Guide to In-Person, Social Distanced Fencing Training

Things are starting to open back up from the long shutdown to in-person activities, but only a little bit and very cautiously. Make no mistake – the coronavirus is not gone. It is very much still here. In fact, the numbers are not great for anyone who is looking at them. 

What has changed is that we have a better understanding of how to prevent the spread of the disease. There are things that we know we can and should be doing, steps that make it safe enough to reopen some fencing schools in a limited capacity. Training does not look anything like it did. The swords are the same. The coaches are the same. The clubs themselves are the same. What’s different is how we are acting.

In-person fencing training has to be different now. It’s necessary. This is not just wearing a mask (though that’s part of it), it’s also changing the methods that we use to teach fencing. The core of what we’re doing will stay the same, but the trappings will be different. Necessarily so. 

COVID-19 in-person fencing training regimen

We’ve outlined here a fencing regimen to help guide clubs and coaches, as well as to inform fencers about what to expect for in-person training during this time. Please keep in mind that we are not experts in coronavirus. These are based on our own experience, thinking and on the guidelines set out by healthcare authorities

What we are being told again and again is that this is a respiratory virus that is spread through droplets that come from the mouth and the nose. Everything that we are doing is targeted to minimize those droplets and their spread from one person to another. 

This regimen is broken down into eight parts. Notice the consistent themes and adapt these ideas to your own needs and per guidelines from your local health authorities!

1. Change your paradigm

First things first, you have to right now change the way you are thinking about fencing classes. These are NOT traditional classes or private lessons. We are NOT back to normal. It is easy to fall into feeling like old times when you walk into the club after all of these months, but everyone involved has to shift their thinking if this will be successful.

In fact, it’s good to think of the current wave of in-person classes as more of a hybrid of traditional fencing classes and the online format. These are socially distant, and they have to be fundamentally different than our old ways of doing things. Think of it as an opportunity! It’s a time to be innovative and flexible! These are traits of fencers anyway, so we should be in good shape. 

  • Consciously change the way you think about fencing classes

2. Wear face coverings

We are of course not talking about the fencing mask here. Not only the fencing mask anyway.

The bottom line is that face coverings are cumbersome and frustrating, but they are also one of the most effective tools that we have to fight the spread of coronavirus. You wearing a mask is not super effective in preventing you from getting the virus, but it does drastically reduce the risk that you will give the virus to someone else if you have it. As such, if everyone wears a mask, the spread of the virus will be reduced dramatically.

This means that yes, coaches and students have to wear masks when they are training. It is not optional, it cannot be. At this stage, it is much better to significantly modify the way we train rather than eliminate the mask. The spread of the virus is still high in many places, and the numbers are on the rise in other places.  For all ages of fencers.  

Face coverings are also a powerful psychological tool that show us that this is not regular fencing class or a regular private lesson. We are all pretty used to social distancing now, but when you are wearing a mask you cannot even for a moment think that you are not in an epidemic. The unconscious temptation to reach out to shake a hand or stand close to someone is lessened dramatically when you’re wearing a mask. 

It is a challenge, but it is essential. The importance of this cannot be overstated.

  • Wear a face covering at all times

3. Warm-ups for fencers

Warming up usually incorporates aerobic exercises like jumping jacks or running laps. Those activities lead to more forceful breathing, which is associated with increased spread of the virus. There is also the issue of doing cardio with a mask on, which is something that is still being studied. Wearing a mask does decrease the rate of oxygen that gets into the lungs. It is much better to save the cardio for home and instead to get the minimum warm up we can make work for our fencers. 

Keep six feet between all fencers during warm up. 

Note that cardio exercise is still important for fencers to build stamina. It is incredibly important. Encourage your fencers to do cardio at home.

  • Less (or no) aerobic exercises
  • More anaerobic exercises such as stretching and yoga. 

4. Shorter fencing bouts

Right now, what is important is that fencers are getting some actual bouting. Remember that more contact (even with precautions) is going to increase the danger of spreading the virus, so no hand shaking. The trick is to minimize the contact while still allowing fencers to get the development that they need. 

Bouting to five touches instead of fifteen prevents the increased breathing that we mentioned in the previous section and less exhausting for fencers. If you want to bout to fifteen touches, take mandatory breaks after five and ten touches. 

  • Less bouting for 15 touches
  • More 5 touches for now
  • If 15 touches, make 2 mandatory breaks at 5 and 10 touches

5. Shorter classes and more breaks

Fencing classes can be long, especially for advanced fencers. Our competitive fencers might train for two or three hours at a stretch, several times a week. 

Longer classes mean more exposure and more physically exhausting. Adapting classes to be shorter reduces the risk. Keeping fencing classes shorter to start with allows everyone to become comfortable with what the processes will be, and it also reduces that exposure, and will be easier on fencers with masks on. And also this allows coaches and club staff to sanitize facilities between classes when needed.

There should also be many more breaks for fencers and coaches. Breaks allow for hand sanitizing or washing, as well as for fencers to get apart from one another to drink water or towel off. You might mandate a break every twenty minutes or even shorter in your club. Taking breaks outside is also a great way to help everyone stay safe and invigorated

  • Shorten class times
  • Take more breaks

6. Get outside with fencers

The virus is less likely to spread when you are outside, thanks to the air flow and the ability to get further apart, among other things. 

If at all possible, get your fencers outside as much as you can. It’s invigorating for fencers as well, getting out under the sun and breathing in the fresh air. Sometimes our fencers got outside before the pandemic, and it’s even more important now. 

Remember that you need a flat, safe area, especially if you are training with weapons. Consider closing off your parking lot to vehicles to get more room. Keep in mind that asphalt gets hot in the sun. Safety precautions, like watching for cars and coach supervision are important to go over with fencers before you go outside. This is especially true for young fencers. 

This is the one instance that face coverings can be removed, only if fencers are at least six  feet apart (try to spread them out even more!) and for a short period of time. Be cautious when doing this, and stay aware of the distance between fencers at all times and in line with your local health authorities guidelines. Some fencing families may not want to consider removing face coverings at all, even with eight feet between. This is a risk to discuss with your fencing community. 

  • Get fencers outside 
  • Masks can be removed for a short period if fencers are far apart

7. Less physical, more theory

All lessons should move to the more detailed, less physical, and more theoretical aspects of fencing. Now is the time for technique and small movements as opposed to stamina and big movements. For example working hand and arm movements instead of working the fleche. 

Footwork is always a good thing to work during this time. Form is a good thing to work on. Repetition in front of a coach is priceless right now, and that reinforcement can continue at home when the foundation is built in the club. 

Theoretical content in general could also be a focus. In-person classes can mix in a great deal of tactical or standard situations while also taking advantage of training in the same space. 

8. Pay attention to health

Everyone should be paying close attention to their health during this time of in-person fencing training. Though carriers of the virus are so often asymptomatic, there are signs of the virus in many of those infected. 

Signs of fatigue, tired eyes, skin color changes, changes in breathing patterns, coughing, and of course fever, are all big issues. If you notice any of them, in yourself or someone else, stop immediately and notify the staff of the club, then follow the safety procedures you have implemented. 

If you are having any symptoms, do not come to the club! Now is a time that everyone understands what’s going on. This is not the time to tough anything out. Training can wait. The virus will not. 

  • Look for any signs of respiratory illness
  • Stop training and go home if you are at all ill

We also must pay attention to how the fencer feels with a face covering. This is very important. As in most states the classes are going to be very small, it is very important that coaches carefully watch for any signs of struggle with breathing under their masks with students. Students might need more air or an extra break. It is important that coaches and fencers themselves are on a constant watch since we definitely don’t want to cause exercising under the mask to be a negative factor in health.

We are all still learning and adapting in this time of COVID for in-person fencing training. These recommendations are based on what we are doing and plan to do, but we’re still growing. In-person fencing training can be possible, and for fencers it can be valuable. A little bit of almost normal! Safety has to come first however, so keep in mind that these new classes are not like your old classes. Embrace the newness, and enjoy fencing!