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The science behind the Olympic sport of fencing

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I have fenced – the sword rather than garden variety – for 20 years. It’s a sport I love. I have been fortunate enough to compete at various World Cups, and even won a bronze medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Championships. But recently I decided to take a break from competing and focus on helping to develop younger fencers. I am following the fencing at the Olympics and seeing who ends up winning the medals.

Fencing is often referred to as a physical game of chess as it requires both physical prowess and mental ability. The fencing sword is supposedly the second fastest moving object at the Olympics after the marksman’s bullet. With this in mind, fencers need to have incredibly fast reactions.

There are three different weapons in fencing – foil, epee and sabre – and each discipline has its own set of rules. Both foil and epee require you to hit your opponent with the tip of the blade, while in sabre you can hit with any part of it.

In foil, your target area is the torso, which is covered by a metal jacket. There is also the added confusion of whether you have the right of attack. Epee is slightly different, as you can hit your opponent anywhere, from their head to their toe. In sabre, you can slash as well, but you must hit your opponent above the waist – and you must also have the right of attack to score a hit. On the whole, a sabre fight is quicker and more powerful than both epee and foil and on average fights with this weapon last just seconds. Foil and epee contests can involve up to nine minutes of actual fencing time.

The science bit

There has been very little research on the sport, which is surprising as the sport has been part of the modern Olympics since the modern Olympic era began in 1896 and ten medals are available. With this in mind, I have spent the last six years researching it.

One of the first studies we undertook was a needs analysis of epee fencing by simulating a fencing competition. We calculated how much movement was involved and how many attacks were being made in each fight to develop a lab-based protocol. This protocol replicates the first round of a competition with the fencer performing high intensity footwork for eight seconds, interspersed with nine seconds’ rest, for three minutes. This allowed us to investigate factors which influence fatigue and reaction time in a more controlled manner.

This led to a couple of studies looking at the effect of caffeine ingestion and carbohydrate mouth rinsing on fencing performance following fatiguing exercise.

Both improved lunging accuracy compared to a matched placebo. This could be very important in a competition, especially towards the end of a ten-hour competition day. If you can ingest food or drinks which prevent fatigue and improve accuracy it could help you win a fight.

We have also researched the biomechanics of the fencing lunge, which is the most common attack in all fencing disciplines. We used 3D cameras to establish which body movements, such as shoulder extension and knee extension, are central to a fast lunge.

This is useful for strength and conditioning, as it helps establish which muscle groups need to be conditioned to be able to produce speed and power in this attack. The front leg produces particularly large impact forces with the ground and therefore we have performed several studies investigating whether there is any risk of injury to the Achilles tendon and knee. The results showed that men are at greater risk of injury than women with greater loads put on both the Achilles tendon and knee.

We also looked at whether different footwear can reduce some of this impact as well as whether different floor surfaces can, too. We found that it is important to have some cushioning in the trainer and that fencers should train as often as possible on a sprung floor to reduce the impacts going through the leg during a lunge. Potentially, it would be beneficial to design a different shoe altogether for the foot of the front leg.

Finally, we looked into the factors affecting reaction times. Some unpublished work we undertook at the University of Victoria, in British Colombia, explored (using an eye tracker) where a fencer looks during a lunge and how quickly they can respond to certain movements. In addition, we tried to distract the fencer with markers on the opponent’s body to see if this influenced their reaction times or made them more fatigued.

Indeed, markers do have a negative impact on reaction times and fatigue levels. It is therefore not surprising to see fencers often wearing their national flag on their mask or wearing brightly coloured socks and shoes during international competitions. You’d probably do the same if you were facing the second-fastest object at the Olympics.

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