Sam Murphy: All you need to know about fencing

What's it all about?

Fencing is a sport derived from duelling, played by two opponents on a strip or 'piste' 2m by 12m long. The object is to score 'hits' or 'touches' on your opponent. A given number of hits (usually from five to 15) make up a 'bout', and the first player to score that number wins the bout.

Because it's such a fast-moving sport, touches are recorded electronically by the players' body wires, and announced by a coloured light on the side of the fencer who made the touch.

The three weapons used in the sport of fencing are the sabre, the epee and the foil. The foil is generally considered the best to learn with.

What the expert says...
Zsolt Vadaszffy is British Professional Epee Champion, and a former Hungarian foil champion. He is head coach at Swash & Buckle Fencing Club.

Don't skip your warm-up Fencing is a fast sport with constant change of direction and quick footwork. You need good mobility and flexibility to achieve this, so you should always warm up thoroughly.

Practise in front of the mirror You might think you can improve your skills only by actually fencing, but you can work on your footwork, lunges and hand movements in front of a mirror, without any special kit. If you can recruit a partner, you can practise maintaining the right distances, too.

Bide your time Don't be impatient. Beginners often want to get their 'touch' in too quickly - but timing is everything. A good fencer bides his time and tries to outthink his opponent. It's like physical chess.

Don't drag your feet Nimble footwork is essential. Imagine your feet are hovercrafts, keeping them as light as possible on the floor.

Change your partners Different opponents can teach you different lessons and make you focus on different aspects of your progress, so don't always fence with the same person. It's particularly valuable to fence with people more experienced than you sometimes.

Be balanced Fencing is a very one-sided sport, so it's important to do other activities. Basketball, netball and squash give you the same mix of speed and stamina, while swimming offers all-round fitness benefits: stamina, strength and mobility.

Stick with it Fencing takes a long time to learn. And don't ever think you've learned it all - I've been fencing for 59 years, and I'm still learning!

Getting started

To become a proficient fencer you need to join a club in order to get regular training, practice and experience. Find one by going to the club directory on the website of the British Fencing Association (020-8742 3032, britishfencing.com), the sport's governing body in the UK.

Swash and Buckle in London (020-8829 9947, swashandbuckle.org.uk) offers a 10-week complete beginners' course for £125, which includes equipment and tuition - and will take you from complete novice to a standard where you can shout, 'En garde!' and mean it.

Mini Musketeers (07950 011581, minimusketeers.co.uk) runs introductory fencing classes for six to 10-year-olds in London and the south-east. The lessons, developed with the British Fencing Association, promote hand-eye coordination, balance, concentration, self-control and confidence.

There's a surprising amount of information on fencing out there, from websites to books, courses and DVDs. Initiate yourself by joining fencingforum.com where you can discuss such matters as whether or not the 'flick hit' should be allowed. The British Fencing Association lists camps and courses, or get an insight into the world of fencing by reading ex-Olympic fencer Richard Cohen's By The Sword (Pan, £8.99).

The gear

Specialist equipment is required - from the all-important mask, glove and weapon to a lame jacket, body wire, breeches and a protective 'plastron' that covers the torso and sword arm (women will also need a chest guard ). At first you'll probably be able to borrow or hire club gear, but if you decide to take it up more seriously you'll want your own kit. Expect to pay around £50 for a mask and £15-25 for a glove. The final consideration is fencing shoes. It's very important to have good contact with the floor. Normal trainers are too thick in the midsole so you lose sensitivity - they also make you more likely to turn on your ankle. Try Hi-Tec Blades (£64.99) or Adidas En Guard (£54.99).

Leon Paul (0845 388 8132, leonpaul.com) is one of the UK's major brands - founded by a fencing family - and it sells the works, from clothing to accessories and weapons. The shop is London-based. Also try UK company Duellist (020-8892 3775, duellist.com). PBT (pbtfencing.com) is a well-regarded Hungarian brand, or try American-made Allstar International (allstar-fencing.co.uk).

Most companies offer 'starter kits' containing all or most of the equipment you need. A non-electric set costs from £125, while an electric one - ideal for when you've finished your beginner's course - costs from around £200. Individually, the items can cost a lot more.

Benefits

Aids mental agility Fencing requires fast and accurate decision-making under conditions of mental pressure and physical exertion. Research from the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness found that fencers were superior at processing information under such conditions than non-fencers.

Supports coordination A French study found that while novice fencers could perform the touche and lunge in isolation as competently as expert fencers, when the movements were combined the experienced fencers were faster.

Strengthens the arm A study from the University of Milan showed that the dominant forearm of fencers was both physically bigger and stronger than the other arm.

Gives greater speed and agility Fencing involves backwards and forwards motion at speed. Recent research from the University of Motor Sciences in Rome found that fencers could change their intended course of action significantly faster than non-fencers.

Increases leg power The oft-repeated lunge movement strengthens the thighs, calves and bottom. In a study of Olympic athletes, fencers had the greatest leg strength relative to muscle size compared to other sportspeople.

The downside

Injuries Contrary to popular belief, you're unlikely to get pierced, but fencers are susceptible to musculoskeletal injuries on their 'dominant' side, from research in the journal Sportverletz Sportschaden. The most commonly injured part? The knee.

The cost Fencing isn't a cheap sport to get into - with club fees and lessons on top of buying all the gear.

Complexity Fencing is a highly technical sport to master, with lots of rules and etiquette. But it's a lot easier to learn 'on the job' than by trying to watch it or read about it.

The national standard As a nation, we're not doing too well in the fencing stakes. But get your skates - or your plastron - on, and you might end up doing an Eddie the Eagle come 2012.

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.