I’ve felt entirely recovered from West Nile fever for going on three weeks now, and I’ve been going back to my HEMA training sessions. But until today I’ve been finding that, once I finished the actual class part of the class, I was all worn out, and didn’t feel up to sparing. But today, I felt like I could spar. So I did.

I didn’t get any video unfortunately, but I did spar with two different people, and managed to get some hits. It was good. I’m not going to beat anyone who’s any good at fencing, but that’s okay at this point. The main thing is that I’m finally, once again, able to train for an hour and a half and then spend half an hour sparing.

Oh, and two related details. One from my Oura ring which give me a score of 100 for my activity today:

Oura ring activity screen showing a score of 100

And from fitbit on my Pixel watch, yesterday I got the Sahara badge, meaning that since I bought my Pixel watch (October 2022) I’ve walked the length of the Sahara desert (2983 miles):

FitBit Sahara badge

The most obvious goal for someone learning to fight with swords is to get good enough to enter sword-fighting competitions and do well against other sword-fighters. And, I suppose that is my long-term plan. My medium-term plan is less ambitious, but rather specific.

I’ve come up with this intermediate goal because I know that I am not a natural martial artist. My reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination are merely average. Besides that, I am well below average in my ability to watch someone execute a move and then do “the same thing.” I’ve written about this before in my post Learning movement through words.

I hadn’t realized it in advance, but the very nature of Historical European Martial Arts makes it especially well-suited to me: Essentially every HEMA practice is based on a text—in our case Joachim Meyer’s The Art of Combat. The text provides the verbal description that I need to be able to learn a movement practice.

Still, even with the text and the instructors showing us stuff (and correcting our errors) and classmates to practice with, I’m still the guy with merely average reflexes and hand-to-eye coordination (plus a lifetime of no experience with stuff like this, because I was in my 40s before I figured out that I could learn this stuff at all, as long as I have a verbal description to work from), so my expectations for developing the skills of an excellent sword-fighter are rather low.

That would be rather discouraging, so I’ve come up with my own personal medium-term goal. I’m going to focus on executing Meyer’s system very, very well. Success for me will not depend on doing well sparring with opponents, but rather on looking like—moving like—someone who has trained with the best teachers of Meyer’s system.

Expressed in aspirational terms: A year or two from now a modern expert in Meyer longsword will look at me and think, “Wow—this guy looks like he might have trained with Meyer himself!”

Knowing my own strengths and weakness, this seems like it might be achievable, with the bonus that it will probably be much more effective at making be a better sword-fighter than if I jumped right into trying to figure out how to spar well.

I had been waiting to get the new translation of Meyer that’s coming later this month from HEMA Bookshelf, but decided to go ahead and order a copy of the existing translation. It’s what everyone in the group has been working with for several years now, so the instructors and senior students all know it. I’m sure it’ll remain a useful reference even if everyone switches to the new translation as soon as it’s available. (And I’ll get the new translation immediately myself.)

My short-term plan to support my medium-term plan will be to create my own practice sessions on the foundational stuff: stance, footwork, guards, and cuts. The classes covered stance and footwork on the first day (and then added a third stepping pattern on the second day), but hasn’t returned to those things since then. This makes sense: We’re practicing stance and stepping as we’re learning cuts and parries. But for my purposes, I think and extra 15 or 20 minutes each day specifically working on these items (which are readily amenable to solo practice) will do me a world of good. I’ll also spend a few minutes each day working on the German vocabulary, so I know the names of everything (and know what the thing is!).

One bright spot: I seem to be fit enough. The first week and a half I was just a bit worried about whether I could do a 2-hour training sessions and the recover enough to do the next one and then the one after that, but it seems that my fitness regimen of the past few years is standing me in good stead. I may not be as strong or as fast (or recover as well) as the fitter of the college-age kids, but I’m fit enough to see a practice session through to the end.

This week I attended my first and second HEMA classes, and had great fun. I am even (almost) in good enough shape to work out for two hours, although I’m certainly feeling it this morning.

The first class was half devoted to longsword fencing at a conceptual level, looking at key concepts from Joachim Meyer’s The Art of Combat (which serves as the basic text for the local HEMA group), with the second half devoted to stance and footwork.

The concepts section had to do with the “five words” of Meyer: Vor (= before), Nach (= after), Sterk (= strong), Schwach (= weak), and Indes (= during, or maybe between). Quite a bit of time was spent talking about these concepts, which nevertheless remained subtle and (at least to me) rather unclear.

The stance was kind of interesting, purely because of the modest difference between a longsword stance and santi stance.

In Tai Chi, santi stance is described as a spiral: Your back foot is turned out about 45 degrees, your front foot is turned in (that is, the same direction as your back foot) just slightly. Your hips are turned less, kind of between your feet. Your torso turned less. Your shoulders are turned still less, your head is turned only slightly. Perhaps only your forward eye is pointed directly at your “partner” (i.e opponent).

Meyer’s longsword stance is different: Your back foot is still turned out 45 degrees (or up to 90 degrees). But your front foot is pointed straight forward, as are your hips and shoulders.

Once we’d we practiced the stance (getting our front knee directly over our front ankle, making sure our back knee was modestly bent), we went on to footwork, learning the passing step and the gathering step. Passing step is just stepping forward, except of course, that changes which is the front foot (pointed forward) and which is the back foot (turned out). The gathering step is like an advance in fencing: you back foot steps up to about even with your front foot, and then your front foot moves forward to reestablish a proper stance. And, of course, you don’t need to be committed: You can move your back foot up, and then if circumstances warrant, simply put it back where it had been.

The second class began with a pretty extensive warmup. We did some mobility, and then some stretching, and then some practice stepping, which both got us practice and got our heart rates up a bit. Then—one part I had trouble with—a bunch of lunges: regular lunges, backward lunges, jumping lunges. (Click my “lunge” tag to read a bit more about my difficulties with lunges.) We also sprinted just a little, I assume primarily to get our heart rates up.

Then we learned one new step: Triangle step. In triangle step you bring your back foot behind the front foot, taking you off-line from an attack from the front.

We practiced something they called “dancing,” which is a variation on the introductory practice of push hands: you and a partner touch your hands together (finger tips, or fist) and then one leads, stepping forward or back, while the other attempts to remain stuck, by stepping back or forward, so as to remain at the same distance—while, of course, using proper Meyer longsword footwork.

After that we picked up swords for the first time!

We learned the four principal guards, and then four cuts. They all had names, but unfortunately the acoustics weren’t good enough for me to hear most of them. But there are extensive web resources (including translations of Meyer’s book), so I have the technology to track them down and learn them before Tuesday.

We practiced the guards and cuts quite a bit, which (after all the stepping practice) left me pretty tired, and rather achy this morning. Happily, I’m not suffering from any over-use injuries, just feeling like I got in a good workout. (The one exception is my toes, which were slightly strained from the lunges. Hopefully they’ll be all better very shortly. Henceforth I’ll remember to do some toe stretches before each the HEMA class.)

The steel club swinging I’ve been practicing for months now stood me in good stead: my hands, wrists, arms, and shoulders are strong enough and stable enough, which I don’t think they would have been otherwise.

Classes take place in the Stock Pavilion, an old University of Illinois building (constructed over 100 years ago) originally built to support the Ag school’s mission as a place for students to learn about things like cattle judging. It’s a large space with a dirt (wood chip) floor and concrete bleachers, which suits pretty well for sword-fighting practice.

Interior of the stock pavilion as the class was breaking up
Interior of the stock pavilion as the class was breaking up

Next thing to do: buy protective gear (mask and gloves). I’ll also want to get a copy of The Art of Combat, which I understand has a new translation coming out next month, so maybe I’ll wait for that.

Whether I’m trying to “get enough exercise” (as I tried to do for years), or trying to “fill my days with movement” (which I’ve realized is a much better way to think about my physical activity), training has been a constant. As someone who has only rarely trained as part of a group, or had a teacher or coach, a lot of my training has been solo training.

Often my focus was on endurance training: preparing for very long walks, foot races, or a 100-mile bike ride. I also did strength training. And my training often included skill training—Tai Chi, parkour, tennis (long ago), even fencing (one brief term in college).

Training by yourself is hard. It’s hard to motivate yourself to go out and do it, and it’s hard to push yourself enough to make good progress (and if you’re good at pushing yourself, it’s hard to know when to take time to recover instead). For skills-based training, it’s hard to learn those skills without a teacher or coach. And for activities with any sort of competitive element, such as tennis or fencing, it’s especially hard to train without a partner. This has been particularly acute during the pandemic, but really it’s always true.

And here is where Guy Windor’s new book The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training comes in.

A lot of the specific information in the book is stuff I’ve figured out myself over the years: Some training is just about impossible to do without a teacher (learning your first Tai Chi form) or a partner (practicing return of serve in tennis). But for most activities, that fraction of the training will be much less than half of your training. Much of the rest of your training is either easy to do by yourself (strength and endurance training), or at least possible to do by yourself once you’ve learned the skill well enough to be able to evaluate your own performance (practicing a Tai Chi form, for example).

The key is to spend some time figuring out the entire scope of your training activities, and then think deeply about what category each activity falls into.

To the extent that your access to a teacher, coach, or partner is limited (as during a pandemic), emphasize the things that are easy to train solo (such as strength training and endurance training), then judiciously add those parts of the training that are advantaged by (or require) a teacher or partner as they are available.

What Guy Windsor adds to this sort of intuitive structuring of training is, as the title suggests, a method. He has systematized the structure in a way that makes the decision-making parts of the activity easier to do and easier to get right.

Perhaps even more important than that, he has taken a step back to talk about all the parts of training that aren’t just skills training for your particular activity. That other stuff—sleep, healthy eating, breathing, mobility, flexibility, strength training, endurance training, etc.—are actually more important than this or that skill, while at the same time being the bits that are easiest to train solo. If you’re stuck for a year with no partner, no teacher, and no coach, but you spend that year focusing on health and general physical preparedness, you’ll scarcely fall behind at all, and make yourself ready to jump into your skills training with both feet once that’s possible again.

I should mention that Guy Windsor’s book was written with practitioners of historical European martial arts especially in mind, but that scarcely matters. It is entirely applicable not only to practitioners of any other martial art, it is entirely relevant to literally anyone who trains in anything.

And, since many of my readers are fiction writers, I should also mention another of Guy Windsor’s books Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists. When I signed up for his email list, he offered it as a free download for people who did so.

Being forced into purely solo training for 18 months has made me keenly aware of the many opportunities for non-solo training available here locally. There’s a local fencing club that I’ve had my eye on for some time, and our financial situation is such that now we could afford for me to join and buy fencing gear. Just today I searched for and found a local historical European martial arts club on campus—I’ve asked to be added to their Facebook group and joined their Discord. One of my Tai Chi students teaches an Aikido class with the Urbana Park District—I had started studying with him right as the pandemic began and got in two classes before everything was canceled. And, not sword-related, but cool and great training, is indoor rock climbing at Urbana Boulders.

Just as soon as the pandemic lets up for real, I’ll be doing some of those things.

In the meantime, I’m going over my solo training regimen, taking advantage of the insights that Guy Windsor provides in The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training to figure out what adjustments I should make.