RSNG went for some tuition from the pros to find out what it takes to elevate woodsman skills with a saw and axe to pro athlete levels – here’s what we learned…
1. STIHL Timbersports Disciplines Are Actually Useful
Many sports don’t really count as life skills. Take golf, for instance: being able to tap a small white ball into a hole with stick isn’t going to transfer off the green very easily. But Timbersports is different, partly because its roots are in an actual job. ‘When guys used to chop and saw in the woods for a living, a couple of people decided to have a race, and it’s gone on from there,’ British STIHL TIMBERSPORTS number three Glen Penlington tells RSNG. We used to take the wood axe into the yard to chop firewood, so we asked Penlington if this would give us an edge. ‘Yes, I spent hours and hours when I was younger splitting logs for firewood – none of that training goes to waste!’ There are six disciplines in the sport, all using a saw, axe or chainsaw to cut clean through whole logs.
3. The Tools Are Impressive
The first event that I’m pitting myself against is the Single Buck, where you saw through a 42cm (16-inch) log with a two metre long, cross-cut saw, loaded with 10cm long steel teeth. The saw itself is massive, weighs 5kg (11lb) and costs £1500 ($2145) a pop. Just dragging it back through the cut under its own weight is enough to send saw dust flying. Once you start to lean into it, this saw can cut like a laser.
‘I can go through a log like this in 16-17 seconds,’ says Team GB Single Buck trainer Andrew ‘Taffy’ Evans. And the world record is an astonishing 9.39 seconds, held by New Zealand’s Jason Wynyard. But if you’ve ever been sawing a plank and got the saw stuck halfway through then you’ll know how fiercely wood can grip a saw – now multiply that by ten if you get this event wrong…
‘People think it’s just about a strong upper body but TIMBERSPORTS is a whole body exercise’
3. It’s A Full Body Exercise
Before RSNG takes a full run at the log we get a masterclass. Evans’s advice is pick an angle and maintain it to stop the log biting, while using a wide stance to allow your whole body to drive the saw forwards and then immediately whip it back again. ‘Your arms are just the link, it’s your body that’s doing the work, and you have to keep the saw moving.’
‘A lot of people think it’s just about having a strong upper body but actually Timbersports is a whole body exercise,’ adds Penlington. ‘You’re using your arms, legs, torso, your whole range of movements, so it really does keep you fit.’
I soon discover just how fit you need to be as I saw an inch wide circle off the log from first cut to last – it takes over a minute and by the end I feel like I’ve blown a lung. It takes all my focus to keep the saw moving while I try to keep the gap between the saw teeth and the log closed. ‘Make sure you use all of the saw,’ advises Penlington. ‘The less you use the longer it’s going to take you. Keep it really smooth in the log, if you dip it you are not going to be using the saw as accurately and you’ll get hooked up. And never give up, keep going and keep working!’
Unsurprisingly, Penlington says the best way to get fit for Timbersports is to do the events, but he says he has to work in the gym too. ‘You work on your cardiovascular fitness but also your muscular endurance. So, a lot of running and also lifting weights but not the big heavy ones, it’s doing lots of reps to keep moving with the weights.’
3. You Have To Hold Your Nerve
Next up is the Underhand Chop. This discipline mimics using an axe to chop through a fallen tree in the forest and it turns out the most efficient way to do this isn’t to stand in front of the tree, it’s to stand on it, after chopping level platforms out of the top of the log for your feet. ‘You need to work on your accuracy, especially with the underhand chop where you’re swinging the axe between your legs,’ says Penlington.
The racing axes used in competition would make a Viking warrior proud. ‘You can shave with that edge,’ says Timbersports Hall of Famer Spike Milton. As I stand on the log, hefting the razor-sharp, 3kg (7lb) axe in two hands and staring down at the guide lines we’ve marked on it, millimetres from my toes, I wonder if Penlington ever gets nervous during competition. The competitors use chainmail on their shins but just have soft shoes on their feet. It turns out distractions are not an option: ‘You don’t really think about cutting yourself, you have to just focus on where that axe is going to go and hitting those marks, even on the springboard when you are up in the air,’ he says.
‘Some pros would power through the 32cm log in just six axe hits per side’
4. Technique Is Everything
I soon discover that technique beats brawn on the Underhand Chop. As Penlington says, you can be too strong for this sport. ‘Some of the strongest blokes aren’t always the best because they try to hit it too hard and lose out on the technique.’ Chopping trainer Robert Owens teaches me to let the axe do the work and my eye to guide it. As the axe falls I keep my arms straight and bend over at the hips, keeping my knees locked, rather than trying to muscle into it. ‘Don’t take your eyes off the log, as you swing – the blade goes where you look,’ he says.
By setting my feet slightly to one side I can drop the axe straight down but at a diagonal angle to the wood grain, on the guide lines. At first the log seems like it’s resisting, but it turns out I’m trying to muscle it too much, which is sending the blade off line. ‘You need to let the axe do the work,’ says Owens. Soon, satisfying chunks of wood are flying out as I rotate the cuts like a clock face around one side of the log, before turning around and chopping into the other side. My progress isn’t as quick as the pros – Owens would take 12 hits per side, and some of the big Southern Hemisphere pros would power through the 32cm log in just six hits per side – Australia’s Brayden Mayer once demolished one in 12.39 seconds.
4. It’s Man Versus Log
Although it’s a team sport, all Timbersports disciplines are individual efforts. Combining a vicious steel edge with the pressures of time, crowds and competition is a heady mix, requiring a vise-like mental grip. ‘On the big stage the pressure can get to you so you’ve got to learn to control those nerves. You have to take yourself away and back to the training yard where you have spent hours and hours trying to perfect that technique. Like a rugby kicker in the stadium alone preparing to kick,’ says Penlington.
5. There’s Nothing More Satisfying Than cutting Through
There’s something about the level of focus required to swing an axe between your legs and into a log that means you get totally wrapped up in the moment. When I finally send the blade completely through, and the halves of the log topple as I step off them, the feeling of satisfaction is immense.
I can see why athletes like Penlington put in so many hours of practice. With the World Championships coming to the UK and Liverpool this year, it’s an ideal time to reconnect with some good, honest, functional-strength building labour. ‘My goal this year is to work my way up and win the British Championship to be that single representative in the World Championships – having home advantage will be quite exciting!’ smiles Penlington.
WHAT NEXT? Watch the Underhand Chop in action during this Timbersports demo…
Tickets for the 2018 Stihl TIMBERSPORTS® World Championship, which takes place in Liverpool on October 19-20, are available to buy now
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.
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