Up until recently, running poles was commonly one of the main modes of conditioning for ball players, especially pitchers. In fact, I can still remember my coaches telling me to do a set number of poles, laps, or miles each week back when I played high school ball.
Since then, there has been a shift in the way coaches and players view conditioning and running — and rightfully so. For reasons highly discussed by strength coaches and physiologists much smarter than me, conditioning for pitchers has transitioned to predominantly sprint-based methods. It’s “cutting edge” and it’s become a measuring stick by which coaches judge other programs; “Do you run your guys? Do you distance run?”
Again, I acknowledge the many reasons why we should not aimlessly have our young pitchers run long-distance as their main source of conditioning:
- Chronic injury
- Transition of Type II muscle fibers to Type I fibers
- Lower-level neuromuscular involvement as compared to sprinting
- Energy system usage; the “action” in baseball is predominantly in ATP-CP pathway
With that being said, I’d also like to bring to light the possible benefit of incorporating some aerobic-based conditioning.
But first, let’s get the terminology straight: forget “distance running”. Our goal is not to rack up the mileage. Again, it’s aerobic capacity training, and here are some reasons why I would include it as a part of a training regimen for pitchers:
RECOVERY — REGULATING THE AUTONOMIC NERVOUS SYSTEM
Put simply, the body’s automatic functions (such as breathing, circulation, digestion) are regulated by the autonomic nervous system. There is a sympathetic response (aka fight or flight, which increases heart rate and decreases non-vital functions such as digestion), and a parasympathetic response (recovery; decreases heart rate, and increases many recovery processes).
Bouts of high-intensity exercise (coupled with stress) or performance increase the body’s sympathetic response. Simply put, when we train and play hard, we are also in a “fight or flight” state, straining the body and inhibiting recovery responses.
Research has shown, though, that acute bouts of aerobic training restore the sympathetic-parasympathetic balance by stimulating recovery and inhibiting the “fight or flight” response. When we train and play hard, we need to recover. And, if our sympathetic response reigns king, we can’t digest as well, our heart rate does not recover as well (and resting heart rate is elevated), and sleep may not be as easy. Baseball, especially at the higher levels, is a long an arduous process, with games played nearly every day. For this reason recovery is every bit as important as training to performing at your best.
Some low-to-moderate intensity training (in any form; it doesn’t have to be running), may do your body more good than you know in the long run (did you catch that pun?)
ENERGY SYSTEM CONSIDERATIONS
Yes, the main components of baseball — throwing, pitching, hitting, sprinting, and fielding — are all high-intensity and explosive movements that require the body to utilize the short-term energy pathway; the ATP-CP system.
But, what about the time in between the action? Pre-play movement, jogging on and off the field, etc? This takes some aerobic capacity and general fitness.
Sure, we can gain an aerobic base through anaerobic methods. But, considering the recovery benefits (above) of aerobic training, we now have an added benefit of doing some aerobic training.
VOLUME OF AEROBIC TRAINING COMPARED TO ANAEROBIC TRAINING — MUSCLE FIBER CONSIDERATIONS
As acknowledged in the introduction, I recognize that Type II muscle fibers have been shown in research to transition to Type I muscle fibers through aerobic training. And, that there is no research suggesting the opposite transition from sprinting or strength training. Thus, we don’t want to lose all of our “fast twitch” fibers, because we may not get them back.
But, let’s consider the ratio and overall volume of exercise and practice bouts:
A player may take hundreds high intensity swings per week, hundreds of throws or pitches, many sprints, and multiple training sessions in the weight room. If we are training and practicing the majority of the week in an explosive manner, chances are a 15–20 minute bout of aerobic training won’t require the body to transition all fibers over to Type I. That’s why it’s important that you understand I’m not advocating “distance running”, marathons, 5K’s, or anything of the like; just some periodic aerobic training.
Always remember that the body employs specific adaptations to imposed demands.
ABILITY TO ENDURE PRACTICE
Finally, it’s important to consider the importance of recovery in between bouts within a practice, and between practice sessions. With a strong foundation of aerobic capacity built the body is able to recovery more quickly, thus, more work can be tolerated over time.
We must consider that a big part of “the game” of baseball isn’t actually the game itself, but practice. This is especially true at the higher levels of the game where players often practice for weeks at a time without an off day – all of this on top of their game schedule. In this context, the ability to recovery on a daily basis and get the most out of practice is the name of the game.
Overall, I still concur with the notion that distance running can be detrimental to young ball players. But, for the following reasons, I find some aerobic training to be highly beneficial to baseball players:
- Improved recovery from a regulated sympathetic-parasympathetic balance
- General fitness and aerobic capacity for aerobic characteristics of baseball and sport
- So long as you program it as such, sprints and explosive movements in baseball will be way more prevelant than aerobic training anyway.