Going the Distance

There was a short conversation last night about what sorts of training are useful for tournament combat. There is a growing trend of combatants hitting the gym and this is an excellent trend and we should all be doing this. However I feel that too many people are not using this time wisely.

Working on strength is a good thing but it is often over emphasised and done poorly. I will write more about this soon because what I would like to talk about here is endurance issues.

Being the strongest person on the field is not that useful (and in my experience often leads to poor technique). A good level of strength is important but it will not help you if you gas out after a few rounds or halfway through your bout. What is important is a level of endurance and the ability to recover quickly.

Now for some science.

This is going to be the very light version. If you want more details then please ask me or do some research.

Remember that nearly every part of you is trainable. While genetics give some people a head start, most skills and abilities are developed over time and with constant work and effort. The body and mind will adapt to the demands placed on them. So if you keep doing a particular sword cut you will get better at it just as if you keep doing a particular lift the muscles responsible will get stronger. This is referred to as Adaptation.

Another important thing to understand is that all training is specific and we refer to this as Specificity. Adaptations brought about by any particular mode of training are highly specific to the physiological demands of that particular training mode. So if you want to get better at throwing a wrap, then practicing a pendulum will not help you that much. Or if you need to develop your leg strength then you need to work on exercises that target these muscle groups (squat, lunge, dead lifts) as all the bench presses in the world will not build the legs. This is why not many things beat being in armour for preparing you for being in armour…

The last principle I would like to mention is the idea of Progressive Overload. The principle is that it is necessary to expose your muscles or energy systems to a level of stress beyond the point to which they have become accustomed. So to get constant improvements you need to constantly work harder, lift more etc.

The big thing I do not want to talk about here is the mental aspect of physical training. Training the mind to do what you need to do is critical. It has been said that “the mind is primary” and it is critical. This is something we can talk about in another post.

OK we now know about the concepts of Adaptation, Specificity and Overload. Good. We need a bit more science.

Energy Systems.

Again I am keeping this at a very basic level. Things are a bit more complex than I describe here but this should give you the basic idea of the principles involved.

In order to move, we need energy. Just as a car requires fuel that it burns to create energy our bodies use a molecule called Adenosine Triphosphate or ATP. Energy for muscles to work is released when ATP is broken down. There is a store of ATP in all muscles; however this is only enough to last for about one second of activity. ATP must then be constantly resynthesised for further energy needs.

There are three systems that are responsible for the resynthesise of ATP. All three of these systems resynthesise ATP in a different manner and are dependent on the duration, power and speed required for the muscle to work.

The first of the three systems is the Phosphate System. This uses the available ATP in the muscles and Creatine Phosphate. Basically this allows a very high output of energy over a very short period of time. Think a 100 metre sprint or a single Olympic lift. The Phosphate System will provide energy for up to ten seconds.

The Second system is the Lactate System. This is used when the activity is of high intensity and short duration. The issue with the Lactate System is that it produces Lactic Acid. As the levels of lactic acid accumulate muscular fatigue will result with a loss in performance. The Anaerobic Threshold is the point where the lactic acid build up produces significant deterioration in performance, fatigue, loss of form, spiking heart rate, dizziness, nausea, dry mouth. All the fun!

In an unfit person this threshold can be reached in about 30 seconds of work at between 60%-70% of age predicted heart rate. In a fitter person this can be about 60 seconds or work between 70% and 80% of max heart rate. So a fitter person can operate longer and harder before the lactic acid build up begins to affect them.

The third energy system is the Aerobic System. The aerobic system is the long term low intensity energy s system. It can produce energy over a long period of time but not at a high intensity. Think here of long distance runners and cyclists.

Generally as you first start to move the phosphate system is in action. This runs out after about 10 seconds and the lactate system kicks in. After about one to two minutes this in turn runs out and your body switches to the aerobic system and you can go for a while albeit at a slower pace. Again this is a gross oversimplification (because all three energy systems are in operation but at different rates) but I want you to get the general idea.

Trainign for Combat Endurance

Ok – that was a lot to take in. Hopefully you are still with me. So we want to train with the idea of Specificity. We need to think about the type of activity were engage in during out tournaments. Most bouts do not last for more than around 60 seconds. Yes there is often a bit of initial carefully moving to test the defence or gain a good moment to strike, but our bouts do not last for very long. We are mostly using the Lactate System for your energy needs so it follow that this is the energy system we should be focusing on improving in our training.

Lactic anaerobic training sucks. There is no way around this. It will not be pleasant. Time to suck it up and get one with it. The form of training required here consists of short strenuous bouts of activity spaced between low intensity recovery periods. Remember the idea of specificity? We need to not only replicate the physical demands of a tournament bout; we would also need to push above these levels in order to force the body into Adaptation.

So the main training protocols here are High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) which alternates from short bursts of high intensity anaerobic training followed by even shorter recovery and less intense recovery periods.

Examples of HIIT would be Tabata and Fartlek. Tabata training is normally done with 20 seconds all out effort followed by 10 seconds active rest (you slow down rather than stop) for eight rounds. The work period should be at your absolute maximum effort. If you feel OK after a Tabata session you have not done it right. This may be the worst four minutes of your life.

Fartlek is similar except the work periods are randomised and over a longer period. So a possible session would be a jog for 60 seconds, followed by a hard run for 30 seconds, followed by a jog for 30 seconds, followed by all-out sprint for 10 seconds, followed by a walk for 30 seconds. This would then be repeated for a total of 20-30 minutes.

We also need to go back to the idea of Specificity. The training effect here is muscle specific so you need to do a routine that has the maximum of full body movement. We use elliptical machines as they are readily available and easy to use. You could also do HIIT style stuff in armour. Using either a pell or a training partner go all out for 20 seconds, slow down for 10 and then go again…

Now the nasty bit. As you get fitter in this regard you will have to step up the intensity of your workouts. As your body adapts you will need to progressively up the work load. However if you are at a level that is satisfactory (and almost none of us are) then maintaining that level still requires some work but not the same level that building it does.

The last thing I would like to mention and this is very important. Please make sure you have a reasonable level of general fitness before doing lots of HIIT sessions. These should be hard work and will place a lot of strain on your cardio vascular system.

Right that was a rather long post. I hope some of you find it useful. Fitness and training is much more complex than this but we need to start somewhere.







2 thoughts on “Going the Distance

  1. Sandra

    Hi Cornelius, interesting post as this is a matter I’m working on also. I have noted that stretches/flexibility wasn’t mentioned as part of this, do you consider it to be a relevant part of heavy fighting?

    1. Absolutly!
      I did not talk about this as the post was already getting rather long…

      I probably will write somethign about this at some point. In the meantime.
      Flexability and streching are important.
      My expereance has been that most SCA combatants do not come from a sporting/martial arts back ground and are generaly poor on the the flexability side of things. Added to this we can loose range of motion over time due to what we do. I am an example of this as my shoulder range of movement is crap due to 20 plus years of doing things in the frontal plane of the shoulder. This is taking me a lot of work to correct.

      Embarking on a solid weights program will do a lot to help this (just stay away from the machines).
      Regualy streching or doing yoga will also help.

      It is a good idea to make some basic streches (hold them for at least 20 seconds) after training.
      Invest in a foam roller – it wil hurt but they work.

      Warming up is also important. We should spend a few minutes (at least five) warming up. I’ll write more about this soon.

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