RUNNING BACKWARDS: Training Yourself Off The Mound

by Dave Hollinger 

Baseball has always been behind the times in the training world.  Performing only band work as their form of strength training, claiming weights would make them too tight or bulky and running long distances because pitchers need “endurance” to pitch.  All this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Let’s drop this old school mentality.  It’s hurting baseball players.  In this article I will discuss the hang up I have with long distance running and why you should never do it as a pitcher or power athlete for that matter.

Why It Doesn’t Make Sense »

Baseball players running miles, poles, laps, stairs, hills – whatever you want to call it, is like studying Calculus to prepare for a Spanish test.  You’re wasting your time!  It just doesn’t make sense.  Let’s think about the actions of a pitcher.  It consists of throwing a pitch which can occur within the blink of an eye and then receiving the ball back from the catcher and preparing (resting approximately 12-20 sec) to make the next pitch.  The action itself is an explosive one followed by a relatively extended rest period.  A work/rest ratio of at least 1:12.  Tell me where the aerobic component of this is?  The bottom line is pitching is an explosive power and speed act.

There are 3 main energy systems used to fuel a body’s movements: the ATP-CP, Glycolytic, and Aerobic.  Each energy system is used as fuel based on the duration and intensity of the activity.  For example, the ATP-CP system is utilized for short powerful movements that last a maximum of 10 seconds (throwing, swinging, 40 yard sprint, etc.), whereas the Aerobic system doesn’t begin to fully work until the body has reached 5 minutes of continuous exercise.  Unfortunately, most baseball coaches and players fail to recognize the energy system demands of their own sport.  If you teach a guy to go slow he will play slow. Would a 100-meter sprinter run a 5k race to prepare for their 100-meter race?  This failure can lead to many issues detrimental to your on-field performance.  Distance running can negatively impact: strength and power, immune system, testosterone levels and joint mobility.

Strength/Power Reduction »

A 2008 study from Rhea et al. entitled “Noncompatibility of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players” provides evidence that long distance running will negatively affect a players power output.  The study randomly divided sixteen Division-I collegiate baseball players into two training groups: an “endurance” group and a “sprint” group.  Training for both groups was identical except that the “endurance” group performed 3-4 days per week of moderate to high intensity cardiovascular endurance jogging or cycling for 20-60 minutes throughout the season.  The “sprint” group performed 3 days per week of 10-30 sprints at 15-60 meters with a 10-60 second rest period between sprints.  Throughout the season the “endurance” group’s peak power output dropped an average of 39.5 watts, while the “sprint” group’s peak power output increased an average of 210.6 watts.  Pretty significant difference if you ask me.

Stretch-Shortening Cycle »

The previous study doesn’t even touch on the effect distance running has on the stretch shortening cycle (SSC).  The SSC is the usage of stored elastic energy preceded by an active stretch.  Think explosiveness.  Distance running will ultimately kill off the SSC by conditioning it to be less efficient as there is no need for explosiveness during longer duration activities.  Any athlete who is looking to run fast, throw hard, jump high, etc. must have a good SSC or else they’ll find themselves holding the clipboard.

Immune System »

A 2000 study from Nieman, entitled “Effects of Exercise on the Immune System” suggested that the immune system is suppressed and stressed, following prolonged endurance exercise.  Infection risk may be increased when the endurance athlete goes through repeated cycles of heavy exertion.  Other studies have echoed the same findings, indicating a greater incidence of upper respiratory tract infections and other sicknesses for endurance athletes as compared to power athletes.  How can a pitcher improve or be effective while fighting off an infection?

Testosterone/Cortisol »

Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released with prolonged aerobic activity.  The problem here is that when cortisol rises from distance running, testosterone decreases.  Baseball is a strength and power sport which relies heavily on testosterone concentrations.  If that ratio is out of whack, expect a decrease in performance.

Mobility Reduction »

Over the years I have worked with many pitchers who exhibit similar upper and lower body flexibility deficits.  For the sake of this article we will review only lower body deficits, such as: tightness in the hip flexor, quad, and hip external rotators of the lead leg, along with trailing leg hamstrings tightness.  Hip mobility is crucial for generating good stride length which in turn produces greater throwing velocity.  When jogging, the range-of-motion of a typical stride is limited.  With miles upon miles of this restricted range-of-motion, you can surely expect a loss in hip mobility.  Not to mention accumulating even more lower body deficits and imbalances ultimately leading to chronic overuse injuries.

Injuries »

A recent study presented at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s (AOSSM) Annual Meeting showed that pitchers are 34% more likely to be injured than fielders.  Long distance running isn’t going to prevent these injuries and keep pitchers off the disabled list.  If anything, it will just exacerbate them.  Typically seen from jogging is an overload on the Quads and TFL which will lead to knee tracking issues often presented as tendinitis.   Throughout my career I have trained many aerobic athletes who frequently had some ailment holding them back from reaching their peak performance.  If it wasn’t tendinitis that bothered them, it would be their hip, if not their hip then their foot.  The issues were endless.  Spending time correcting imbalances and deficiencies instead of running will go a long way in reducing injury potential.  The same cannot be said for distance running which will place more stress and exacerbate any imbalances you may have.

At-Risk Sport »

You wouldn’t think baseball would have the amount of injuries it has considering it is a non-contact sport.  But baseball is an at-risk sport for a number of reasons.  The competitive season is extremely long, you are throwing a ball overhead at a high velocity which naturally is very stressful on the shoulder and elbow joints.  And most notably, there is unilateral dominance due to handedness patterns.  These handedness patterns create a great deal of asymmetry throughout the body which is possibly the best predictor of injury.  Distance running simply cannot address these glaring issues that make baseball such an at-risk sport.  In fact, distance running will just add to your problems.

Solutions »

Since I’ve knocked distance running enough at this point, let me offer some alternative ideas for developing a complete pitcher.

First and foremost, more time must be spent on correcting muscular imbalances and mobility deficits common to pitchers.  The structural phase of our program is of the utmost importance to the development of any athlete as imbalances and mobility concerns are addressed while reducing their risk of injury on the field.

Secondly, pitchers must be strong and powerful.  This is where weight room work benefits those who put in the time.  In the article “Bringing the Heat”, I explained how strength training plays a significant role in a pitchers training regimen.  Take a look.

Next, as stated earlier, sprint work, not distance running will improve a pitcher’s power output.  It’s advised to work on sprint starts and top speed running for improving power output.

Finally, coaches love to have their pitchers run after they pitch to “flush” things out.  Once again it’s a waste of time.  Use that time wisely by devoting it to mobility and stability training to address existing imbalances and to stretch those muscles that become tight from pitching.