Cold Weather Fencing

“Suites d’un bal masqué,” by Gérôme (1857), Musée Condé, FR

Above a certain latitude training in winter conditions is common; this is especially true if one lacks a roof or only has access to one part-time. Common, not normal. A master I studied with recently, and to whom we submitted video assignments of us teaching, more than once marveled at the fact that a few of the participants not only taught in the wet, but also participated in the three-hour zoom class in the same weather. Fencing traditionally is an indoor pursuit. For my friend in Pennsylvania, who was taking the same class, and I the choice is simple: adapt to the weather or don’t fence. Not fencing isn’t an option, and so the question then becomes how best to deal with the elements. While not usual, working out of doors is something a lot of us do–colleagues of mine in other corners of the world, such as Carlo Parisi in Italy, as well as closer to home (Mike Cherba, Alex Spreier, and Sean Mueller to name only three examples) also fence outside winter or summer.

Layering & Staying Warm

Between the two I will always choose the cold over heat and humidity. It is easier to stay warm than it is to stay cool. Fencing kit, however, is not designed by North Face or Columbia and thus is not optimized for working outside. Both canvas and nylon jackets are less than ideal, canvas because once it’s wet it stays that way and can make one colder, and nylon because it doesn’t breathe—this makes mitigating moisture, which one would normally manage by unzipping or removing a layer, more difficult (one shouldn’t unzip a fencing jacket while training for obvious reasons).

Depending on the weather, and the length of time I will be outside (especially the degree to which there will be breaks in activity), I layer appropriately. A base layer, t-shirt or rashguard, especially one of the wicking-styles, is smart; a longer-sleeved shirt—if it is cold enough—is a decent second layer. Over this I have my jacket, which is heavy canvas, and then a plastron/coaching vest. [1] For the legs, I normally wear track pants, but fencing knickers/culottes underneath can add both padding and an additional layer. Many people wear leggings.

Head and hands are the most difficult to insulate. Few things fit comfortably under a fencing mask, especially with a face-mask, but there are a few options. The padded cap made by Purpleheart Armory, for example, adds a bit of padding but warmth as well. Fencing gloves are made for two reasons: to provide a decent grip and to provide some protection to the hand and wrist. They are not made for weather. One option is to wear glove liners, thin ones, under the fencing glove, but depending on make these can bunch making a good grip difficult. [2] In a similar way, most of the shoes made for fencing, or that we commonly use for fencing, are not intended for training outside. I have worn Addidas “Sambas” (developed for indoor soccer) for decades, and they work fine, but they are rubbish for keeping one’s feet warm. So long as I’m moving, I’m fine, but the breaks in lessons or similar times when I’m less active the cold begins to set in. One student of mine wears hiking shoes, and these accommodate more appropriate socks, but they are less ideal for lunging.

Maintaining Gear

Much of our gear is steel, and in historical fencing, mild steel. Living in Oregon means rain most of the year, and so cold or not if one works outside then some provision for preventing and combatting rust is necessary. Ideally prevention is something one is already doing since gear maintenance is a critical part of safety protocols as well as a way of reducing overhead (gear isn’t free). Every two weeks or so I check all weapons for burrs, file or sand down those that need it, and reapply a light coat of 3-in-1 oil. Masks are harder to manage, but as important. Most of my masks have painted meshwork—this helps prevent rust and can reduce glare in sunlight. Those that aren’t painted I check frequently and either sand and reoil or if too severe replace. Never economize on safety.

My initial training was in archaeology… can you tell?

In my fencing bag I carry a small case containing the following:

  • –small file
  • –fine and coarse emory paper
  • –a bottle of 3-in-1
  • –an old t-shirt scrap as oil rag in a sandwich bag
  • –a few washers and bird blunts; a few foil and epee rubber tips
  • –a pair of pliers
  • –a rubber buffing block (for rust)
  • [I also carry a set of metric and imperial allen wrenches]

These tools cover most of the issues that might spring up and are compact and light enough not to add too much weight to an already hefty fencing bag.

Terrain

This is obvious, but worth stating. Avoid slippery areas. I work mostly on concrete or gravel; neither is ideal and both are even less so when wet. If you want to fence in the snow, go for it, but wear the right clothing and moderate your practice accordingly. It is difficult to fight in snow, but it can be fun. This is something I do not do with younger students unless they are advanced and of an age to manage it well (deep snow and short legs are a bad combination for moving in snow).

Organizing around Weather

Teaching outside means that organizing practices and lessons around the weather is everything. For example, Sundays I teach in a two-hour block where students take turns in individual lessons. The less idle time there is, the more we move and stay warm, so while I teach one student the others work on drills or tactical questions I provide them. [3] Before we do anything, however, we warm up and then do group footwork exercises. These are important at any time, but in the cold warming up sufficiently also helps prevent injury. In a recent individual lesson, one held at night, I ended up straining my left Achilles tendon. Clearly I had not warmed it up enough, and tighter in the cold was more prone to strain. [4]

Hard as it can be, there are times when the prudent thing to do is cancel practice. With adults I’m more likely to see if they’re willing to meet, but with children I tend to make the call and cancel. We had snow this past week, somewhat a rarity in the Portland area, and not everyone knows how to drive in snow. For students of mine who live outside of town, or who are driving from another area, there’s increased risk in traveling. Thus, while the snow was minimal the wiser course was to cancel.

Altering the time and length of practices and lessons is another option. I make sure parents know that they are always welcome to stay for practice, but in the cold many would rather not. Some stay in their vehicles close by, others run errands, but one way to limit a student’s time in the cold and give their parents a break is to have them show up and leave in a certain window. For example, in a two hour block I may have four 30 min lessons. I will have one student show up for that first half hour, another for the second, etc. This means they each arrive only for their individual lesson, but in colder or hotter weather this is sometimes a better choice.

For the instructor, dressing appropriately, pacing oneself, and organizing practice can affect not only the quality of practice, but one’s condition. Better to cancel if the weather is super poor than risk the roads or overexposure. [5] Since instructors often use different footwork, such as walking, they move less and expend less energy—this is great to preserve oneself to teach all day, but not so great for staying warm. One last consideration is one we think about perhaps less often, but which is important. If we work with children then like or not we are another potential role model; setting a good example for them, in every way, is vital. Just as we teach them not to counter-attack at the wrong time, so too should we model for them good sense.

Not everyone likes the cold; not everyone manages it well. There is no shame in that. For me, I love winter—it’s cold, dark, and wet, all things I like—but that is me. Not all of my students like it, not all their parents do, and so while I might plan to hold practice when it’s freezing out I always make it optional. I message everyone ahead of time to see who is interested, and if no one is then fine. What we teach is difficult, and a shivering child doesn’t make an attentive student.

NOTES:

[1] Layering is a tried-and-true approach to staying warm. Ideally one has layers that are easy to remove or unzip to allow heat and moisture out either as the temperature warms or one exerts oneself, but with fencing this is harder to do. In shorter practices it is less of an issue, but for longer sessions it is sometimes necessary to remove say a second shirt and then don the jacket again.

[2] There are a lot of options for glove liners. It’s best to bring your fencing glove—provided it isn’t too smelly—and try on which options least impede grip. For the Purpleheart gel cap, see https://www.woodenswords.com/Liner_for_a_Helmet_or_Fencing_Mask_p/liner.helmet.htm

[3] Drills and tactical puzzles keep people moving, but require supervision in younger or newer fencers. It’s never an easy balance. Keeping people moving in cold weather, depending on practice length, is a practical way to keep them warm. The goal, however, is still drilling technique or applying tactics in real-time.

[4] Instructor movement is less constant, less active, so it pays to be careful. We spend less time with our knees bent and on guard. We still push the student, but since we may see many in one practice this is a way of pacing ourselves. In cold weather, though, it does less to keep us warm so planning for it is important.

[5] I hate cancelling practices. Without a roof it is sometimes a fact of life, less because we can’t or shouldn’t meet, but because not everyone is keen to work out in the rain. I don’t hold it against anyone; I don’t think we should. Comfort levels vary, experience on slippery roads does too, and in the spirit of meeting people where they are it’s important to make allowances for all that. Over-exposure, frostbite, etc. are less a concern where I live, but I have colleagues in Canada like Jay Maas where these are considerations as well.

Author: jemmons0611

Vis enim vincitur Arte.

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