Despite the old saw that the best training for fencing is fencing, cross-training (XT) is now generally considered a must for most people interested in improving their fencing performance.
The theory behind XT is that one may improve performance in one sport by training in another. This theory has been well researched, although it is not without its detractors. Some indications are that while XT may improve performance for average athletes or be beneficial in rehabilitation, elite athletes have not receive the same benefits. Despite this, some Olympic athletes consider XT to be essential. Mariel Zagunis, gold medal fencer in the 2004 and 2008 Olympic games, speaks in favor of XT, as do professional athletes, John McEnroe, Steve Nash and Sue Bird.
Running and weightlifting are exercises that I find deathly boring but they are de facto pursuits in the improvement of just about any sport, including fencing. The old belief that says lifting weights just makes one slow was probably invented by someone like me who hated to lift weights. Nevertheless, weight lifting and running are essential. Remember that these are XT pursuits and not done for body sculpting or marathon purposes (although one may recall where we get the term, marathon).
Here are some sports from my personal experience to consider when thinking about XT to improve your fencing performance.
1. Karate - It has been my personal experience practicing both fencing and Goju Ryu karate that one sport supports and improves the other. Fencing does wonders for the knees and makes for stronger kicks, while karate balances both sides of the body and improves coordination.
2. Swimming - Long used in various disciplines to improve performance (including horses for horse racing), water offers natural resistance to movement and produces incredible balance. Swimming works every muscle in the body (when correctly performed).
3. Rowing - A stable stand-by for overall body conditioning but especially the legs (from which all movement in fencing proceeds). Rowing is one of those activities that is just plain good for just about anything.
4. Horseback Riding - This suggestion comes from Maitre Adam Crown. If you've ever ridden then you'll recognize the common sense in the suggestion. If you have never ridden, try it!
5. Dancing - Whether it's ballroom or ballet, dancing has been used by professional athletes to improve their performance. Even some notable football and beach volleyball players have used it. Fencing is just dancing with someone who wants to impale you with a long, sharp, pointy object... The body mechanics used in dance are essential to fencing.
6. Parkour/Free Running - Originally developed by the French military in VietNam, this mental paradigm is nothing short of extraordinary. If you've ever seen it, you've been amazed at what these street ninjas can do. Try it sometime - if you dare! You can look for a club or clan in your area at American Parkour.
These are just a few of the activities that you can pursue to improve your overall stamina, balance, coordination and flexibility in fencing. Obviously, fencing technique will improve only with fencing practice but other aspects of performance can contribute to overall increased performance.
Give them a try and I think you will be pleased with the results.
See you on the piste. En garde!
Some research on XT. See bibliographies for further references or try Google Scholar:
Flynn, M. G., Carroll, K. K., Hall, H. M., Bushman, B. A., Brolinson, P. G., & Weideman, C. A. (1998). Cross-training: Indices of training stress and perfoemance. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(2), 294-300.
Foster, C., Hector, L. L., Welsh, R., Schrager, M., Green, M. A., & Snyder, A. C. (1995). Effects of specific versus cross-trainingon running performance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 70, 367-372.
Keyser, R. E., De La Fuente, K., & McGee, J. (1993). Arm and leg cycle cross-training effect on anaerobic threshold and heart rate in patients with coronary heart disease. Archives of Physiology and medical Rehabilitation, 74(3), 276-280.