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Should Pitchers Distance Run? What the Research Says.

Posted Aug 22 2012 11:01am
Today's guest blog comes from current CP intern, Rob Rabena.  Rob recently completed his master's thesis research on the effects of interval training versus steady state aerobic training on pitching performance in Division 2 pitchers.  He's in a great position to fill us in on the latest research with respect to the distance running for pitchers argument.

“Ok, guys, go run some poles.”

A baseball coach often voices this phrase during the season to keep his pitchers in shape. Utilizing distance running to enhance aerobic performance among pitchers has always been the norm, but do the risks outweigh the rewards? There is strong evidence in the scientific literature to support that coaches should rethink utilizing distance running with their pitchers.

Jogging Might Not be the Answer

The current practice utilized for conditioning is for pitchers is to go for a long run the day after a game to “flush” the sore arm of lactic acid, or minimize muscle soreness to recover faster for the next game. These theories are not supported by the current literature and the physiology of the sport.

In the current research study examining the physiology of pitching, Potteiger et al. (1992) found no significant difference between pre-pitching and post-pitching blood lactate levels of six college baseball players after throwing a 7-inning simulated game. Even though during an inning there is a slight lactate production of 5.3-5.8 mM, (which is not high, considering resting lactate is 1.0mM), it does not cause a buildup of lactic acid in the arm of a pitcher after a game. As a comparative example, a high lactate response would occur from squatting for multiple reps at about 70% 1RM; this might produce a lactate level of about 8-10mM (Reynolds et al., 1997). Furthermore, jogging to flush the arm of lactic acid after a start is unnecessary and not supported by the literature, especially since we learned all the way back in 2004 that lactate was not the cause of muscular fatigue ; even the New York Times reported on this in 2007! A lot of coaches simply haven't caught wind yet - in spite of the fact that exercise physiology textbooks have been rewritten to include this new information.

Should Pitchers Distance Run?

When a person jogs at a pace where he/she is able to hold a conversation (at or below ventilatory and lactate threshold), the goal is to improve V02 and to enhance aerobic performance. For pitchers, this practice is utilized to enhance and maintain endurance during games, as well as to maintain body composition throughout the season
In the research study conducted by Potteiger et al. (1992), the researchers found that mean V02 only reached 20 ml. kg.min during the simulated game, and returned to 4.9 ml.kg.min between innings (resting is 3.5 ml.kg.min). The V02s of endurance athletes are approximately greater than or equal to 60 ml.kg.min. Based off this study, V02 does not seem to be a limiting factor for pitchers who want to pitch deep into games. Since a high V02 does not make a great pitcher, why are we training like an endurance athlete, when pitching relies predominately on the anaerobic system? While jogging may help you with body composition and endurance, it’s not going to help you throw more innings in a game. Our emphasis should be on building strength and speed, which are more anaerobic qualities.

Endurance Running or Sprints?

Still not convinced that sprint or anaerobic training is right for your pitching staff? Okay, coach, here are a few more studies comparing sprint training to aerobic training and their effects on pitching performance.

One study examined dance aerobic training (yes, dance training) to sprint training in baseball pitchers and found a significant improvement (p<0.05) in the pitching velocity and anaerobic power measures of the sprint groups (Potteiger et al., 1992).

In a similar study that compared sprint training and long, slow distance running in-season, Rhea et al. (2008) found a significant increase in lower body power for the sprint group, and a drop in power for the distance group. Do we want our pitchers dropping in lower body power? I don’t think so!  Would you like to see their power production increase? Absolutely!

My Research

My Master’s thesis, “The Effects of Interval Training on Pitching Performance of NCAA Division II pitchers”, examined the in-season steady state exercise and interval training on pitching performance. Prior to collecting data, I hypothesized that I was going to find a significant difference in pitching velocity, WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched), 30m sprint time, fatigue index and muscle soreness.

The results of my thesis study found no significant difference (p>0.05) in any of the hypotheses. However, there was a very strong trend (p=.071) for the distance training group presenting with more soreness based off a 0-10 scale. The distance group did not drop in velocity, get slower, or decrease pitching performance like the previous studies suggested. When examining the results of my thesis study with the current literature, I continue to question if there is an appropriate place and time to implement distance running for pitchers within a training cycle, and if so, when would it be most efficient to do so?

Now What Do We Do?

Most of the research available supports that assertion that pitchers should stop distance running or not make it a focal point of their baseball strength and conditioning program. Distance running trains the aerobic energy system, where pitching is purely anaerobic in nature. I’m not totally bashing distance running because it does have its benefits for certain populations, just not for the performance goals of pitchers.

Now that we know what we shouldn’t be coaching, what should pitchers be doing for conditioning instead of running poles during practices? There are few things to consider when designing sports specific conditioning for pitchers:

● What should the rest periods be between sprints?
● What distances should pitchers sprint?
● How many days a week should pitchers actually condition, and does this fit into the overall training program?

The time between pitches is 15-20 sec (Szymanski, 2009), or longer for guys who are known for working slow on the mound. This can really help coaches when implementing interval sprints. Based off research and my time spent at Cressey Performance, anything 40 yards and under for 4-8 sprints, 2-3x a week is recommended. This, of course, depends on time of year (in-season vs. off-season). At the end of a workout, if the equipment is available, a lateral sled drag, farmers’ walks, or sledge hammer hits are always a plus to increase the anaerobic energy systems, which for a pitcher are most important.

Training pitchers out of the sagittal plane is another key consideration often overlooked with training baseball players; for this reason, using rotational medicine ball exercises is extremely valuable. Check out this study by Szymanski et al, (2007), which compared a medicine ball and resistance training group to resistance training only. Researchers found an increase torso rotational strength for the medicine ball group.

This explains why med balls are a great option for baseball players to not only develop rotational power, but also to blow off some steam. With that in mind, during a movement/conditioning day for pitchers, exercises like band-resisted heidens and lateral skips should be incorporated, along with the more traditional straight sprints mentioned above.

Conclusion

Based off the literature, long distance running should not be implemented for pitchers. When it comes down to it, a well-developed training program that incorporates strength, movement and conditioning is the most efficient way to enhance the way your athlete moves and plays on the field.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to leave comments below, as this is the start of a process and something that coaches need to further consider and discuss to improve the efficiency of the conditioning programs for pitchers.

About the Author

Rob Rabena M.S., C.S.C.S, is a strength and conditioning coach who is currently interning at Cressey Performance. Rob recently earned his M.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Strength and Conditioning. Prior to his graduate work, Rob obtained his B.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Health Promotion from Cabrini College in 2011. Although Rob has a particular interest and experience with coaching collegiate athletes, he also enjoys working with clientele of diverse backgrounds and dictates his coaching practice to making his clients feel great, both physically and mentally, while placing a strong emphasis on the specific goals of the client. Feel free to contact Rob Rabena directly via email at robrabena@gmail.com.

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References

1. Fox EL. Sports Physiology (2nd ed). New York, NY: CBS College Publishing, 1984

2. Potteiger, J., Blessing, D., & Wilson, G. D. (1992). The Physiological Responses to a Single Game of Baseball Pitching. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research , 6, 11-18.

3. Potteiger, J., Williford, H., Blessing, D., & Smidt, J. (1992). The Efect of Two Training Methods on Improving Baseball Performance Variables. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research , 2-6.

4. Reynolds, T., Frye, P., & Sforzo, G. (1997). Resistance Training and Blood Lactate Response to Resistance Exercise in Women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 77-81.

5. Rhea, M., Oliverson, J., Marshall, G., Peterson, M., Kenn, J., & Ayllon, F. (2008). Noncompatibilty of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 230-234.

6. Szymanski, D. J. (2009). Physiology of Baseball Pitching Dictates Specific Exercise Insensity for Conditioning. Journal of Strength and Conditioning , 31, 41-47.

7. Szymanski, J., Szymanski, J., Bradford, J., Schade, R., & Pascoe, D. (2007). Effect of Twelve Weeks of Medicine Ball Training on High School Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 894-901.

8.Torre, J., & Ryan, N. (1977). Pitching and Hitting. NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

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