Friday, 15 June 2012

En-garde, Prêt, Allez

A fencing lesson at Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ
If you hear the words en garde, prêt, allez in that order then most likely you are standing facing someone with a sword in your hand, like I was on Tuesday night when I attended a fencing class with the Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ.  They kindly agreed to let me join them in a typical weekly fencing lesson so that I could write about it on here on my blog.  It is part of my new campaign to try out different activities and write about them, to give people ideas of sports/fitness related activities they might like to try that they might not previously have considered.

The club is run by Thomas and his wife, who is originally Cuban and was a member of the Cuban fencing team, participating in both the Olympics and the Word Championships.  They have around 50 active members and train at the Bildungszentrum BIZE in Seefeld.  On Tuesday night there were 5 people plus myself, the coach and Thomas.

My German is not perfect but as the coach spoke both Spanish and German I managed to get by between the 2 languages.  After the initial greetings I was kitted out with a jacket, a mask, a glove, an electric cable, a chest pad and a weapon.  The electric cable is plugged at one end into the sword and at the other end into the spools of a machine that registers the points.  All the rest of the equipment other than the weapon is simply for protection.

The weapon we were using was the épée.  In fencing there are 3 types of weapon - the foil, the épée and the sabre.  Thomas was explaining that in most countries people traditionally start with the foil and then progress to the sabre or épée after several years of training, but in Switzerland they often start immediately with the épée.  The differences are as follows:

Foil - a light thrusting weapon that targets the torso, including the back.  Simultaneous points scoring is not allowed and a "right of way" rule is established to determine who to award the point to in case of simultaneous hits.

Sabre - a light cutting and thrusting weapon that targets the entire body above the waist (excluding the hands and the back of the head, but including the wrists).  Hits with the edge of the blade are valid as are hits with the tip.  In contrast to foil, whilst off target hits do not score, the bout is not stopped and the action continues.  As with foil, in case of simultaneous hits, the "right of way" rule is used to establish which fencer to aware the point to.

Epée - a heavier thrusting weapon that targets the entire body.  Unlike the other 2, in épée simultaneous points may be awarded.  The only exception is for the last point of the bout, and here in the case of simultaneous hits neither fencer will be awarded a point.

Apparently the bouts involving foil and sabre can involve heated debates and discussions about who had the "right of way" and épée bouts are generally much easier to score.  This is one reason that here in Switzerland they sometimes start people off immediately in épée as opposed to foil.  However, until recently women were only permitted to compete in foil.  Nowadays though they can compete in all 3 disciplines.

After some warm up exercises and techniques drills I got the chance to take part in some actual fencing bouts. This was the part I had really been looking forward to.  The protocol is as follows.  The 2 competing fencers walk onto the piste (fencing area) fully dressed except for mask, and then after plugging their cable into the sword and into the spools connected to the electronic scoring equipment and testing their equipment (making sure that touches with the point of the épée on the body register a point and touches with the point of the épée on the bell guard don't register a point) they stand on the en-garde lines facing each other.  Next, the fencers salute each other as a sign of respect.  Salutes completed, the referee calls en-garde and the fencers don their masks and adopt the fencing stance.  The referee now calls "prêt" (and in some countries the fencers must confirm that they are ready) and finally "allez".  This signals that the action may commence.  The bout continues until the required number of points has been reached by one of the fencers, or until the bout time has expired, with the action being stopped briefly after each point has been scored for the fencers to reassume their ready positions.

I had a lot of fun during my bouts and got the chance to fence against three different people.  Firstly I fenced with the coach, then with Thomas and finally with the other male member of the group who has been doing fencing for around 5 months.  They all gave me lots of useful tips and I even managed to score some points along the way.  The tips were to minimise the body surface area that is available to my opponent, to keep my arm tucked in so that my opponent only sees the bell guard and is not able to strike my arm, to never fully extend myself when I am not sure to be able to reach my opponent as then they can easily strike back and to keep the movements of the épée very small (since big movements cost time).  I was also told to make sure I keep my spare hand out of the way as it is ungloved and can be hurt or cut by small imperfections in the weapon if it is held in front of the body.  The reason I had to be told this was because I come from a martial arts background and my first reaction was to try to grab the épée with my spare hand, which of course is not allowed and can be dangerous for the reasons mentioned previously.

The bouts were intense and you need to be fit to be able to keep moving and stay "on your toes" so to speak.  The lunges are great workouts for the leg muscles.  It also uses up a lot of energy to remain focussed and concentrated throughout the bout.  By the end of my 3 bouts I was completely covered in sweat.  I would have been happy to continue with further bouts if there was more time though, as I was having such a good time.  Fencing is certainly something I would give a thumbs up too as a fun way of getting fit.

In terms of danger factor it seems pretty safe as you are wearing proper protection, although I did get one or two very large bruises the next day.  This could be a good thing though if you like showing off your war wounds to your friends.  Fencing has a kind of gentlemanly mystique to it.

If you want to know more about fencing in Zurich, I am sure the Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ will be happy to answer your questions.  They were very friendly and I would like to thank them again for affording me a small insight into the world of fencing.

A fencing lesson at Société d'escrime de Zurich SEZ

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Mental training with colours - does it make a difference to your running or is it just red raging bull?

The Finnenbahn where we did the mental and barefoot training
Last night was my regular weekly group running session with coach Jeff Grant, and this time coach Jeff covered the following topics:

1) Minimising contact time with the ground
2) Barefoot running
3) Mental training - imagining certain colours whilst running

First let me get the negative energy out of my system by starting with one small complaint, and then I will be able to continue complaint free for the rest of the post.  So here goes.  Bad weather - almost from the start we were doomed weather wise.  It has rained every single session for the last month or so, and last night was no exception to the rule.  As coach Jeff says we must always try to find a positive point, regardless of how bad the situation first seems, so I will see the positive as the fact that this time it was only rain and not hail.  Hooray!  Now that I have got that out of my system, let me continue with a description of the session itself.

The first drills involved the agility ladders, which most of us in the group were familiar with.  Jeff explained that we should try to minimise the time that our feet are in contact with the ground, and that we should try to land on our mid foot.  It is perfectly fine for the heel to come down to the ground after the mid foot has struck the ground, but the heel should not strike the ground first.  Heel striking tends to cause us to brake.  He reinforced the idea of getting us to land on our mid foot and minimising our contact time with the ground by making us run through the agility ladders as quickly as possible, taking very small quick steps (since the rungs of the ladder are close together).  Landing mid foot is something that I have already been focussing on for some time now, so the drills felt rather natural to me.  As you know I have been doing some barefoot running, and when you are barefoot running heel striking is not an option, as it hurts if you land on a stone with your heel.  My Newton Sir Isaac guidance trainers are also meant to help runners transition from heel striking to mid foot striking.  The fact that I didn't really notice any difference wearing them compared to wearing normal running shoes suggests that maybe I was mid foot striking already.

After we finished the drills with the agility ladders Jeff gave us the exciting news that we would be heading to the Finnenbahn at the bottom of the Uetliberg and doing some barefoot running and mental exercises involving colours.  Everyone seemed rather pleased at this news, and off we went with a spring in our step to the start of the Finnenbahn.  As I have explained before, Finnenbahns (Finnish paths) are paths made of soft materials to allow runners a more forgiving surface than asphalt or concrete.  You can find them all over Zurich, and most likely all over Switzerland too.  Up till now I have come across 4 in Zurich throughout my travels: 1 near the zoo, 1 in Irchel park, 1 at the bottom of the Uetliberg near the Saalsporthalle (the one I discovered last night for the first time) and 1 on the Hönggerberg. Until last night all the ones I knew were made up of wood chips. However, the Finnenbahn near the Saalsporthalle is made up of sawdust.

I was not sure if everyone in the group would be up for barefoot running on the Finnenbahn, as I had imagined the surface would be wood chips (like the ones I had run on before), but once I saw it was sawdust I knew everyone would be in.  The sawdust was very fine, and it was really, really soft on the feet.  There is no way you would hurt your feet on that surface unless there was a foreign object lying on it like glass.  As I predicted everyone took off their shoes and socks and got ready to go.

The mental training for last night was done on the Finnenbahn.  Before starting each lap of the Finnenbahn, Jeff gave us a colour to think of, along with various ideas about what that colour should represent, and we were supposed to focus on that colour and those attributes whilst running.  In total we did 5 laps, with enough time to get our breath back in between each lap.  The colours and ideas about those colours were as follows:

1) BROWN - representing earth and gravity.  Imagine running on top of a ball as it starts to roll and you are only just able to stay on top.  You are almost falling off the ball but not quite.  Gravity is pulling you along.

2) BLUE - laser focus.  focus on one point or one person and don't be distracted by anything else.  Pick off that person and then focus on the next person to pick off.

3) GREEN - wide focus.  Take in the nature, take in your whole surroundings, listen to the sounds, smell the smells.  Everything is giving you energy to run.

4) ORANGE - bursts of solar radiation.  As you are running you can feel bursts of solar radiation warming you up and giving you energy to run.

5) Colour of choice and attributes of choice - I chose red as my colour and I thought about being a raging bull.

After finishing the 5 laps Jeff asked us for feedback.  He wanted to know if we felt that we ran better when thinking of certain colours or not.  Personally I found that blue and green were good colours for me.  I ran well when I was thinking of blue and the laser focus like he mentioned, then I also ran well when I was thinking of green and the wide focus and taking in all your surroundings like he mentioned.

The mental training with colours is something you might want to try at home and to let me know the results.  What colours work best for you, or does it make absolutely no difference?

After the colour exercise, Jeff rounded the session off with a team relay back to the Saalsporthalle.  I can't wait till next week to see what he has in store for us.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Andelfingen to Eglisau by canoe and my planned 100k training week completed

Andelfingen to Eglisau by canoe
This morning started off wet as seems to be becoming commonplace these last few weeks in many parts of Europe.  However, by the time we arrived in Andelfingen the weather was starting to look more promising.  This was the start point of the 4 hour canoe tour that Anny and I had booked with, and from there the plan was to head down the Thur river to its confluence with the Rhein and then head down the Rhein to Eglisau.

The route was incredibly scenic and we passed through nature reserves, vineyards and some small villages with ever such cute little churches.  The current was so strong that it wasn't really necessary to paddle.  It was relaxation more than exercise.

We did try to paddle hard for a few kilometres at the start, but the inflatable canoe that we were using had no rudder, and unless you paddle in sync the canoe tends to spin in circles.  That happened to us on several occasions, and the spectators standing on the banks of the river probably thought we were very drunk.  After those initial few kilometres we just paddled very gently, and took frequent breaks where we let the current take us down the river, admiring the landscapes that we were passing through on the way.

In terms of technique, the person at the back is able to steer much easier than the person sitting in front.  The one in front on the other hand sets the rhythm and is responsible for keeping an eye out for submerged trees, rocks or other obstacles.  At the start Anny was sitting in front and I was in the back, but after a few kilometres we changed positions.  I thought that maybe with me sitting in front the canoe would spin in circles much less, but I was mistaken and the poor canoe would be resigned to spin in circles for the majority of the trip.

We decided to stop at a riverside cafe for some refreshments along the way, and this was by far the funniest part of the day.  I hopped out of the front of the canoe on to the dock and then held the front of the canoe whilst Anny stepped out on to the dock to join me.  The next thing I saw was Anny kicking the boat away from her whilst still standing on it and simultaneously holding on to the wooden pole of the dock.  Then splosh she landed in the water.  The water was pretty chilly today (even wearing wetsuits, as I had found out earlier when I went for a dip), and Anny wanted me to help her out of the water on to the dock as she was cold.  I was so busy helping her that I let go of the canoe and it started drifting down the river, so I shouted to Anny to swim after it and get it back.  If need be I would have jumped in myself, but there was no point in both of us getting wet and the water was pretty dirty because of all the swan poop.  She retrieved the canoe and I pulled her and the canoe out of the water a bit further downstream.

After the tour finished in Eglisau I decided to run home.  I was not sure how far it was, but today I was meant to run just under 30km in total, in order to complete my aim of having done 100k this week.  I figured that it would be about 20k from Englisau to Wipkingen, and then I planned to go for a run with Anny and Negrita once I got back to make up the remaining distance.  It turned out to be 27k from Eglisau to Wipkingen and I was cream crackered by the time I got home.  Nevertheless I got Anny and Negrita to get ready, and then went out for the remaining 2.3k to complete my aim.

So this week's mission was completed and I have run 100k.  Most of that was in my Newton Sir Isaac guidance trainers, with the exception of one session that I did in my Vibram FiveFingers.  Now for the coming week I will try to do 110k, maybe with a bit more running in my Vibrams or barefoot.

This coming Thursday I will be trying out fencing and then writing about it.  I have come up with the idea of regularly trying out new activities so that I can write about them and keep my blog interesting.  Thank you to my regular followers for keeping me enthused to keep writing.