT get stabbed, and you want me to let you stick a spike in me? Are you mad? When someone comes at me with a syringe, it takes all my willpower not to disarm them and stick it in their eye. Which is also totally irrational, but there you are. Knives, swords, and guns? Not scary. The tools of modern medicine? Fucking terrifying.

Let me point out here that my dentist is a lovely, kind, and expert woman, gentle and professional. But she’s still a DENTIST. Indeed, all my dentists have been good, and gentle, and caused no unnecessary pain. This is a totally irrational fear.

So there I was, as my dentist started to work… and actually quite relaxed. Pulse under 80 the whole time (well above my normal 55 or so, but manageable). Manual dexterity ok. Maintaining full use of my rational faculties despite gibbering terror.


I chose to focus on something else.

I experimented in the chair with several different approaches, and the one that worked best was to place my attention on my breath. After every ten breaths, I went through a manual dexterity drill (finger wiggling, to the uninitiated), then back to my breath.

The hard part was staying still; every now and then I had to bring my attention up to my neck, because the effort of not moving my head was causing stiffness. Relaxing my neck was harder than keeping my pulse down.

I was hugely pleased at one point when she stopped to ask me something, and I hadn’t immediately noticed that the drill had stopped. That was a major success.

So, how do you cultivate the ability to choose your focus to this degree?

The answer is meditation. It is the best and fastest way to develop focus, because it isolates focus and works on that to the exclusion of all else. The routines I use vary hugely, but the one I used in the chair was a variation on this very simple exercise:

  1. Set a timer, for 5 minutes or so.
  2. Sit or lie somewhere safe and comfortable (before you try this in the Chair of Terror)
  3. Breathe normally.
  4. Pay attention to the sensation of breathing in and out.
  5. Count each in-breath.
  6. When you get to ten, reset to zero.
  7. When you get distracted and lose count, start again at zero.
  8. When your mind wanders, bring it gently back to your breath.
  9. Keep doing this until the timer goes off.

Repeat daily; or more often; do it for longer if you like. The point is that your mind will wander, and you then return it to your chosen focus. The enemy is frustration or annoyance with yourself; it's a distraction (and a powerful one at that!). Be gentle with yourself, and remember that the exercise is not the paying attention to the breath, or getting to ten, the exercise is controlling your wandering mind despite its tendency to wander. Distinctions of “success” or “failure” are irrelevant. If you absolutely must have one, here it is: do this diligently for 5 days in a row, and I hereby declare you successful. Does that help?

And now for something completely different:

A couple of years ago, after a particularly intense dental hygiene session, I wrote this on the way home:

To my dentist and her team:

I sit in the torture chair,

My mouth is open wide.

A highly trained professional

Pokes around inside.

Carefully she grinds my teeth

Carefully she scratches,

Polishing the grime away,

It comes off in batches.

Black coffee, chocolate, and the red,

Red wine leave their trace,

But what is life without them,

Is this not the case?

Teeth are there to be of use,

To strain the fiery brew,

Is it really tooth abuse,

To smile drink gnash or chew?

The dentist though, I hear her whine

D’you think you’ve gone too far?

With coffee, chocolate, red red wine

And the odd cigar?

I do it just to keep my team

Active in their profession.

If I only did as I was told,

There’d be no future session!

As I slowly progress towards mastery in my chosen Art, I get further and further ahead of my beginners. This could lead to me getting out of touch with their needs. I also get accustomed to a certain routine, a set way of doing things. Both of these things are death to a good teacher. So I have made it a deliberate habit to be a beginner at something, all the time. From early 2001 to the end of 2003, I was a private student of an instructor in a very traditional kung-fu style; the same chap that fixed my wrists. The sort of school where to learn the inner secrets of the Art you have to be legally adopted by the grandmaster. Old School indeed. So much so that I will not identify the school here, because its internal politics are so damn Confucian that it may cause all sorts of trouble if I do. The training was not just profoundly uncomfortable, it was also hellishly painful, as this school included serious hardening training in its core curriculum. I would not normally touch hardening with a stick, as it is often a short-term unhealthy strategy, but in this case it went hand-in-hand with serious maintenance; specifically massage, breathing, and herbal medicine. So I ended up much healthier than I started, but also, and this is the point: from 7am to 9am three mornings a week, I was an absolute beginner. Which meant that when I was standing up in front of my class that evening, I had some sympathy for, and insight into, what my students were experiencing.

As I started to get emotionally comfortable with the kung fu, and so it lost some of its beginneriness (if you’ll allow me to coin a term), I took up something I’d wanted to learn since I was a little kid: bullwhip cracking. I loved loved loved Indiana Jones, and could think of no more apposite multi-purpose tool than a bullwhip. You can fend off baddies and swing across ravines with these things. Really, why doesn’t everyone carry one?

Indiana Jones

I met a professional performer at Hämeenlinna medieval market in 2002, Ari Lauanne, who taught me some basics; in half an hour I striped myself from knee to shoulder, and found out why they are not so commonly carried. They are damn hard to use! So I got a beauty made by Alex Cobra of Cobra Whips, just a six-footer to start with, and practised most nights before class. I got quite good, compared to a beginner (though I’m not in the same class as Alex, or Ari), and so while I keep up my skills every now and then, I needed to find something else. The essence of beginneriness is having no frames of reference with which to make difficulties approachable. The same is basically true for everything else; once people ask me what I’m doing and I can explain it properly, I’m no longer really in the true beginner state.

Around this time I started to seriously study Finnish. Now there is a language where you can stay a beginner for a very long time. I put in two years of real effort, and got to a very basic level of competence. Then my first daughter was born, and I had to make a decision; spend my now much more restricted time putting in another thousand hours or so getting to fluency; or spend that time writing a couple of books. I chose books, and while there are negative consequences to not being comfortable in Finnish, there are about five million people who can speak Finnish, but perhaps only fifty who can write books like mine on European swordsmanship. The world needs my books more than it needs me to speak Finnish. Another side-benefit of course is that I can step outside my comfort zone (I literally break into a cold sweat) by simply engaging a neighbour in basic conversation.

Being a parent is also a state of being a constant beginner. Just as you get competent at taking care of a baby, you’re suddenly running around after a toddler. They develop faster than you do. Excellent, long-term beginneriness. But like everything you do day-in, day-out, it gets easier.

In 2012 I was given a flying lesson in a light aircraft, by a friend of mine. Oh. My. God. It was terrifying, exhilarating, very, very challenging (like learning to drive a car in three dimensions instead of two, then multiplied by about a million), and I was literally giddy with it for days afterwards. But it will cost about 6,000 euros to get my license, so that will have to wait until one of my books goes all 50 Shades on me and I am rolling in cash. (No, I will NOT be adding tepid BDSM scenes to my next book. Nor torrid ones neither.) So in 2013 I took up the yo-yo. Yes, really. Very cheap, and really, really hard. There are some excellent tutorial videos online (go to André Boulay’s site; there he has arranged a complete curriculum from beginner to master level, and explains every trick in detail. Check it out online to get some idea of what expertise in that field actually looks like). So for a thousandth of the cost of learning to fly, I was constantly working at, and failing at, something. And it was really fun.

This is about as far as I got:

This is what good looks like:

Then Audatia came along, and what a learning curve that was. I knew nothing about game design, or producing card games, and not much about any of the nitty gritty of getting a project like that done, with several different experts all working on it at the same time. But after the first decks are out and the rest are on their way, while it remains challenging, I’m not a proper beginner any more.

Of course, from the inside, I am a beginner whenever I pick up a sword. My errors of form and technique are as obvious to me as those of the clumsiest beginner. But I have a large store of experience to draw from when figuring out how to improve. The art is deeply familiar to me. Huge chunks of the relevant sources are just there in my head to read at leisure. So even though my skills are sadly lacking, from my perspective, that doesn’t give me a true insight into the beginner because the problems are well known to me, not confusingly new. I know exactly how to fix them, I just have to get on and do it.

Right now I am looking for the next activity to be a beginner in. It needs to be a) ethical b) affordable c) have a physical component other than using a computer d) clearly defined basics (success/failure states. Is the yoyo tangled? fail. Did the whip crack? success. Is the plane still in one piece? success. Is the whip wrapped round my own face? fail. And so on) and e) not require formal classes unless they happen in the mornings.  I welcome your suggestions!

One of my favourite internet distractions is seeing how other writers (proper writers. Professional writers. Oh wait, that's me too!) set up their work space. The fallacy, of course, is the underlying idea that if I just use the same tools, I’ll get the same results. This is not so. It is well to remember that for most of recorded history, writers used feathers and bits of skin. So George R.R. Martin’s famous use of WordStar 4.0, or Iain Broome's minimal approach, or whatever, are clearly helpful but not necessary for good writing. Nice to have, sure, but not having the latest kit (or the oldest, depending on your preferences) is no excuse. There are lots of writers who seem to manage with just a laptop in a coffee shop, but I just don't find that conducive to good work myself. I like my books around me, and a very quiet environment. So what do I use?
My writing set-up is fantastic. Really, I’ve put a lot of time and effort into it, much of which should probably have gone on actually writing. The set-up is subordinate to the process, of course, so here’s the process first:
I either write directly in Scrivener (recommended to me by Neal Stephenson, whose name be praised ‘cos this program works!), or more commonly, I write up notes (after class, for instance) in a hard-back notebook, with a proper ink pen, and usually on a writing slope that I cobbled together when editing Veni Vadi Vici. Then I take a photo of the notes with my smartphone (Samsung Galaxy s2, bought in September 2012, a few months after the s3 came out, so really cheap for what it can do), which uploads the pics directly to Dropbox (which is a totally life-saving service. Automatic backing up and syncing across devices; literally everything I'm working on, and all my most commonly-used reference sources are stored there). So when I get home to my study (oh bliss, I have an actual study. A room for reading and writing only. Luxury times ten) my notes are there on the computer (a mid-2010 21.5” iMac). I can then write stuff up, with Scrivener on the right, and the notes on the left of the screen.
This is all made MUCH easier by being able to touch-type, which I learned thanks to a gentle teasing from M. Harold Page. This was so incredibly frustrating that I had to cobble together a standing desk (another of Neal's tips) so I could squirm from foot to foot while forcing my rebellious fingers to find the right keys. I literally disassembled and nailed together an IKEA bookshelf, and stood it on a couple of filing cabinets: yes, I really should make a prettier one; but dammit, I have books to write! During this process of learning to type, before I had much time invested in Qwerty, I switched to the Dvorak keyboard layout, and here’s why:

See the pattern of wear? Almost all on the home row, with some on the top row, and a little on the bottom? Proof if ever you needed it that Dvorak is way more efficient. (I was passing the study door one evening and noticed the light hit the keyboard, pulled out the phone at snapped a shot. Damn, having a decent camera in my pocket changes things.) I actually hacked up a Dvorak layout keyboard from a second Apple keyboard, because every now and then I need to see the keys, still. Especially for passwords and such. I hanker after but cannot yet justify one of these ergonomic beauties (in the Qwerty/Dvorak configuration, of course!).
I made the normal desk back in 2008, as a way of delaying writing The Medieval Longsword; these days the iMac sits on it, for times when I don’t feel like standing, or need the bigger screen. My wife also uses the iMac, and doesn’t care to work standing up, so there it is.


Now that my books are actually bringing in real income, I spent some of it on a Macbook Air, 13 inches of rocket ship. It’s fab. I can put it anywhere, such as here on the standing desk,


and I usually use a separate keyboard, not least for ergonomic reasons. I can support the laptop at a convenient height (this desk was made for the iMac, hence the dictionary under the laptop to bring the screen up), leaving my hands where they should be. I also stand on a pilates mat (one of my wife's), which helps a lot with lower back pain, and leg fatigue. The mat brought me up enough that I took the leftover solander box from my Extraordinary Edition of I.33 and used it to bring up the keyboard to exactly the right height. (If you're into ergonomics, you might enjoy this book on the perils of sitting: Kelly Starrett's Deskbound.)

You may note that R2D2 and Yoda are both there, one for scolding, the other for sage advice, whenever I slack off or get stuck.

Yoda and R2

Note also the humidifier (the upside-down bottle on the left); it makes a big difference to long-term comfort when working, because Finnish houses are properly insulated and heated, and thus dry out during the winter. The baseball on a stick is a Blue Snowball mike for doing voiceovers on videos.
I was given a Roost stand for my birthday last year, by my friend Tina, which allows me to do this funky trick:

The Roost
This is great for writing when on the move, or in the kitchen. The kitchen has a great view, and the best light, and sometimes a change of environment can unstick the stuck. The ergonomic benefits are huge, and really capitalise on my hard-won ability to not look at my hands when I type.
I also use my writing slave (no, not a typist, I wish!); this is a specialised bookshelf, with a slope for the current tome, and canted shelves so you can read the spines from next to it (so you don’t have to move out of position to find the right book).
The iPad 2 (from 2011) was a birthday present from my parents, and is really, really useful. It acts as a second screen when writing, especially for a primary source that I’m referring to, but most importantly, during the dreaded editing process, I export a pdf of the current draft from Scrivener, and edit it on the iPad making notes and corrections in PDF Expert using a stylus, which I can then apply to the draft. It is an efficient way to minimise the number of printed drafts I need to do. If I’m going to write much on it, I use the Origami keyboard case and stand.


I have the iPad safely ensconced in a bulky military-grade case, from Griffin; I drop stuff way too much to risk shattering that delicate screen. When travelling, I will take the Air if I intend to do real work, or just the iPad for emails and so on. On the rare occasions I do write properly on it, I use Simplenote for syncing with Scrivener (there is no Scrivener app for the iPad; not yet at least), but more usually PlainText for writing and automatically syncing with Dropbox. We have come a long way from feathers and bits of skin; but at times when I feel like going old-school, I have a proper dip pen and an antique writing slope (bought for 25 quid on Ebay!), and a pen holder and nibs, which I use with Winsor brand (naturally!) Indian ink. And of course, I would dearly love to write with a quill on parchment. It's just better. One day…

Writing slope
Regarding layout; for writing that I am giving away free, I do it myself in Pages. For writing that I am selling, I pay my excellent designer, Bek Pickard of Zebedee Design. I trust the difference is obvious!

So, add this all together, and I think you’ll agree it’s a pretty sweet set-up, involving no less than three custom-made bits of furniture, two computers, two separate keyboards, and a tablet. The critical components are: for workflow: Pen and ink, Scrivener, Dropbox, PDF Expert, and my camera phone; for ergonomics: my standing desk, and the overall adjustability that comes from having movable screens and a separate keyboard.

Overall, I have a name for it: NO F*CKING EXCUSES.

So, what's your ideal set-up, and why?

I am sometimes asked to cover a specific topic on this blog. In this case, Lisa Jenkins, from the Minnesota Sword Club sent me this question:

I was wondering if you would share a blog post on practical things like sports nutrition for hema, and ways to keep cool and hydrated while exercising underneath a lot of protective gear (our club has no air conditioning.)  I’d be curious to hear what you have to say about these aspects of training.  I read in your Swordsman’s Companion book that you run a school that treats students holistically—I’d be very interested in getting an idea of what you include in your system.

Nutrition is a huge and knotty subject, so let’s deal with hydration and keeping cool first.

If you are training in hot conditions, drink plenty of water; my key indicator for this is bathroom breaks. There’s a saying I learned living in the tropics; if you don’t need to pee, you’re dehydrated. If drinking water doesn’t help, and especially if you are feeling dizzy but have been keeping your fluids up, then check your salt intake. I do this by mixing a teaspoon of table salt with just enough water to dissolve most of it, and taste it. If it tastes horrible, you shouldn’t drink it; if it tastes wonderful, you’re probably salt depleted and should drink it down, followed by a glass of water.

Given that it is only hot in Finland for about ten minutes per year (well, this summer about two months), we could schedule most full-kit training to more temperate times of year. (We don't.) But in case that’s not an option, then overheating in kit, like anything else, can be trained for. Gradually and systematically build up your tolerance for overheating, the way you would gradually and systematically build up your push-ups.

Above all, know when to stop. A few years ago I held the field at WMAW, against all comers with any weapon, in a swelteringly hot gym. It was great fun, but after an hour or so, while I was hot and getting tired, I shivered. A full-body shudder, like I was soaking wet on a freezing Scottish hillside in winter. So I had just one more bout, and stopped. (As a responsible instructor, I should have stopped immediately. But there was a queue of people waiting to fight me, and I couldn’t bear to let them all down.)

Now for nutrition. Here are some key ideas.

Food is personal

Food is one of those topics that entire lifestyles can revolve around. It is a critical part of every culture; there are no culturally-neutral cuisines. Foods also tend to have deeply personal associations. My grandma’s cherry pie is, I’m sorry to have to break this to you, way better than yours. Roast turkey with all the trimmings, but at Easter not Christmas? That would be weird, right? My brother-in-law is Jewish, and my sister-in-law is Muslim, so neither are likely to be found scoffing bacon, and so on.

Just because a food is culturally mandated, or culturally taboo, does not necessarily make kit healthy or unhealthy. But it does make it very hard to objectively assess whether a specific food belongs in your diet or not. Keep this in mind; your belief in the health-giving properties of apple pie may be unfounded in medical fact.

Food is a drug

The human body is a fantastically complicated machine, and the precise effect of any given thing on it is hard to predict. I think we can all agree that decapitation is unhealthy, and breathing air is healthy, but between those two extremes, there is a massive amount of variation. For example, I once ate a lovely healthy salad with chicken at a hotel in Edinburgh, while sat across from someone who would have been dead in 24 hours had she eaten the same. She was in the last stages of kidney failure, and the protein would have been utterly toxic to her. She died a couple of months later, having extended her life by several years by severely restricting her protein intake. So while it is important to have a good idea of what any given food tends to do to most human bodies, it is vital to know precisely what it does to your specific body. And just like with other drugs, a large part of food’s effect is placebo or nocebo. Honestly believing that cyanide is good for you does not make it so; but in the normal range of foods, how you feel about what you eat has an effect on what it will do to you.

Alcohol is a good example of this; there are measurable, non-imaginary chemical effects of alcohol ingestion; but the behavioral changes brought on by intoxication are entirely cultural. It makes you gregarious, or badly behaved, or whatever else it does, because you are conditioned to think it will by the culture you live in. Read Kate Fox on the subject here.

[Disclaimer; I am trying out Amazon affiliate links. So every one of these links below is one. I give you my word that I will only ever link to a book that 1) I own 2) I am glad I own 3) I think is truly relevant to the topic at hand. If I need to refer to a book that does not meet those criteria, I will note the title and author, but not link to it.]

The problem with doctors

Doctors, like soldiers, tend to be very conservative. If something appears to work, don’t change it. Don’t experiment. Because when the consequences of a failed experiment is people die, conservatism and caution are not just advisable, they are a moral imperative. Non nocere (do no harm) is the essence of the Hippocratic Oath. But this conservatism can also work in reverse; it took Dr Alice Stewart decades to convince the medical establishment that it is dangerous to x-ray pregnant women; thousands of children were killed by cancers caused by in-utero irradiation after she had proved that it was happening. (See Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, pp 60-67). So, just because a doctor says it’s so, does not necessarily mean it is. Doctors are highly trained experts, with a professional aversion to change, and they are all, every last one of them, human. It is foolish to think that doctors are infallible health gods.

So, the problem with doctors is often the patient. Doctors are not responsible for your health; you are. Doctors are professionals you hire to fix problems that are outside your competence. The person who services your car probably does not fill it up with fuel every time it runs low; you do. You don’t call a plumber to flush the toilet (I hope). The point at which your competence ends and you need to call in an expert varies hugely from person to person, and domain to domain. I don’t need a mechanic to check my oil level, but I never touch my car with a tool. I can change a washer in a tap, but I would not install a boiler. I don’t need a doctor to diagnose a cold, or to mop my fevered brow (that’s my wife’s job, poor woman), but if I can’t figure out what’s wrong, I call in a professional.

So a doctor’s advice on what you should eat will tend to stick with what usually works ok for most people, and be extremely moderate. It is very unlikely to hurt you, but it may not boost your performance at all.

Be a soldier or an athlete

World-class athletes tend to have their diet planned down to the last grain of rice (if their diet allows rice), and scheduled extremely precisely to ensure maximum performance at a single thing (running 100m OR a marathon; boxing OR wrestling) on a specific, known, future date. When the difference between Olympic gold and obscurity are measured in fractions of a percent in difference in performance, this only makes sense.

Soldiers on the other hand cannot tell in advance when they will be under fire, when they will be humping 25kg packs over desert hills or sprinting for cover through jungle, when they may be resupplied or when they will be living off the rations in their belt pouches for a week or even longer. So while general good nutrition is essential, and while a good quartermaster will win more battles than a good general, soldiers tend to eat what they can get, when they can get it. The key skill there is tolerance for variation.

In my view, martial artists (as opposed to combat sportsmen) should follow a healthy diet, yes, but never get precious about what and when they eat. “I didn’t get my organic bacon for breakfast”, or “I timed my protein intake wrong” are not valid excuses for losing a fight.

A good story is not always true.

“Fat makes you fat.” Makes sense, but there is bugger-all evidence for it. Plenty of people on a high fat diet are skinny- if they also avoid sugar. Likewise “Energy in, energy out.” Yes, the laws of thermodynamics are absolute. But the variables of what your body does with the energy that comes in as food are huge. A friend of mine worked in a lab where they put mice on a low-calorie diet, but also injected the hormone leptin into their brains. The results, in my friend’s immortal phrase: furry tennis balls. Food is a drug; some foods trigger fat deposition, other foods can trigger fat burning; the body is complex. See Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes.

“We evolved in an environment in which certain foods were available; reproducing that (eg the Paleo diet) must be healthier, because it’s the diet we evolved to survive on”. Well, yes and no. I tend to agree that eating like a cave-man is probably closest to the diet we evolved to survive on, but: 1) we don’t know exactly what cave-men ate, nor how often. 2) Cave-men did not all eat the same things. Compare for example the known diets of pre-agricultural Native American tribes. Pre-industrial societies invariably eat what they can get. 3) We cannot reproduce all aspects of the cave-man diet, not least because the ranges of produce are huge, and locally specific. 4) We cannot know what else they did that may have improved their lifespan. For instance, for sure they didn’t sit on chairs, nor sleep in beds. But they also had a horrifically high rate of infant mortality, death by violence (pre-industrial tribes that survived into the modern era had rates of death by violence of about 25% of males. Today, on the mean streets of New York, it’s about 1 in 100,000, or 0.001%: see Stephen Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature). 5) Paleolithic life expectancy is generally thought to be pretty damn low. Was all of that environmental, or may some of it have come from their diet? We don’t know. 6) We do know that early agricultural societies appear to have much higher rates of disease and lower life expectancies than comparable pre-agricultural societies. Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and many cancers do appear to be diseases of modernity. But how much of that is down to diet as opposed to (for example) exercise? Nobody knows for sure. 7) Many modern inventions (like antibiotics and surgery) save lives. It is also possible that modern foodstuffs could, in theory, do the same (yes, I doubt it too. But you never know).

So, don’t be taken in by a story. Test any dietary changes systematically, give each change time to take effect (at least a couple of weeks, I would think) and be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Take nothing on faith (especially not a random blog post by some sword-swinging lunatic).

The 80-20 principle

In all things where you don’t want to invest major effort in becoming a world expert, the 80-20 principle (also known as the Pareto principle applies. It states that 80 percent of outcomes come from 20 percent of causes, and so long as you don’t take the numbers too literally, it is largely true. I do not agree with any diet that requires really specific foods at really specific intervals, unless you are seriously ill and under doctor’s orders, or an Olympic hopeful. If you’d like to see self-experimentation taken into 99.999-0.001 extremes (with a lot of good material on a range of health and training subjects), see Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Body. The man even had himself fitted with a real-time blood-sugar monitor to test the effect of various foods. Fascinating stuff.

So here are some general guidelines, which if you follow them, will probably lead you to a healthy diet (and thus make you healthier, and therefore able to train more, and therefore a better swordsman).

1) Change one thing at a time. The first step, I would suggest, is avoid refined sugar. Nobody has ever demonstrated that it is at all good for you, so save it for treats. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself, and pay attention to what effect each change has on you.

2) Eat lots of vegetables. If it is not obviously part of a plant, it doesn’t count (unless you process it yourself). Major starch sources don't count either (potatoes, corn, grains etc.) Fresh and in season is best, frozen or canned are ok too. Michael Pollan is good on this: Omnivore's Dilemma, and others.

3) Eat high-quality meat only. Avoid processed stuff. This is not only a matter of health, but also of morality. What people do to cows to make them fat is way beyond disgusting. Cows should eat grass outside. (Be a vegetarian if you must, but veganism is, for the overwhelming majority of people, a deeply unhealthy long-term life choice.) See The Vegetarian Myth: Food, Justice, and Sustainability, for details.

4) Only consume things that have been produced the same way and product tested for a minimum of 500 years. Coffee, beer, tea, wine, meat, vegetables, bread (made properly, none of this absurd 20-minute rising nonsense), all good. Factory-produced stuff? Might be good, might be bad, you have no way to know. So be conservative. Food should come from a garden via a kitchen, not from a factory. See The Omnivore’s Dilemma (again), and Brave Old World by Tom Hodgkinson.

5) Cook. Take an interest in, and control over, what you eat. It doesn’t have to be complicated or take much time, especially if you are preparing food from good quality ingredients. By far the best book for people who might think “I have no idea about cooking, it’s intimidating and difficult” I have ever come across is Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Chef.

6) Give each change time to take effect, before you assess its effectiveness.

Indicators of a good diet

When making changes to your diet, the key indicator is of course how you feel. But it is well worth keeping track of the following, to see what effect each change is having.

  • Weight. Since dropping most sugar, and a lot of the starch from my diet, I lost 10kg in about 3 weeks). I now weigh 75kg, which is a kilo heavier than when I was super-fit and trying really hard to keep weight on, at age 30. Weigh yourself at the same time of day, and on the same scales, once a week.
  • Waist size. Weight gain and loss can come from anywhere, and a lot of it may be simply water. As a general guideline, if your waist is smaller than your hips, you’ll fit into your kit better. But I find buying trousers is hell. If they can be pulled up over my thighs, I could fit a couple of hardbacks in the waistband.
  • Poo consistency: as every parent knows, poo is a great indicator of general health. Parents, especially of babies, can discuss poo at length. Anything that makes pooing harder, or painful, or especially stinky, is probably bad for you. There is no better indication of good diet, really.
  • Energy levels. These are very subjective, and can be affected by many factors other than diet. But if you find you need to snack to get through the day, you are probably eating sub-optimally. I found cutting sugar evened out my crashes very effectively.
  • Frequency of minor illnesses: again, this is actually quite hard to track. But if a diet leaves you feeling tired, or it feels like you are more prone to picking up stray bugs, then abandon it. And vice-versa, of course.

In short, when it comes to nutrition, you should to pay attention to your body, read up on some sciencey books so you know what’s going on inside you, and use some good common sense. Fresh vegetables? Good for you. Ice-cream? Not a staple food. A martial artist must take care of their body; just as a soldier takes care of their rifle, or a swordsman takes care of their sword.

As always, share if you dare!

Incidentally, this post appears as part of the “Nutrition” section of my new book, The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts. You can get a free 70 page sample of the book by signing up to my mailing list below.

The ability to ask for what you want is a critical life skill. It does not absolve those around you from paying attention to your needs, but it makes it a whole lot easier to have those needs met. This skill has two components: knowing what you want, and asking for it in such a way that you might actually get it.

As always, swordsmanship can show the way. In the basic class on Tuesday this week, asking for what you want was the theme.

It began in the warm-up, with students spotting each other in the execution of a basic exercise (the scoop). The spotters were supposed to tap their partner on the shoulder when they saw an error, but of course, to start with, they were invariably too far away, and relied of verbal communication instead. So the first fix was I had to ask them more precisely for what I wanted. Once the spotting technique was up to scratch, I had them chose either the push-up or squat to work on, using their partner. First they had to identify one possible error (such as dipping the head in a push-up), and ask their partner to watch for it. The lesson: know what you want, exactly, and ask for it, exactly. People generally are pretty good at being co-operative, but very bad at mind-reading.

The rest of the class went the same way; each student would ask for what they wanted (“give me a mandritto, not too fast”; “let’s run the dagger disarm flowdrill, you break the flow, I’ll try to counter it, put me under pressure”), and their partner would give it to them.

And here is the catch; every time you are giving your partner what they ask for, you should be doing it in such a way that you are also working towards your own goals. Every action can be improved in terms of mechanics, consistency, accuracy, and so on. So even if (especially if!) your partner is a beginner (relative to your exalted level of accomplishment), you should be getting useful practice out of giving them what they want.

Whenever I am asked to do a seminar somewhere, I always ask the organisers and the attendees to be really specific about what they want. We then set goals, work towards them, and run diagnostics to make sure we are meeting them. This practically guarantees not only improvement, but also student satisfaction. But only if, and it is a big if, the students present ask for what they actually want. Not what they think they should want, or have been told to aspire to.

A senior student recently came to me with motivation problems. I asked him what he wanted, and we discussed his goals and how we could work towards them (I see my job as helping my students meet their goals, whatever they may be, so long as they don’t go against my overall goal of restoring European martial arts to their rightful place at the heart of European culture). In this process, he admitted in a kind of embarrassed way, that he wasn’t really into the history side of these arts at all. He was much more interested in the practical, physical swordsmanship. Alleluia! Progress! Because he could articulate what he wanted, I could tailor his training in that direction. No embarrassment required.

The relevance to daily life should be obvious. You must first be honest with yourself about what you truly want. Then ask for it, specifically and without reservation. That way, you might just get it.

One of the great advantages of being a professional swordsman in the 21st century is that nobody can reasonably expect you to be normal. As you might imagine, I engage in all sorts of odd behaviour, in the name of good physical and mental health, above and beyond simply swinging swords around in a historical and martial manner. Of course I do meditation and breathing exercises, nothing unusual there. And all sorts of physical jerks, push-ups and whatnot. That’s not odd, really: million of people do those. But these three habits are the ones that our current culture is most skewed against, and so by that standard count as weird.

My top three bizarro practices, from a 21st century perspective, are:

1) Avoid sugar.

Reading up on the effects of refined sugar has lead me to believe that after smoking, our addiction to the sugar high is probably the worst thing we do to ourselves. Why is it that we can control and tax alcohol and tobacco as legal luxury drugs, and not do the same to sugar?* Since cutting the sugar high out of my daily routine and relegating it to occasional treat status, I have tightened my belt by two notches, and most importantly, have stopped crashing in the afternoons. It used to be such that when teaching all day, I would have to dose up on sugar in mid-afternoon to function. Now that does not happen; nor do I need a sugar fix to teach in the evenings. We just got through the week-long Fiore Extravaganza, the most exhausting seminar of the year, and I went from start to finish without ever getting seriously physically tired. That’s absence of sugar for you. It was my one most serious cause of chronic fatigue. And it’s in everything! Read the labels on your food; maltodextrin is one of the very few chemicals with a higher glycaemic index than glucose; high fructose corn syrup does not belong in the human body at all; sucrose, dextrose anything with -ose on the end, it’s all poisonous shit.

And starch is sugar too, sort of.

About 5 years ago I found out that I am allergic to wheat, which lead me to naturally cut out a lot of starch; (until I found all these excellent wheat free breads, beers, pastas etc.). It is very hard to eliminate wheat from the modern diet; our entire economy has been based on wheat for three thousand years or so (much like the USA’s is based on corn). Simply cutting wheat did wonders for me, if not for the ease with which I can find food I can eat. Cutting out all other starch sources (pasta, rice, potatoes etc.) has also been hugely helpful; I don’t avoid them the way I have to with wheat, I just don’t eat them that often; about once a week or so. Starch breaks down very quickly into glucose, and thus behaves much like ordinary sugar. I eat enormous amounts of proper vegetables instead, usually fried in olive oil and garlic, often with bacon…

Recommended reading: Gary Taubes; also Tim Ferriss on the Slow Carb Diet.

2) Squat.

Squatting on a rock. Note, not actually having a crap.
Squatting on a rock. Note, not actually having a crap.

Really it’s astonishing when you think about it; about half of all my beginners cannot squat on their haunches. In other words, can’t take a dump properly. For millennia, mankind have crapped in the woods and fields, and squatted down to do it. Now we enthrone ourselves in porcelain splendour, and grunt and strain to do what should be easy.

Squatting should be a natural rest position. The human body is built to stand, lie down, and squat. I often squat down to play with my kids, read a book, wait for a bus, whatever. Any time my legs or back are tired, I squat. People look at me funny. I don’t care. Chairs are a recent, very welcome and excellent in their place, invention; but healthy they ain’t. Inability to squat is a modern phenomenon, with hard-to-measure consequences. But I always find a bin or a block to prop my feet up on when having a crap; it puts my legs in a much more natural position. One of the advantages of having little kids is that  there are standing blocks in our bathroom anyway, so the kids can reach the tap; these do double duty as footstools in the bog.

Recommended reading: an amusing article in Slate magazine

On a related note, I have played around with flat-soled shoes for years; heeled shoes are needed for riding with open stirrups and not otherwise. Though they can be gorgeous, modern heeled shoes are simply bad for most peoples' back, legs and feet. Barefoot is better. And on a recent trip to Verona to see my friends fight in the Tourneo del Cigno Bianco, I tried out my medieval shoes in the medieval town, and found them to be a perfect compromise between the ghastly modern barefoot shoes, and decent leather ones. With thin flexible leather soles, they are now my normal footwear in all non-freezing weather. I have yet to find a good flat-soled winter boot, and this being Finland, WINTER IS COMING. Any advice?

3) Unplug.

Outside. You can't beat it.
Outside. You can't beat it.

When I was working as a cabinet maker, and more so now as a hobbyist, I use machines to do the grunt work, and hand tools for the interesting and enjoyable stuff. Machines get the job done; tools make the work a pleasure. For some people, using an electric drill is a step too far towards mechanisation (see Tom Fidgen, for example); for others, they love the roar as the planer starts up. I am making the distinction not on the grounds of the machine itself, but on the user’s relationship with it. Machines to save labour, tools to enhance it. Can you imagine a woodworker who allowed remote access to his table saw? To allow his customers, or friends even, to determine when it’s on and when it’s ok to turn it off? No, me neither. So why do we feel that our friends, co-workers, or clients should have any say in when our own personal pocket phones are to be on or off? Or how often we should check our emails? It’s madness! When I feel like my phone is a tool, a pleasure to use and a thing that is making it easier for me to achieve my ends, I have it on. Otherwise, I turn it off. I check my email when I feel like it; every hour or so when I am eagerly awaiting a message from an old friend about something I care about; every day or so just to check in on whatever things other people might want from me. But sometimes not for a few days, or even a week. And you know what? As nobody’s life depends on my work, nobody has yet died for want of an email from me. Your situation may be different, but ask yourself this: what's the worst that could happen?

There are some people for whom I am always on call. My wife, my kids, my siblings and parents, and maybe five or six close friends. They can demand my immediate attention at any hour, though with the exception of my kids they wield this power with commendable restraint. The rest of the world, even those lovely people who buy my books, come to my classes, those on whom my livelihood depends, of which group I assume you, as a reader of my blog, are likely a member? Nope. Sorry. There is nothing truly urgent in the world of swordsmanship. By all means contact me, I'm happy to hear from you. Just don't expect me to reply immediately.

Recommended reading: none. Go outside and play instead. Or pick up a real book.

So, there are my top three. Bear in mind though, that these are habits, not laws. I don't expect hosts at a dinner party to cut sugar for me; I do sometimes wear my utterly fab and lovely heeled shoes; my favourite armchair has an imprint of my arse deeply worn into it. And I have been known to check email when I should not. Part of my approach to life is the idea that habits have deeper consequences than one-off or rare occurrences; in swordsmanship training, in health matters, and in general. One cigarette won't kill you, but smoking probably will. I never follow any training routine religiously. For some people, whatever behavioural changes they try need to be thought of as laws, or they find they slip back into bad habits too easily. Do what works for you, and let healthy habits be their own reward. I don't know who's reading this, but I'm pretty sure you're a decent person who deserves to be healthy.

You can’t make a living by cutting sugar, squatting, and turning off your phone. You can just make your life much, much healthier. Which makes for a better living.

So, what are your top stay-sane-and-healthy tips?

*In Finland, sugar in candies is taxed as a luxury, but not in doughnuts, cookies etc. And taxed at the point of sale, not at the point where the food companies buy it. I'd like to see sugar-containing food of any kind sold separately, and all taxed like single malt or cigars. It would be too damned expensive for food manufacturers to get us hooked with the white stuff. We'd all be healthier for it. And the taxes would pay for the insulin, cardiac resuscitations, cancer wards and other medical expenses that our illnesses from our sugar fixation require. Let sugar be the new nicotine!

I don’t believe in innate talent. I’ve never seen it in a student, and I have noticed no correlation between early successes in training and long-term achievement. But you can draw a linear relationship between hours spent in class and acknowledged skill. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is my sort-of-ex-student (in that he has gone on to set up his own independent school) Ilkka Hartikainen. Round about the time he was developing an international reputation for his Bolognese research, we co-incidentally did a review of attendance data. Turns out that my star student had 50% more class time logged than the next-keenest student. A clear indication that his effort, not some genetic predisposition to historical swordsmanship, was the underlying cause of his success, as I'm sure he'd agree. This is as it should be. I see no point in engaging in any sort of activity where genetic factors are the prime determinant of success. And everybody now knows (or should do!) about the 10,000 hour rule, which indicates that ten thousand hours of dedicated practice (not just going through the motions), is needed for mastery in any complex field. A major component of my job is to ensure that the time students spend in class is actually dedicated practice, not just swinging a sword about.

This always begs the question though, of what is complexity? In what areas does this rule apply, and where does it not? In one lecture I gave on this subject, someone who clearly felt threatened by the idea that it’s effort, not talent, that generates expertise, asked me if it took 10,000 hours to master blinking. The best definition I have so far come across for complexity in this context is in Matthew Syed’s Bounce, the subtitle of which is bang on the money: the myth of talent and the power of practice. He says (on p48 of the 2011 Fourth Estate paperback edition):

“…complexity… describes those tasks characterised by combinatorial explosion; tasks where success is determined, first and foremost, by superiority in software (pattern recognition and sophisticated motor programs) rather than hardware (simple speed or strength).

The usual example of a pursuit characterised by combinatorial explosion is chess. 32 men on 64 squares leads to more possible game permutations than there are atoms in the universe. But from our perspective, chess is simple! It doesn’t matter how you place your knight on the board, just where. Slam it down or place it silently, makes no difference. Likewise, there is only one desired result: checkmate. There are no nuances or degrees. You can win, lose, or draw. We can learn much from the paths to mastery that top chess players have used (e.g. Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning), but in terms of breadth, chess is sadly lacking. In addition to the complexities of tactics that chess players use, we can add depth and breadth of research, skills of motor execution (not smashing up cars, performing the physical movements of the art), levels of control allowing a choice of outcomes (kill, wound, capture, evade etc.) and so on. Even if someone suffers from severe physical disability, there is nothing stopping them from mastering an area of this art to a degree that puts them at the top of their part of this giant field.

There are many insights in Syed’s book that will no doubt make their way into this blog at some point (he has a lovely section on double-think, for instance, and another on the necessity of consistent execution of basic actions, for another instance), but I’ll leave you with this thought: The only thing that stands between you and mastery of the art of arms is the amount of dedicated practice you are willing to put into it.

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