Mastering the Fencing Competition Warm-up with Richard Kruse
by Jason Rogers
If I didn’t know better I’d have thought Richard Kruse was from California. When he speaks he’s calm and collected with an almost whimsical flair in the way he describes his fencing career. His successes which, by the way are myriad, include an Olympic semi-final in Rio 2016 and more than a decade as British Fencing’s top Olympic men’s foil fencer. It’s an odd contrast since he describes his early years at ZFW Fencing in North London as a “hyperactive,” however, that’s not apparent today. It’s as easy to picture him as a laid-back surfer with a longboard under one arm as it is a successful fencer with a fencing bag over the other.
Richard Kruse’s Pre-competition Routine
Yet don’t let that surface appearance fool you into thinking there isn’t rigid structure underneath his serene demeanor. He believes deeply in the power of routine, as do many of the best athletes in the world. Before every competition he (and the British Fencing team) arrives a few hours early, and he does things the same way every time.
Richard describes the way he approaches competitions as being “as regular as clockwork with each minute of the two hours before the competition planned out ahead of time.”
Step One: 2 hrs to Competition
Fix the tips of foils and sort out other equipment issues
Step Two: 1hr 40min to Competition
Work with the physical therapist (if needed)
Step Three: 1hr 25min to Competition
Warm up the body with a specific sequence of exercises (without fencing equipment)
Step Four: 45 min to competition
Put on fencing equipment, perform fencing exercises and spar with teammates
Step Five: 30 min to Competition
Put on tracksuit, prepare equipment and to head to the strip
Step Six: 15min to Competition
Arrive at strip 15 min before competition/bout begins
The Physical and Mental Benefits of Routines in Fencing
Why, you might ask? What if his equipment isn’t broken? What if he doesn’t feel like doing all of his warm-up exercises? What if he feels like he needs a little extra sleep that day?
“It may sound boring but if you follow the routine, you're less likely to get injured because you've done a proper warm-up. It won't guarantee that you will never get injured. It won't guarantee that you will score, but all those good habits add to the professionalism of being an athlete.” - Richard Kruse
Routines reduce the risk of fencing injuries
Richard mentions two very important aspects of routines. The first is the physical benefit of injury prevention, a topic we have written extensively about.
Imagine your body as a finely tuned racecar. When the driver and his team prepare for a race, they go through an extensive check of the car’s operating systems: monitoring the tire pressure, ensuring the oil levels are optimal, testing the brakes, etc.
Your warm-up routine is that check up, as all your muscles and tendons need to move and stretch before you put them to the test. A great warm-up routine is comprehensive, spending just the right amount of focus on each part of the body, especially if you have problem areas that are a result of past injuries.
If you slack on your warm-up or suddenly launch into an aggressive warm-up that you have never done before, it’s unlikely that your body will be running on all cylinders, and therefore, ready to take on the tough fight ahead.
Fencing routines prepare your mind for competition
The other important aspect of routines that Richard touches upon is the mental benefit of preparing your mind for performance. Warming up for competition is as much an exercise for the mind as it is for the body.
Mason Curry, an expert on routines, describes them as “fostering a well-worn groove for one’s mental energies and helping to stave off the tyranny of moods.”
Basically, he means that no matter whether you feel good or bad, a routine gives you the best chance of finding and bringing your A-game. The fact of the matter is that there are many things that you cannot control in competition. You cannot control what the opponent will do. You cannot control how the referee will call an action. But you can control your routine and preparation for the day.
For many great fencers this is a very private time during which the athlete begins to look inward, asking his or her body and spirit to rise to the upcoming challenge. It’s an important shift away from the nattering demands of everyday life to the more primal instincts required for competition.
Every Fencing Routine Is Unique
Your own routine need not be as long as Richard’s. Everyone has different needs which should be factored into how you design each step. For example, Ivan Lee, my Olympic teammate from the 2004 Athens Olympics, never seemed to need more than 30 minutes for his physical warm-up. His body type allowed him to minimize the time spent on this step because he was naturally quite flexible. It was always clear, however, that he took ample time to compose himself for competition as he spent a lot of time alone listening to music and thinking through various scenarios to prepare for the challenges to come.
Like Richard, I preferred to take my time, despite the merciless teasing I received from fellow teammates. Two hours was optimal for me allowing enough time to methodically work through each of the steps I had laid out in my head. The specific activities of my routine changed over time as I figured out what worked best for me. It always incorporated an extensive physical warm-up, focused stretching, a lesson (if my coach was there), and brief, but intense, practice bouting. The last thing I liked to do before heading off to the strip was to watch a personal motivational video that I made for myself to get my confidence and competitive juices flowing.
What’s the Difference – Rituals vs. Routines
It’s no secret that many athletes exhibit a number of strange behaviors that they believe help them to be at their best. In the video below, Olga Kharlan, 4-time Olympic Medalist and 2-time individual World Champion in women’s sabre, talks about some of her interesting habits, including only wearing black t-shirts for individual competitions and white t-shirts for team competitions.
Sports psychologist, Jim Taylor, talks about an important distinction between rituals and routines. He says, “a ritual is associated with superstitions and is often made up of things that have no practical impact on performance, for instance, wearing lucky socks or following a specific route to the competition site.” By comparison, “the goal of routines is to totally prepare athletes for training or competition. Everything done in a routine serves a specific and practical function in that readiness process. For example, a physical and technical warm-up and a review of tactics for an upcoming competition are all essential for total preparation.”
You will note, however, that Kharlan also talks extensively about her pre-competition warm-up routine which, like Kruse’s, is two hours long, intensive and the same every time. There is nothing wrong with having a few quirky superstitions as long as you also take your routine very seriously.
Building a Pre-competition Routine for You
Creating a routine is a personal exercise and often depends on variables that you may not always control, such as whether your coach can be with you at the competition.
To build your routine, you should be picking the activities that work best for you that fall into the following 4 buckets:.
1. General warm-up exercises
When you first arrive at a competition, you are often jet-lagged and stiff from flying the day before. Your body needs activities that will raise your body temperature, get the blood flowing and push more oxygen to the muscles. During this warm-up period, the speed of nerve transmissions also increases, helping your brain and your muscles coordinate more effectively.
Examples: Jogging, Grapevine Steps, Arm Circles
2. Dynamic stretching
Although it’s still a common practice among many athletes, Jeremy Summers, director of Sports Medicine for US Fencing, discourages the use of static stretching before fencing. Holding your muscles in a prolonged stretch “effectively turns the muscle off instead of preparing it to fire." Dynamic stretches, which are active movements, are a much better option. Rather than holding a stretch, instead, you lightly bounce, pulse or swing to push the muscle to it’s maximum length. It’s very important that you don’t push too hard, as this methodology, too, carries the risk of injury if done incorrectly.
Examples: Leg Swings, Lunge with a Twist, High Kicks
3. Fencing warm-up & exercises
Of course, you will want to get your body into the fencing groove. I personally felt much better in my first bout if I did the majority of my fencing specific warm-ups in full gear. That way, my body was already accustomed to having it on when I reached the strip for pools and I did not have to break my focus putting it on. I would also try to fence at least one or two bouts at close to full intensity to simulate what was to come.
Examples: Target work, Lesson with coach, drills, free bouting
4. Mental preparation
The best fencers approach this part of the warm-up in completely different ways. Some prefer to spend time alone, while others like to mill about socializing because it helps keep them from getting nervous. It’s essential that you understand and do what works for you each time and not let what others choose to do influence you. Your friend that you haven’t seen in awhile may prefer to chat, but if that doesn’t work for you, you need to have the courage to say “I need to focus and get ready now, can we catch up later?”
Even if you are the chatty type, I encourage you to try at least one thing that I believe will make a huge impact on your game. Find 5 minutes to sit quietly with yourself and set your intention for the day. Why are you here? What do you want to accomplish? What do you need to do to achieve that goal? If you do this, I can assure you that you will start the competition much more focused and ready for whatever the day has to bring.
I highly recommend you take a closer look at how you spend your time during that critical period before a competition. The more consistently you implement a routine, the more impact it can have. It takes discipline but, in theory, a routine used to warm up for the Olympics should be no different than a routine before a local tournament.
Even if you already have a solid routine, I suggest you sit down and think through each step again. Ask yourself, “What is the purpose of this activity?” Your answers will vary from the very tangible “It warms up my hip flexor muscle, which I have a problem with” to the more intangible “It just makes me feel good.” Both answers are equally valid, but please make sure that there is a good reason for including it because maximizing those moments before a competition is absolutely essential.
What’s your pre-competition routine? We’d love to hear from you.