Advice from the 30 for 30 Swordplay Challenge

Over the month of January, Academie Duello and Duello.TV (our online video learning channel) hosted a 30-day swordplay training challenge. Each participant engaged in the goal of at least 30 minutes of swordplay training per day for 30 days. Participants represented dozens of schools from all over the world and the range of disciplines practised was extensive. The final conclusions of the challenge participants can be seen in the facebook group. (Be sure to post if you participated!)

Each week this year hosted specific exercises for rapier, longsword, and sidesword, as inspiration for the participants and to help give structure for those who are new to this type of challenge. Along with those we posted daily training advice on topics as broad as physical training, recuperation, discipline, psychology, and mastery. I thought it would be useful to compile them here for reference.

Week 1: How to Start Strong

Don't overdo it on day 1. Modest goals, regularly met, is the secret to making it through a marathon. If you want some inspiration read how Joe Simpson made it out of a near-fatal mountaineering accident by breaking his 6-day solo glacier traverse (with a broken leg) into 15-minute micro-challenges.

Have a training strategy. If you have a goal you are aiming to achieve, what is a small way you can take a bite out of that goal each day? Do you want to alternate days with something else for mental variety or to help parts of your body recover? Is there a natural progression of skills you can follow? Thinking about the structure of your training can make it easier to stick with, more purposeful, and more rewarding.

Go Small. If you have a hard time sticking with things or don't feel 100 percent sure about 30 minutes per day, then set a training goal that is less than 30 minutes. Five minutes per day is more achievable and is a great way to set a rhythm. It's also a way to get started on a potentially longer session.

Plan training into your schedule. Put it your calendar or your todo list. Set an alarm on your phone. Think about your daily energy levels and fit your training into the periods where you find it easiest to be active. Find another activity that you already do regularly and attach your new training to it. Finding time is usually about making time.

Partner up with a training buddy. Accountability to all of us on the Internet is great, but a personal accountability-buddy is even stronger. Schedule your training dates with a peer who's going to notice that you're absent, will check in if you're stuck, and will benefit from your support as well.

Plan what you're going to do in advance. This allows you to eliminate the mental work of getting started each session, and it also gives you something to look forward to in your training. Plan your whole month, or one week, or use part of each session to write out a plan for the next session.

When In Doubt, Copy Someone Else. Use the Duello.TV videos. Follow someone else's training reports and do what they're doing. Follow a discipline that you've never studied before. By imitating someone else or following their training strategy, you can often discover approaches and methods that are beyond what you might naturally come up with on your own.

Week 2: Getting Results

Don't make sweat angels your objective. Training until you're absolutely exhausted can feel satisfying, however, it increases the chance of injury and creation of strain in smaller tissues. Consistently healthy workouts over time that push you, but not to exhaustion, are the key to long-term health and gains.

Beware of the Limits of Cross-training. The human system is surprisingly specific in how it develops physically and mentally. I've had competition level aerobics practitioners get exhausted after 5 minutes of sword drills. Cross-train: general cardio, core strength, structural stability (joint alignment, load capacity). In-activity Train: Reactive responses, all specific skills.

Allow Time for Recovery. Muscles need time to recover to avoid injury and maximize development. Its considered a best practice to allow for at least 48 hours of recovery between hard workouts. In sword training, I either focus on lighter, consistent workouts that can be done consecutively or plan 3-day cycles where I move between major muscle groups (i.e. leg day, shoulder day, reading day).

Eat Well. The more you work out, the more good food you need to eat. Make your diet part of your training plan. Plan some grocery trips into your schedule (I know I need to do this). If you have a muscle gain or weight loss goal associated with your objectives this month, diet is often more impactful than working out. Consider talking to a nutritionist or at least a well-researched friend to get some nutritional advice.

Get Sleep. One of the most impactful things you can do to both develop muscle faster, and learn and retain new skills, is to get sleep. After listening to the You Are Not So Smart Podcast on sleep deprivation, I committed to getting at last 7.5 hours of sleep every night. Sleep deprivation (which takes at least 2 weeks of consistent sleep to recover from) significantly reduces muscle and mental recovery and good, consistent, sleep does the opposite.

Train Your Brain. Brains need input too. Devote some of your training time to reading. Pick up a historical manual (e.g. Salvator Fabris translation Tom Leoni), find a good modern interpretation (e.g. Swordsman's Companion by Guy Windsor), read about athletic training (e.g. Understanding Physical Conditioning by Luis Preto), or study martial psychology (e.g. Meditations on Violence by Rory Miller).

Don't Forget Flexibility. To maintain flexibility: Warm-up with a light version of your activity (usually 10 minutes is recommended). After any intense training, be sure to stretch to return muscles to their full length (15-30 seconds per muscle is all that's required). To increase your flexibility investigate mobilization and range of motion exercise and self-therapy. I recommend Becoming a Supple Leopard by Kelly Starrett as a starting place.

Week 3: How to Renew

Staying the Course. When something is new (like a 30-day challenge) it seems to provide its own energy. It's exciting, it has its own vibrancy that makes it seem easy to do. But as things mature, that energy changes and doesn't always provide its own forward momentum. The most important thing to realize is that this change in energy doesn't mean that the magic is gone, or that you were wrong, or that you should do something else. It's just different at this stage. The best stuff comes after this point. This is when the real payoffs come for those who stick with it.

Feeding Your Fire. Blacksmiths don't forge in new fires. It's the coals that get hot enough to work steel. For me, the oxygen that feeds the coals of martial art (and keeps me excited) comes from a few sources: sharing the art with others, seeking out new challenges, reading, research, support from my community, and a long-term commitment to myself. What keeps the are renewed for you?

Getting the Most from Books. A few things I recommend to get the most out of martial arts reading: Make a list of things you want to experiment with in your practice, underline passages (e-readers are good for this), make a book club to discuss your interpretations, and memorize the book (this is how I first approached Fabris and Capo Ferro, sought to memorize every play).

A Teaching Challenge. Sharing your knowledge with others is a powerful way to learn. I think it would be a meaningful way of meeting the 30-for-30 challenge. Conveying knowledge builds your own understanding by requiring you to look at the knowledge from at least two sides, recall it in a complete way, demonstrate effectively, and much more. Don't feel that you need to be an expert to offer what you have to others. Just be humble about it, don't misrepresent your level, and make sure your audience is receptive first.

Keep a Practice Journal. In my practice journal (which I keep in Evernote) I record long-term and short-term martial goals, training record for each session + notes and observations, and (most important) notes for next practice. When I'm going to train I look in my journal, most of the 'notes for next time' and start there. I found adding this bit of continuity helped me see my progress (motivating) and make better progress. Tip: keep it simple and short.

Keep a Sparring Journal. An old coach said to me "If you want to beat your rivals, make book on them." Whether you have a competitive aim or not, I find it really useful to take notes after sparring sessions and review them before. After each bout note down your own openings and noted weaknesses, openings in your opponent you saw and those you exploited, any overall themes. Just the act of taking down notes will increase your combat awareness.

Make a Commitment and Keep It. Sometimes training sucks. Sometimes learning is hard. Sometimes plateaus seem endless. Sometimes "sometimes" are long. The path of mastery is like this. If it was easy, everyone would be a master.

Week 4: Reaching Towards Mastery

Beat Boredom. Mastery requires that you hone fundamental skills to a sharp edge. That requires retreading the same path many many times. A masters path is one of rhythm, ritual, and process. And that can at first feel really boring. Boredom is a choice and defeating it is a skill. Find the meditation in your longterm practice.

Meditate. Mastery is both a physical and a mental process. In the same way that we have trained our bodies every day through this challenge, it is equally important to train your mind. Meditation is a great way to train focus, deal with stress, and overcome fears and other emotional blocks. Important stuff for a martial artist. (I recommend the Headspace app as a starting place for learning meditation)

Write. Whether it's a blog, a book, or an article. Explore your art through writing. Having to present your ideas in written form in a way that others can understand will both expand and refine your understanding.

Be a Martial Artist, Not Just a Sword Fighter. I love swords. But the art is more than swords. It's more than wrestling. It's more than staffs or daggers. Its also more than destroying an opponent. It is a set of principles for the preservation of life and for personal growth. Don't get pigeon holed into one discipline, or one avenue for expressing it. Open the door and see how wide the world is.

Learn from Diverse Masters. Capo Ferro, Marozzo, Manciolino, and many others advocate learning from as many excellent practitioners as you can. Find great fighters, great teachers, great thinkers, and learn from them. And don't restrict yourself to HEMA. The modern art is relatively young and there is much to be gained from arts (martial or otherwise) that have living practitioners who have much more experience than most in our disciplines. I have learned a ton about teaching and practicing martial arts from my dance instructor who has more than 40 years of teaching under his belt.

Learn Other Martial Arts. I began as a child with Kung Fu, then found Filipino Martial Arts, then Western. I continue to study arts from all over the world. Not as my primary practice but to keep opening my mind to different ways of doing things and teaching things. Find arts that both complement and contrast from your practice. It'll change how you approach the arts you love, for the better.

Explore and Express Your Art In Diverse Ways. Sport seeks to adapt skills to meet specific ends (scoring points). It's a narrowing; A limited focusing of a discipline. Martial art is about having adaptable skills that can meet any ends. It's broad. Seek to develop the principles that live beneath your art by understanding how you apply it to tournament, defense, battle, inner-journeys and more.

Thank you to everyone for participating this year and being part of Academie Duello’s extended community. It was a joy to share with everyone and receive so much as they worked through each day of their own challenges. I’m already looking forward to next year!

Devon Boorman is the Co-Founder and Director of Academie Duello Centre for Swordplay, which has been active in Vancouver, Canada since 2004. Devon’s expertise centres on the Italian swordplay tradition including the arts of the Renaissance Italian rapier, sidesword, and longsword, as well as knife and unarmed techniques.
Read more from Devon Boorman.