Long before the professionalism of militaries, the Vikings had a varied and wide-ranging training regime that allowed them to perfect all facets of battle and war.

Martial skills and practice

Vikings wrecked a path of havoc, battling and brawling all over early medieval Europe and beyond. 

From predatory raids to pitched battles and sieges, Vikings managed to defeat a huge array of diverse cultures and civilizations, from the British Isles to Baghdad. 

What was the secret to their success? In a word - preparation. From a purely tactical point of view, many Vikings had a training regimen that saw them hone their martial skills until perfected.

A popular image of any Viking warrior is leaping off a longboat with a sword or axe in hand. 

The arsenal of a Viking warrior was so large and varied that weapons training was a necessity. Dueling with swords, axes, and spears was a popular and effortless way to practice weapon wielding. 

For those who preferred ranged weapons (bows, crossbows, or even slingshots), regular target practice was a part of everyday life away from the battlefield.

These skills were often put into practice with a series of mock battles and fights. These could range from one-on-one duels to larger group exercises. 

Combat techniques and tactical battlefield strategies, such as practicing new formations, were rehearsed until perfected. Afterward, Viking leaders and elites often analyzed the effectiveness of these techniques and strategies.

Physical fitness was paramount for the Vikings, with their daily routines often involving backbreaking farm work, long marches, and intense weapon drills. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Getting into shape, Viking style

Given the backbreaking work of the Vikings on the battlefield, in a longship, or on the farm, a great amount of physical fitness and endurance was needed.

During peacetime or at home, Viking warriors could engage in the sort of high aerobic activities that equal amounts of people love and hate (or both), like running or swimming.

In fact, swimming was a critical skill, considering the amount of time that Vikings were surrounded by water. Unfortunately, this vital skill was not widely taught.

Outdoor activities were an important part of the lives of early medieval Scandinavians, just as they are today.

Vikings could improve their fitness or endurance by hiking or trekking, especially up the vast number of mountains throughout Scandinavia and surrounds. 

When not away raiding or trading, Vikings often tended to their farms, which involved backbreaking labor such as plowing fields and lifting heavy loads for transport to markets.

For those who lived on a farm, there was always some chore involving hard, sweaty work – perfect training for Vikings wanting to shape up. You'll know what I mean if you've ever plowed, sowed, harvested, or tended to livestock.

The weather was no excuse to stay indoors either. Enduring harsh wintery conditions, like blizzards or storms, was all part of life in early medieval Scandinavia. 

If you have ever walked through snow, you will know how hard it feels on your body and the old heart rate, too.

All this physical fitness and endurance was needed for the often-long marches to and from a battlefield.

Vikings vs. nature

Vikings' navigational skills were, for early medieval Europeans, second to none.

They roamed and raided everywhere, from what is now Newfoundland, Canada, through much of Northern, Central, and Eastern Europe to the eastern shores of the Black Sea and even West Asia. 

Their seafaring, ocean traveling, and river journeying were unparalleled. 

They were skilled sailors and navigators who only had rudimentary ways to traverse such great distances, often on the wild ocean. 

Learning the art of navigation, how to travel by reliance on your senses and little else, was a craft that was honed by Vikings from an early age.

In this era before Google Maps, just getting from village to village was a hard slog. There were no signposts, and roads (if they existed at all) were extremely primitive and unpaved. 

When traveling, out in the wild, or even on a day-to-day basis, there was a need to practice and hone survival skills such as foraging, hunting, or even building temporary shelters. 

Given that Viking raids were often predatory and rapid, they did not carry a large supply train and had to source food and shelter in hostile environments.

Practicing some of these skills at home, recognizing what plants could be eaten, when berries were in season, or which type of wood was suitable to construct a shelter were vital for survival on campaign or on the road.

Viking raids were not just acts of impulse; they were meticulously planned operations, often informed by traders' insights and reconnaissance missions. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Strategy and tactics

We moderns often have preconceived notions of Vikings as mere marauding barbarians using little brainpower. 

However, Vikings trained just as much of their brain as they did of their body. 

Traders and merchants from Viking societies would often pass valuable information back to Viking leaders and warriors about cities, towns, and villages in which they sold their wares. 

This would enable Vikings to launch attacks where the enemy was at their weakest. 

Since Viking traders and raiders were present in every culture and civilization from the British Isles to Baghdad, they were often sponge-like in their absorption of enemy battlefield tactics and strategies.

Whilst the ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu may be famous for his teachings on the "Art of War," Vikings were also taught the finer points of war.

Games such as Hnefatafl – a precursor to the modern game of chess – helped Vikings practice their strategic thinking skills while not waging war. 

Information and knowledge were passed down from mentor to student.

What might seem to hapless villagers as a predatory Viking raid may well be a reconnaissance mission to gauge the weakness and military strength of a community. 

This was often followed up with a more prolonged raid or siege, causing devastation to the unwitting locals.

The training regime of Vikings saw them practice and hone a range of skills, from physical endurance to weapon practice and even strategic board games. 

The combination of practicing and perfecting a wide range of physical, mental, and psychological skills and a lot of demanding work ensured they remained some of the most fearsome and effective warriors of the early medieval period.

For more information on what made Vikings so formidable on the battlefield, visit Science Nordic here.

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