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Brief Review

Determinants of Olympic Fencing Performance and Implications for Strength and Conditioning Training

Turner, Anthony1; James, Nic1; Dimitriou, Lygeri1; Greenhalgh, Andy1; Moody, Jeremy2; Fulcher, David3; Mias, Eduard3; Kilduff, Liam4

Author Information
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: October 2014 - Volume 28 - Issue 10 - p 3001-3011
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000478
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Fencing is one of only a few sports that have featured at every modern Olympic games. Fencing takes place on a 14 × 2-m strip called a “piste,” with all scoring judged electronically because of the high pace of competition. The winner is the first fencer to score 5 hits during the preliminary pool bouts or 15 hits should they reach the direct elimination bouts. During the preliminary pools, bouts last for 5 minutes, whereas during elimination, each bout consists of 3 rounds of 3 minutes, with 1-minute rest between the rounds. In general, fencing involves a series of explosive attacks, spaced by low-intensity movements and recovery periods, predominately taxing anaerobic metabolism (44). Perceptual and psychomotor skills (i.e., the ability to quickly and appropriately respond to an opponent's actions) prevail, and there is a great need to repeatedly defend and attack, and often, engage in a seamless transition between the 2. There are 3 types of weapon used in Olympic fencing: foil, epee, and saber. In foil fencing, scoring is restricted to the torso; in epee, the entire body may be targeted; and in saber only hits above the waist count.

In order for sport science and the practitioners of its subdisciplines (e.g., biomechanics, physiology, and strength and conditioning) to support these athletes, a review of this sport must first be undertaken, addressing the available scientific research and synthesizing evidence based on competition demands and athlete physical characteristics. Such an analysis will help the sport science team in identifying the key components that lead to successful performance. This article aims to undertake this review and in doing so, describes competition demands according to 4 subsections: (1) time-motion analysis, (2) physiology, (3) biomechanics, and (4) incidence of injury. Athlete physical characteristics will subsequently be addressed. The article will then conclude with a perspective on future research and athlete testing protocols and training exercises.

Time-Motion Analysis of Elite Fencers

Fencing tournaments take place over an entire day (often lasting around 10 hours) and consist of around 10 bouts with a break of anywhere between 15 and 300 minutes between each bout (36). Roi and Bianchedi (36) have reported the time-motion analysis (TMA) data of the winners of the men's and women's epee and men's foil at an international competition. In general, results reveal that bouts and actual fight time consist of only 13 and 5% of the actual competition time, respectively, with a bout work to rest ratio (W:R) of 1:1 and 2:1 in men's and women's epee, respectively, and 1:3 in men's foil. On average, a foil fencer will work for 5 seconds, whereas an epee fencer will work for 15 seconds (much of which is submaximal) before each rest period or interruption. Furthermore, during each bout, a fencer may cover between 250 and 1,000 m, attack 140 times, and change direction nearly 400 times in women's epee and around 170 times in men's epee and foil. In addition, Roi and Pittaluga (37) reported a significantly greater number of directional changes when comparing female fencers of high and low technical ability (133 ± 62 vs. 85 ± 25, respectively; p ≤ 0.05), suggestive of different tactical levels.

Wylde et al. (48) also examined TMA data during competitive bouts of elite women's foil fencing and found a W:R of 1:1.1. They further investigated the differences between 15-hit, 5-hit, and team bouts with respect to the time that is spent on low-intensity (e.g., stationary or walking), moderate-intensity (e.g., bouncing, stepping forward/backwards), and high-intensity (e.g., explosive attacking or defensive movements) movements. Differences were analyzed using a magnitude-based Cohen's (7) effect size with modified qualitative descriptors (22) as follows: <0.20 = trivial, 0.20–0.60 = small, >0.60–1.20 = moderate, >1.20–2.00 = large, and >2.00 = very large. They found that high-intensity movements accounted for 6.2 ± 2.5% of the total bout time with a mean duration of 0.7 ± 0.1 seconds and a mean recovery period of 10.4 ± 3.3 seconds. The “large” difference between the bouts was found only for the greater mean duration of the low-intensity movements in the 15-hit bouts (6.1 vs. 4.5 seconds; of note, this included the rest periods that are not available in the others). All other differences were “moderate,” “small,” or “trivial.” They, therefore, suggested that similar training plans could be used to physically prepare fencers for 15-hit, 5-hit, and team bouts.

Finally, saber has been the subject of TMA (2), in which 32 men and 25 women were analyzed during elimination bouts across world cup competitions. Results reveal that the “explosive” reputation of saber is possible because of short bouts of action of ∼2.5 seconds, interspersed with longer recovery periods of ∼15 seconds, producing a W:R of ∼1:6. On average, there are 21 lunges, 7 changes in direction and 14 attacks per bout. Total bout time rarely exceeded 9 minutes (including between-round breaks), with only ∼70 seconds of this regarded as the fight time.

In summary, and noting the scarcity of available TMA relative to other sports, the W:R of each sword differs (1:1 in epee, 1:3 in foil, and 1:6 in saber), with saber seeming to be almost entirely driven by anaerobic power production. Although epee (although much of which is submaximal) has longer fight times than foil and saber (15, 5, and 2.5 seconds, respectively), it seems that each weapon is still provided with sufficient recovery to work at high intensities throughout each bout. For example, within-round rest periods seem to be of ∼15 seconds regardless of sword, and bouts rarely last for the allotted time, with only ∼5% of a bout in foil and epee, and 70 seconds in saber was actually spent on “fighting.” Perhaps, the most physically demanding aspects of the bout are incurred on changing the direction and attacking on performing a lunge (and the recovery from this), which is a very frequent occurrence; indeed, the ability to quickly and efficiently use the lunge may be indicative of success (37). Therefore, regarding the program design, there is a clear need to develop change-of-direction speed (CODS), lunge speed, and ability to use these over a possible 3 rounds of 3 minutes. We, therefore, infer that fencing is a predominately anaerobic sport and that “explosive” movements define the performance. Such conclusions advocate strength and power training (and their assessment) for the development of speed and the use of high-intensity interval training (HIIT; using weapon-specific W:R) to contend with the repeated execution of these skills.

We also note that given the continuous execution of CODS and lunging, a high incidence of muscle damage across a tournament is likely, largely exacerbated by the plethora of eccentric contractions (34) generated during the lead leg foot strike of the latter (Figure 1C); although currently not quantified, this is likely to be substantial. Because muscle damage reduces maximal voluntary contraction force (34) and therefore related functions such as jump height (28), it is likely that the efficacy of each lunge will gradually reduce. As such, it is recommended that fencers be subjected to high eccentric loads as part of their strength and conditioning program; muscles accustomed to eccentric loading show greater resistance to muscle damage than those which are not (29). Although it is possible for the muscle to adapt to eccentric loads by virtue of the “repeat bout effect” phenomenon alone (6,26), this adaptation will be facilitated by resistance training where it is possible to expose athletes to loads in excess of that experienced during training or competition. For example, training the eccentric phase of exercises (e.g., using loads in excess of the concentric 1 repetition maximum [RM]) and emphasizing the landing components of Olympic lifts and plyometrics. Therefore, these should be used in conjunction with HIIT to further facilitate the continuous high-speed execution of CODS and lunging.

Figure 1:
A–C (right to left). The lunge, commencing from the on guard position.

Physiological Demands of Fencing

Only Milia et al. (27) have looked at the physiological responses during competitive fencing. They tested 15 skilled fencers (2 women and 13 men; group is representative of mid-upper level fencers) who regularly participated in competitions over the past 4 years. In comparison to a preliminary incremental V[Combining Dot Above]O2max test (in which they reported low values for aerobic capacity: 46.3 ± 5.2 ml·min−1·kg−1), they found that a simulated 3 × 3-minute bout (while wearing a portable metabolic system) only moderately recruited aerobic energy sources, with V[Combining Dot Above]O2 and HR remaining below the anaerobic threshold (AT). Similar behavior was observed for pulmonary ventilation and V[Combining Dot Above]CO2, again suggesting that fencing only imposed moderate respiratory and metabolic stress. Of note, they found that despite athletes performing below the level of AT, lactic anaerobic capacity was moderately activated to support the energy requirements of the combat rounds, with blood lactate remaining >6 mmol·L−1 throughout (and peaking at 6.9 mmol·L−1). They attributed this to the much greater use of the arms during combat compared with the incremental test used to assess AT, and the arms greater composition of fast-twitch fibers compared with the legs. This was considered a better indication of fencing's anaerobic energy demand and is similar to that of Cerizza and Roi (5), where blood lactate concentrations of men's foil fencing bouts (measured 5 minutes after bout) were quantified. Scores averaged 2.5 mmol·L−1 during the preliminary bouts and were then consistently above 4 mmol·L−1 (and as high as 15.3 mmol·L−1 in the winner) during the elimination bouts. Furthermore, across 3 practice 5-hit sparring bouts (thus simulating the pools) against different opponents, national and international level epee and foil fencers (13 women and 15 men, average age of 16.8 years) had an average blood lactate concentration of 1.7 mmol·L−1, and heart rates were between 120 and 194 b·min−1. Again (when considering W:R and actual fight times reported above) these data reveal fencing's anaerobic dominance but specifically, identify that the pools (5 hits) predominately derive energy from the alactic system, whereas the elimination rounds (15 hits) from the lactic acid system.

Similar to Milia et al. (27), Rio and Bianchedi (36) also reported that although the average aerobic capacity of fencers (52.9 ml·kg−1·min−1) is greater than that of the sedentary population (42.5 ml·kg−1·min−1), it is clearly lower than that of aerobic endurance–based athletes (e.g., 62–74 and 60–85 ml·kg−1·min−1 in long-distance cyclists and runners, respectively) (47) and again may be suggestive of the relatively small role a high (>60 ml·kg−1·min−1) V[Combining Dot Above]O2max has to fencing. To gain further insight, and because of the little (direct) data available in fencing, it may be prudent to look to the indicative results of empirically similar sports (given their intermittent, explosive nature) such as wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts (MMA); even basketball and ice hockey may hold merit. All are considered as anaerobic sports, with the primary energy system for the first 2 considered to be the phosphogen system, followed by anaerobic glycolysis, whereas the others consider them of equal importance (35). When interpreting these data, it is important to note that rounds are fewer than boxing (3 vs. 12) and shorter than both wrestling and MMA (3 vs. 5 minutes). Of course, although basketball and ice hockey share a similar intermittent nature, they occur over a longer duration and incur fewer interruptions to play. Collectively, a case may be built to suggest that aerobic energy system contribution may be relatively small and predominately involved in the submaximal movements of the on-guard position and during recovery periods (inter- and intrabout). In addition, although the energy system requirements of each weapon will inevitably differ, it is in the opinion of the authors that none will significantly tax the aerobic system to the extent that training need to directly target its development; this will instead be indirectly developed by virtue of (more sport specific) HIIT (19). Of note, although the aerobic system facilitates recovery from high-intensity exercise, enabling the athlete to perform subsequent bouts in quick session, only moderate values (e.g., 50–60 ml·kg−1·min−1) are required, with values above this not translating to quicker recovery times (20). Similar findings have been identified in ice hockey (4) and basketball (21), and the review of Elliott et al. (10) has described how traditional aerobic training (i.e., long, slow-distance running and in contrast to HIIT) is detrimental to strength and power output (which seem critical for lunging and CODS identified above and discussed further below) and their development.

In summary, it seems that the pool bouts rely more on the alactic system (and therefore PCr as fuel), whereas the elimination bouts rely more on the lactate system (and therefore glucose as fuel). Currently, data are not available for saber but following what is reported herein, saber is likely to predominately tax the alactic system across both types of bout. Finally, although a fencer may compete over an entire day and face several bouts, the majority of this time is spent in resting (∼87%); therefore, recovery interventions, such as cooldowns, hydration, and nutrition and those that affect thermoregulation, are likely to prove beneficial (although a discussion of these is beyond the scope of this article) and anecdotally, are often overlooked. It is a common misconception that a high aerobic capacity will fend off fatigue across the long days that make up fencing competitions. It should also be noted that Milia et al. (27) found that none of the studied variables (HR or blood lactate) returned to resting levels during the 3 minutes of final recovery and concluded that athletes need to use specific training programs that can improve this ability. Coupled with the TMA data presented above, data again support an HIIT approach for fencers, as in addition to being specific to the “stop-start” and explosive nature of fencing, these can be manipulated to evoke high blood lactate responses, while challenging and thus adapting the recovery process, including decreasing the accumulation of, and increasing the tolerance to, hydrogen ions (43).

Biomechanical Analysis of Fencing

The “On-Guard” Position

Fencing uses an “on-guard” position (Figure 1A) in which the Fencer “bounces” in preparation for attack. This position enables a rapid manipulation of the base of support and therefore the center of mass, whereby the fencer can quickly transition from attack to defense and vice versa. This ability is fundamental as to cope with an opponent's feint (or indeed attack), a fencer must be able to quickly transition from a current or intended action to a new one that can accommodate this. Although this is determined largely by perceptual and psychomotor skills, a fencer must have the physical requisites to capitalize on this. Given the bounce, semisquat position and rapid response required, a logical inference is to suggest exercises that training rate of force development and plyometric ability would be beneficial. Although the on-guard position is yet to be examined, the attacking lunge has been examined and is described below.

The Lunge

By far, the lunge (Figures 1A–C) is the most common form of attack, with others including those derived from in-stance counterattacks (e.g., following a parry) and the fleche (Figure 2). Furthermore, with around 140 attacks per competition and around 21 per bout, the significance of the lunge and the need to optimally execute this repeatedly is clear. Cronin et al. (8) have addressed the lunge performance and its determinants, and although not specific to fencing, there is likely some applicable transfer. Maximal strength and power (against a resistance of 50% 1RM) of the preferred leg was measured on a supine squat machine, and compared with lunging performance assessed through a linear transducer (data sampled at 200 Hz) attached to a belt, strapped to the trunk. The 31 male recreational athletes had to lunge to a cone (1.5 times their leg distance) and back as rapidly as possible; the maximum velocities recorded were 1.64 and 1.68 m·s−1, respectively. It was found that time to peak force (TPF) was the best single predictor of lunge performance (velocity out to the cone; r = 0.74), which accounted for 54% of the explained variance. The best 3-variable model for predicting lunge performance was TPF, leg length, and flexibility (measured as the linear distance between the lateral malleolus of each leg during a split in the frontal plane), accounting for 85% of the explained variance. The investigators concluded that lunging performance was based on several physical and anthropometrical measures, which should form part of an athlete's fitness testing battery.

Figure 2:
A–F (left to right). The Fleche is initiated from a lunge position (2a) whereby the back leg is powerfully driven forward of the lead leg (2b-e). The hit would have been made before the lead foot hits the ground again (2e) but the body continues forward (2f) due to the high momentum generated.

Gholipour et al. (13) cinematically analyzed the fencing lunge in elite and novice fencers. Using 3 cameras (50 fps), it was revealed that the elite group lunged further (1.17 vs. 1.02 m) although slower (1.82 vs. 1.46 seconds), the lead leg knee had less initial flexion (20 vs. 38°) but greater mid-phase extension (51 vs. 18°), exhibited greater hip flexion in the final stage of the lunge (53 vs. 40°) and contrary to popular belief, the armed hand and leg moved simultaneously (as opposed to the former preceding the latter). In contrast, Gutierrez-Davila (17) examined (using 3D video analysis recording at 500 Hz) elite vs. medium-level fencers while lunging and reported an average movement time of 601 vs. 585 milliseconds, respectively (here timing was stopped when target contact was made), but the former again covered a significantly (p < 0.001) greater distance of 1.4 vs. 1.13 m. Interestingly, the flight phase of the lead foot in elite fencers represented 36 milliseconds, the rest was regarded as the acceleration phase, whereby the force required to lunge was generated. In addition, this group, unlike the medium level comparison group that made a simultaneous forward movement of the foot and sword arm, executed a temporal arm-foot sequence. As a result, the elite was quicker to reach maximum velocity in the initial extension of the arm (31 vs. 45% of the total movement time) and average sword horizontal velocity (4.56 vs. 3.59 m·s−1), subsequently achieving maximum horizontal velocity of the foot later (75 vs. 58%). They suggested that results highlight the importance of starting the advance with a rapid thrust of the arm, followed by a lunge forward with the lead foot. The temporal arm-foot sequence is required for correct technique and also determines the right of way (priority) in foil and saber competitions. According to the international federation of fencing the rules state that: “the attack is the initial offensive action made by extending the arm and continuously threatening the opponents target, preceding the launching of the lunge or fleche.” In summary, although the arm-foot sequence contradicts the well accepted “ground up” based kinematics of most sports, for example, baseball (31), javelin (46), and tennis (25), priority ruling dictates this. As such, fencers must be trained to quickly extend their arms independent of force generated at the legs, and thus supports the use of strength and power training targeting the upper body.

Stewart and Koetka (38), noting an arm-foot sequence, found the only kinematic variable demonstrating a significant relationship to lunge speed was the maximum angular velocity at the elbow (r = 0.62). They also found that the overall speed of the lunge is not as dependent on how fast the maximum angular velocities of the lead elbow and knees are, as how soon these maximum velocities can be reached; similar to Cronin et al. (8) the training rate of force development seems fundamental. These investigators also measured speed using a camera collecting data at 50 Hz. However, low-frequency data collection such as this (error rate ±20 milliseconds) may be unable to distinguish between levels of athlete. For example, Tsolakis et al. (41) found a significant difference in lunge time of only 30 milliseconds (measured at 250 Hz) between elite and subelite fencers; this may not have been detected at 50 Hz. In addition (as aforementioned), the flight phase of the lead foot represented 36 milliseconds, this again may be a too short variable to measure at low frequencies. Although more data are required to determine lunge time, speed, and movement mechanics, it may be prudent to collect these at frequencies above 50 Hz.

Quantitative data describing the kinetics of the lunge, with respect to push-off and landing forces, have only been determined by Guilhem et al. (16). They used a 6.6-m-long force plate system where elite female sabreurs (French national team; N = 10) performed a lunge preceded by a step. From this, displacement and velocity were calculated and compared with dynamometry strength testing of the hip and knee. The fencers' center of mass traveled 1.49 m in 1.42 seconds and at a peak velocity of 2.6 m·s−1, generating a peak force of 496.6 N, with a maximal negative (braking) power at front-foot landing equaling 1,446 W. Maximal velocity was significantly (p ≤ 0.05) correlated to the concentric peak torque produced by the rear hip (r = 0.60) and knee (r = 0.79) extensor muscles, as well as to the front knee extensors (r = 0.81). Also, through EMG analysis, they showed that the activation of rear leg extensor muscles, that is, gluteus maximus, vastus lateralis, and soleus, was correlated to LV (r = 0.70, 0.59, and 0.44, respectively). Collectively, their findings illustrate that the ability to move forward and to decelerate the body mass as quickly as possible is a fundamental performance determinant of fencing and supports the use of strength training as previously suggested.

Finally, Gresham-Fiegel et al. (15) analyzed the effect of nonleading foot placement on power and velocity in the fencing lunge (the swords used were not defined). Although the toes of the leading foot generally point directly toward the opponent, the angle of the back foot may vary greatly among fencers, from acute (facing forward) to obtuse (facing slightly backward). In their study, experienced fencers executed lunges from 3 specific angles of back foot placement and from the natural stance. Foot placements were measured as the angle of the back foot from the line of the lead foot and were delimited to an acute angle (45°), a perpendicular angle (90°), and an obtuse angle (135°). The angle of natural stance was also determined (which ranged from 68 to 100°) and assessed for each participant. Velocity and power were measured with a linear transducer (recording at 200 Hz) revealing that a perpendicular placement of the foot produced significantly (p ≤ 0.05) greater power (peak = 849 W; average = 430 W) and velocity (peak = 1.21 m·s−1; average = 0.61 m·s−1) during lunging.

In summary, the lunge dictates the need for both concentric and eccentric strength. The back leg must drive/accelerate the body over almost 600 milliseconds (17) before the lead leg can leave the ground and travel around 1.4 m. Greater concentric strength of the back leg, and the rate with which this is developed, will enable quicker and longer attacks. Because it is generally desirable to keep the back foot in contact with the ground, and perpendicular to the plane of attack, extension at the ankle is limited, so knee and hip extensor force may be most important. Lead leg knee flexors (namely the hamstrings) must then control rapid knee extension during the flight phase to enable high angular velocities at the knee and reduce the likelihood of injury; the high incidence of hamstring strains in these athletes (discussed below) may be indicative of the need to target these muscles. Finally, the front knee extensors must exert high braking forces at landing; the eccentric forces experienced by the lead leg are likely to be high and may be evidenced by the greater thigh cross-sectional area of the lead vs. back leg (213.45 vs. 208.22 cm2) (40). The ability to quickly arrest this forward momentum, that is, reducing the required knee flexion, may reduce the transition time to change direction and return to on-guard position. This would decrease the time the opponent has to counter attack should the lunge be unsuccessful. Considering there are 21 lunges per bout, it is clear that not all lunges are successful. In fact, there is more chance of missing than scoring, thus recovery mechanics are an important component. Lead foot contact time, although dependent on surface and shoe type, lasts ∼700 milliseconds (39), and (excluding surface and footwear) may be a function of eccentric strength in the quadriceps, as landing is made with the heel thus minimizing contribution from the muscles of the ankle.

Although eccentric strength has only been indirectly assessed through reactive strength index (discussed below), maximum strength and power have received more attention with TPF (albeit in lunges common to racket sports) and squat and countermovement jumps (CMJs) (discussed below) identified as strong predictors. The strong correlation between strength and power tasks (r = 0.77–0.94) (3), and the additional time over which a lunge is executed compared with the majority of other sports motor skills (e.g., 600 vs. ≤300 milliseconds) (50), should see maximum strength take higher precedence in the lunge. Finally, as this movement is initiated through a prestretch of the back leg, it also uses the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) and thus this also needs to be targeted. For example, Tsolakis et al. (41) reported that continuous fencing steps with rhythmic changes in direction are activated by SSCs, which in turn influences the subsequent propulsive concentric muscle contraction of the following lunge. More research describing the kinetics and kinematics with the lunge is required. Arguably the time taken to hit the target, the distance of the lunge and their derivative, lunge velocity, are most important; determining how athletes optimize these may be key. More data are required to see the contribution made from strength, power, flexibility, and stature attributes of the athlete. Data should also represent the ability to recover from a missed lunge and lunges made from a “flying” start (i.e., preceded with a change of direction or forward steps).

Currently, data again suggest the use of strength (including eccentric) training coupled with plyometric and ballistic type exercises to reduce ground contact times and enhance the rate of force development, respectively. Squats and deadlifts seem good exercise choices (particularly the latter) as they target the knee and hip extensors, also bench press and seated medicine ball throws, for example, as they target upper-body strength and power development, respectively. The development of reactive strength (and thus reduced ground contact times) coupled with “deep” squats (below parallel) or split squat exercises can help target the gluteal muscles and collectively train a fast recovery from the lunge back to on guard. Given the prolonged ground contact times (∼700 milliseconds) and flat-footed front leg drive (i.e., not involving ankle extension), hip and knee extensor strength may take on added importance here. Finally, Nordics and stiff-leg deadlifts can help reduce the high incidence of hamstring strains, and increasing adductor flexibility may enhance (or at least not limit) lunge distance.

The Fleche

The fleche (not applicable to saber; Figure 2) is perhaps best described as a “running” attack. Again, like the on-guard position, little data are currently available but as coached, require that from the on-guard position (Figure 2A), the back leg is forcefully brought in advance of the lead leg in such a way that the foot of the back leg steps over the opposite knee (Figure 2D). Because of the high momentum of the movement, the fencer is unable to stabilize their position at landing (Figure 2E) and will thus bring the movement to a halt after a “run.” Furthermore, the fencer aims to strike the opponent before landing, so Figures 2E–F represent deceleration phases. The physical requirements of this movement are expected to be similar to that of the lunge.

Frere et al. (12) provide a kinematical analysis of the fleche, analyzed at 240 Hz in 8 male expert fencers. The group was split into an early (n = 4) and late maximal elbow extension group. The former presented 2 peaks in horizontal velocity; one of the weapon hand and the other as the body leans forward into the attack phase. The latter group produced only 1 peak, which they described as optimal, despite it not conforming to the rules (as aforementioned). The group that simultaneously extends their arm and lunges forward removes the delay between velocities, thus allowing the fencer to hide the type of attack. As described above, however, this will not grant the fencer priority and reduces maximal elbow angular velocity and horizontal and vertical velocity of the hand (656 vs. 430°·s−1; 1.88 vs. 1.47 m·s−1; 2.07 vs. 1.57 m·s−1, respectively); it seems there are pros and cons for each.

Unlike the lunge, TMA data describing the frequency of the fleche and its success rate are not published. The assumption from this is that the lunge is used to a far greater extent and thus sport scientists must first address this movement before using resources to better determine and optimize fleche mechanics.

Risk of Injury

Perhaps, the most insightful research project to investigate injuries in fencing was conducted by Harmer (18), who collected data from all national events organized by the U.S. Fencing association over a 5-year period (2001–2006). In total, over 78,000 fencers (both genders), from 8 to 70 years of age and across all weapons were investigated. Throughout this period, all incidents that resulted in withdrawal from competition (i.e., a time-loss injury [TLI]) were documented from which the incidence and characteristics of injuries were calculated. This value was determined as the rate of TLIs per 1,000 hours of athlete exposures (AEs), with 1 AE equaling 1 bout. There were 184 TLI in total, at a rate of 0.3/1000AE. The TLI of foil and epee was similar and highest in saber (0.26 vs. 0.42/1000AE). Strains and sprains accounted for half of all injuries and contusions for 12%. The lower extremities accounted for most injuries (63%) and mostly involved the knee (20%), thigh (15%, 3 quarters of which were hamstring strains), and ankle (13%). Finally, above the hip, TLI of the lumbar spine (9%) and fingers (7%) predominated.

Harmer (18) concluded that the risk of injury in Fencing is very low with the chance of injury in football and basketball 50 and 31 times greater, respectively. When injury does occur, it is most likely to occur at the knee, hamstring strains are the most common type of injury and male sabreurs are the most at risk. Because fencers tend to use (and therefore develop) the anterior musculature more than the posterior, and one side of the body more than the other, this may leave them exposed to muscle strains in the weaker muscles (as exampled by the higher incidence of hamstring to quadriceps strains). More specifically, Guilhem et al. (16) warn that repetitions of the lunge or maintaining the on-guard position over prolonged periods may cause pathologies such as the adductor compartment syndrome and the compression of arteries in the iliac area because of hypertrophy of the psoas major (Cockett syndrome), or induce osteoarthritis. A difference of 15% is generally used as a clinical marker of bilateral strength asymmetry and significant risk of injury (23). Strength training may be able to address this imbalance and increasing antagonist muscle strength. Pertinent to performance, an increase in antagonist muscle strength may increase movement speed and accuracy of movement (24). This has been hypothesized to occur because of alterations in neural firing patterns, leading to a decrease in the braking times and accuracy of the limbs in rapid ballistic movements (24). In essence, strength balance is also needed to break the agonists succinctly in rapid limb movements and as such, increases in hamstring strength will enable faster velocities of knee extension. Of course, strength training will also enable the weaker limb (typically the back leg) to be targeted.

Recently, research has investigated foot strike characteristics and injurious potential; epidemiological investigations propose a positive relationship between impact shock magnitude, rate of repetition, and the etiology of overuse injuries (30,33). Trautmann et al. (39) used pressure insoles, covering the whole plantar aspect, to collect plantar pressure data (sampled at 50 Hz) of the lunge performed with 3 different shoe models: the athletes' own fencing shoes (used for training and competition), Ballestra (Nike, Beaverton, OR, USA), and Adistar (Adidas, Herzogenaurach, Germany). Results showed higher peak pressures at the heel compared with the midfoot, forefoot, hallux, and the toes (551.8 vs. 156.3, 205.4, 255.6, and 170.4 kPa, respectively). The heel also had the highest impulse (179.2 N·m; followed by the forefoot: 175.6 N·m) and contact time (705.4 milliseconds). The new shoes (Adistar and Ballestra) were able to significantly (p < 0.005) attenuate impact pressure more than the fencer's own shoe, but this may have been a consequence of wear. Subsequently, shoe-cushioning characteristics should be considered as an extrinsic risk factor for overloading of the lower limbs, with meniscal and chondral lesions of the knee considered as an expression of such repetitive tasks. Harmer (18) suggested teaching athletes to check insole wear and to maintain good quality insoles, and Trautmann et al. (39) advised that improved cushioning beneath the heel and metatarsal heads could be advantageous in preventing an injury during competition or training. In addition, fencers should be limited in performing high-demand tasks, especially the lunge, during recovery from an injury (39).

Greenhalgh et al. (14) performed a similar study, but here the dependent variable was the training surface: concrete with an overlaid vinyl layer (COVL); wooden sprung court surface (WSCS); metallic carpet fencing piste overlaid on the WSCS; and aluminum fencing piste overlaid on the WSCS. An accelerometer measured accelerations along the longitudinal axis of the tibia at 1,000 Hz. Results identified that a significantly (p ≤ 0.05) larger impact shock was experienced during a lunge on the COVL (14.88 ± 8.45 g) compared with the others (which averaged ∼11.6 g). Furthermore, the 2 types of piste used had no significant effect on the impact shock when overlaid on the WSCS compared with the WSCS on its own. Results suggest that injuries related to impact shock may be reduced using a WSCS rather than a COVL surface, during fencing participation.

The data above again describe the need to develop hamstring strength and warns of the overuse injuries generated subsequent to continuous fencing in an asymmetrical stance (Figure 1A), which never alternates. Consequently, it would be prudent to include training that puts high landing loads through the back foot (thus training the weaker limb) and exercises such as the split jerk and split snatch (here the stance is reversed), which similarly have flat, front-foot landings, are advised. Of course, single jumps favoring this side would be advantageous too. When performing HIIT (as advised above) it may be advisable to not use, or at least limit the use of fencing footwork in their orthodox stance. Instead, either their stance can be switched or use non- or reduced weight-bearing activities. Although this is less sport specific, ultimately the W:R ratios can still be used to evoke high blood lactate response and invoke adaptations centering on the tolerance and recovery from continuous explosive exercise. Finally, the use of the various squats and deadlift exercises, in addition to reduced training exposure to their fencing stance, should facilitate the reduction of lower-back pain.

Physical Characteristics

Tsolakis and Vagenas (40) examined differences in selected anthropometric, strength-power parameters, and functional characteristics of elite and subelite fencers. Thirty-three fencers (18 women and 15 men) from the Greek National Team (age, 19 ± 3.5 years; body height, 175.6 ± 7.6 cm; body mass, 66.1 ± 9.1 kg; systematic training, 8.4 ± 2.9 years) were classified as elite (n = 14, each having competed in the Olympic games and/or World championships) or subelite according to their international experience. Compared with subelites, elite fencers are taller (178 vs. 173 cm), leaner (13 vs. 16% body fat), have a higher squat jump (31.94 vs. 25.74 cm), CMJ (35.47 vs. 31.04 cm), and reactive strength index from a 40-cm box (1.48 vs. 1.38). They also compared lunge time and shuttle test scores, where again elite athletes performed better (180 vs. 210 milliseconds and 12.43 vs. 13.28 seconds, respectively). Time of lunge was measured through 4 photocells (measuring at 250 Hz) placed at a lunge distance of 2/3-leg length, with the height of the photocells adjusted to be interrupted by the chest. This setup indicates why results are markedly different from what is reported above, thus making comparisons difficult. For the “shuttle test,” photocells were placed at the start and end of a 5-m distance. As fast as possible, the fencer moved with correct fencing steps forward and back between them covering a total distance of 30 m.

In a similar study, Tsolakis et al. (41) correlated anthropometric and physiological traits with performance-specific patterns in fencing. The results (as reported above) were used to estimate which variables best predicted performance, as measured by time of lunge and shuttle test described above. Their results revealed that the squat jump, CMJ, and reactive strength index were all significantly correlated to lunge time (−0.46, −0.42, and −0.41, respectively) and shuttle test scores (−0.70, −0.63, and −0.44, respectively). As can also be noted here, concentric explosive strength and SSC mechanics are important qualities of fencing performance. In particular, the best single predictor for the time of lunge and shuttle test was squat jump, although all lower-body power tests showed significant relationships. This finding is in line with the suggestions made above regarding important characteristics of the lunge, in particular, the significance of maximum strength.

The results above reveal some key anthropometric data (including strength and power characteristics). Arguably, these could have been correlated to more direct measures of lunge ability and more specific measures of fencing agility. For example, measuring a full lunge rather than one that is determined by leg length dimensions would also account for flexibility and arm span, which have also been identified as important factors. Furthermore, the time taken for the chest to break through the beam may not represent the time taken for the sword to make contact with the target; it also neglects the significance of arm velocity, which is considered fundamental. That said, its ability to differentiate between the levels is indicative of its merits, especially as its measuring equipment is relatively more common place in training facilities. Finally, although the shuttle test described above can distinguish between the levels, it arguably measures CODS over a greater distance and time than a fencer may be expected to perform in any single point; also, changes in direction are likely to be over varying distances. Perhaps, a shorter agility test is warranted, from which predictor variables can be calculated. It would be useful to have TMA data that identify average distances covered and changes in direction per point, noting that each sword may demonstrate a different profile.


Research questions that may help optimize sport science support for fencers are listed below. They suggest current gaps in knowledge and, in line with the context of this review, center on identifying the physiological demands of competition and the fundamental physical characteristics of performance. Such knowledge will determine appropriate measures by which performance can be judged and enhanced. In the absence of these answers, Tables 1 and 2 suggest tests and exercise, respectively, that may best relate to these outcomes.

Table 1:
Battery of fitness tests suitable for fencing athletes.
Table 2:
Exercises to improve fencing performance and to reduce the risk of injury.

Questions for Future Research

  1. What anthropometric variables and dynamic measures of strength and power affect lunge velocity, using time and distance to target as dependent variables?
  2. What anthropometric variables and dynamic measures of strength and power affect recovery time from a lunge, measured as time of foot strike of lunge to return to on guard (and thus an out of range position)?
  3. Using elite athletes at a major competition (with data separated by sword and gender), what are the average work and rest times (and the ratio between them), changes in direction, distance covered, and lunges performed per bout? These data can be used to develop appropriate agility and repeat lunge ability tests.
  4. What are average heart rate and blood lactate values of fencing competitions across sword and gender and how do these compare to training sessions aimed at increasing fitness?
  5. How much fatigue does a fencing competition generate and what interventions or fitness parameters can reduce this?


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        epee; foil; saber; lunge

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