(Alternate title: Why running long distances is a bad idea for baseball pitchers.)
You can read an updated article with more alternatives for running poles here.
As high school tryouts commence and spring training games begin, pitchers all over the nation are running poles after they throw their long toss or their bullpens. Coaches are making their kids run 30 minutes at the end of tryouts just to gauge “fitness” and weed out the bad apples, assuming the ones who can’t display shows of endurance over long runs are not fit to play baseball. This practice has got to stop.
The common arguments on both sides of the aisle are:
- Pro-long distance running: It builds endurance for pitchers and helps them to pitch longer into games!
- Anti-long distance running: When’s the last time you ran the ball across the plate?
While the second argument is a bit more funny, it doesn’t address the logical fallacies of the first argument. As such, this ends up being a circular argument and neither side gets much done.
At best, long distance running is mildly useful to the completely untrained athlete (and remember what I said about untrained athletes in my post about P90x – anything works, but that doesn’t make it a good idea) to extremely detrimental for advanced athletes. The most likely result of running long distances is simply wasting the athlete’s time when he can be doing more sport-specific work or training in more efficient ways.
Eric Cressey wrote a post about this subject, but I’d like to go more in-depth on the topic he covered with this statement:
Reason #6: Inappropriate Intensities
In what was – at least in my eyes – a landmark study, McCarthy et al. (1995) looked at “compatibility” of concurrent strength training and endurance training. Traditionally, the attenuation of strength and power gains has been a big issue when endurance exercise is added to a strength training program. As I noted in Cardio Confusion, these researchers found that strength and power loss was only an issue when the intensity of the endurance exercise was greater than 75% of heart-rate reserve (HRR) (4). I can guarantee you that the majority of pitchers who are running distances are doing so at well over 75% HRR.
As I’ll note in my recommendations at the conclusion of this article, I strongly feel that the secret is to stay well above (circa-maximal sprinting, in other words) or below (70% HRR, to play it safe) when implementing any kind of running. The secret is to avoid that middle area where you don’t go slow and don’t go fast; that’s where athletes get SLOW! And, ideally, the lower-intensity exercise would be some modality that provides more mobility benefits.
“Inappropriate intensity” is the exact phrase I use all the time with my pitchers (and coaches I talk to) in explaining to them that long-distance running is a giant waste of time for them. The metabolic energy systems can be viewed as a spectrum: On one end, we have aerobic training that utilizes triglycerides and oxygen to fuel a workout that is long in duration. On the other end, we have two types of anaerobic training that utilizes creatine phosphate or glycolysis to regenerate/recycle ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is the very source of energy – remember that!
For very intense and short duration efforts – 40 yard dash, throwing a fastball, a set of 5 squats – ATP is recycled by creatine phosphate. This is commonly called “anaerobic” work. But remember, there are two types of anaerobic “training.” For efforts that are intense but slightly longer in duration – 400m dash, a set of 20 squats – glycogen molecules are broken down into glucose (glycogenolysis) and eventually turned into ATP for energy. For efforts low in intensity and long in duration – long-distance running/jogging/cycling – ATP is produced through a complicated series of events called the Krebs cycle which essentially transforms fatty acids into ATP with the use of oxygen.
Whew! If you made it this far, you can already probably tell that aerobic training is not specific to baseball pitchers (or hitters, actually) at all. All efforts in baseball involve short bursts of intense effort – throwing a fastball, swinging a bat, stealing a base, bolting after a line drive hit in the gap, fielding a one-hop sharp grounder, throwing to first base, picking a ball out of the dirt, sprinting to cover home plate… you get the idea.
Interestingly enough, training a baseball player’s energy systems are very similar to training a sprinter’s energy systems – we use plyometric jump boxes, short ladder sprints, interval training (on the AirDyne, Concept2 rower, or just sprint intervals), and our favorite new toy, the weight sled:
So believe it or not, training to reduce your 60 yard dash time, 20 yard shuttle time, and jack up your vertical leap (3 out of 4 of the metrics on the SPARQ Baseball test, by the way) will go a long way in making you a better baseball player… and could increase your VO2max better than long-distance running could!
“What,” you say? “You just said that training anaerobically was the best way to train a baseball player… how could that increase an aerobic metric like VO2max?”
Enter… the Tabata Training Method. In a groundbreaking study published in 1996, a Japanese exercise scientist named Dr. Izumi Tabata concluded that “…moderate-intensity aerobic training that improves the maximal aerobic power does not change anaerobic capacity and that adequate high-intensity intermittent training may improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy supplying systems significantly, probably through imposing intensive stimuli on both systems.”
This meant that running long-distances with moderate intensity didn’t help anaerobic efforts, but interval training (20 seconds max effort, 10 seconds rest for 4 minutes as Dr. Tabata defined it) not only improved both energy systems, but that interval training was better at improving VO2max than simply training with moderate intensity efforts!
We’ll talk more about Tabata methods and interval training in a future post, but what you need to know is that long-distance running isn’t going to help you last longer on the mound because “endurance” is specific to the task. Maybe those guys saying “you don’t run the ball across the plate” had something after all…