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Proper Conditioning for the Baseball Player

Conditioning with Tempo Runs

Conditioning for baseball players has long consisted of LSD: long, slow, distance work.

While slow aerobic work has it benefits, I tend to disagree that it is a useful technique for baseball athletes which leads up to the inclusion of tempo runs. Tempo runs tend to fill the gap between speed, aerobic fitness, and recovery.

Tempo runs are low intensity sprints performed at 65-75% of max speed. They are essentially the middle ground between full out sprints, and slow jogging.

They are termed such by the great Canadian sprint coach Charlie Francis. He utilized tempo runs as not only a form of aerobic development for sprinters but as a means of recovery in his high / low system of programming.

A high-low system, if you are unaware, means high nervous system intensive demands are all placed on one day, followed by low nervous system demands the following day.

Using this format allows for greater recovery in preparation for the next high training day. Speed, strength, and power are all highly dependent upon the neuromuscular system, or the CNS.

Training high-intensity elements on back-to-back days constantly creates CNS fatigue and disrupts the body’s ability to produce at a high output.

High CNS means are prioritized with at least 48 hours of recovery before they should be trained again. The rest gives the neuromuscular system time to rebound. Fatigue doesn’t bode well for developing speed, strength, or power.

 

CNS Recovery

Tempo runs are an excellent means of recovery work on low intensity days. Staying in the 65%-75% of max speed is essential for nervous system recovery.

The high / low system is focused on eliminating the middle ground of sprinting at 76-95% intensities. These intensities are too slow to be utilized for speed development, and too fast for recovery. They become too intensive to recover from quickly and create residual fatigue for the next high intensive day.

When that happens, the main work, such as strength, power, and speed suffers. Tempo runs give athletes a more specific training effect without substantial nervous system fatigue.

 

Speed technique

Speed and power athletes can benefit from tempo runs due to its specificity. Tempo runs allow athletes to focus on some of the technical pieces important to high level sprinting. Athletes can focus on arm drive, relaxation, and rhythm in a submaximal setting when performing high volumes of tempo runs.

A cue I use often is to pretend as if you’re Usain Bolt in the early rounds of the 100m, cruising to a victory 20m ahead of the pack. Run easy, relaxed, and rhythmical.

 

Aerobic development

Baseball has long been a slave to the belief that pitching is built around a foundation of aerobic capacity. Long, slow, jogging and distance work is not specific, nor is it complementary to speed, and power development.

Too much slow work interferes with gains on the other end of the spectrum. Tempo runs give athletes the benefits of cardiovascular development in a more complimentary fashion to the rest of their training.

While the aerobic system is important and necessary it must also be understood that it isn’t the end all be all. Where the aerobic energy system is important is in the parasympathetic nervous system and in recovery process of the body.

 

Capillary Density

One of the biggest benefits in that of increasing capillary density. Low intensity tempo runs build a larger capillary network throughout the muscle. Increasing capillary density provides many benefits.

 

Staying Warmer

Increasing capillary density creates more heat throughout the muscle as well as allows for the muscle to stay warmer longer.

This was hugely important for Olympic level sprinters as often their training runs would require 10-20 minutes of rest to insure full recovery.

The ability to stay warm was key. With baseball, this is an absolute no-brainer. Position players may easily stand around for long periods of time without moving.

Enhancing capillary density can help keep athletes warmer when the time comes for that one all out sprint effort following 20+ minutes of waiting in the outfield for a ball to come your way.

 

Blood Flow and Nutrient Transfer

Enhanced capillary density improves blood flow throughout the muscle complex.

Increasing blood flow not only enhances heat, but also improves oxygenation, as well as nutrient transfer.

Nutrient transfer is important in not only the benefits of more nutrient availability on the good side but also the removal of waste products on the bad side.

 

Implementation

I prefer a walking rest interval during our tempo runs. This is generally a 1:2 ratio.

Take the distance of each rep and walk half that between each run. If athletes are doing 100yd tempo runs, I have them walk to the 25yd line and back for their rest interval.

 

Intensity

The intensity is the most important element with tempo runs. Athletes should stay within 65-75% of maximum speed.

Calculations can be made based upon an athlete’s best 60m time or other sprint time, but I find it unnecessary to do a bunch of calculations. Rather, I rely on the athletes to determine their own 65-75%.

Not only does this give them awareness of their own movement, but they will drift towards their current readiness levels as well. A more tired athlete will run slower than a fresh athlete, which is fine.

If a coach does base it off a best time remember to factor in the conditions of where the best time was performed versus where the tempo runs are happening (track vs grass field).

The best indicator of proper intensity is an athlete should be able to perform the first rep and the last rep at the same intensity. An athlete running too fast will begin to fatigue and the last reps will be slower and more tiring than the first.

Tempo runs should be almost refreshing to the body. Fatigue should not be a large factor.

 

Total Volume

The total volume often depends on goals but I often stay between 1000-1600 total yards of volume.

At times, we may work up close to 2000 yards but that is few and far between. Charlie Francis used 2000 yards as his standard for 100m sprinters.

Coaches should build volume gradually just as they would with any other new stimulus.

Each run varies from 50-100 yards but any variety of distances can be effective.

 

Location

In general tempo runs should be performed on a softer surface. Grass makes for the best surface to eliminate repetitive pounding that baseball athletes may not be used to.

Tempo Example:

14 runs of 80 yards with a 40-yard walk rest interval

Implementing tempo runs into a baseball program can not only enhance the cardiovascular system that so many coaches believe in, but also assist in the recovery processes and speed development.

Baseball is a speed/power sport and training athletes to the match the demands of competition should be a priority. Long distance running doesn’t fit the mechanical, nor physiological requirements of the sport.

Adding tempo runs can complement the explosive sport demands while also assisting those of aerobic development, and recovery.

Should Baseball Pitchers Use Long Distance Running for Conditioning?

We figured it out years ago, and it was a good thing we did: Conditioning for pitchers needed to change. Strength coaches declared Sprinting is the way! Down with distance running! All of a sudden, gone were the days of jogging mile after mile, pole after pole.

But, is this the only way? Is every other type of running “making us slow?” As both a veteran pro pitcher and strength coach, I say no. We strength coaches have been making impractical, dogmatic recommendations that need to improve.

 

Good Advice Gone Too Far?

Strength coaches meant well when we banned distance running: sprinting better suits the needs of a baseball pitcher by training them to be more explosive. A pitcher isn’t continuously moving for seven to nine innings with an elevated heart rate like that of a distance runner. Rather, he explodes; gathers; repeats. He is most like a cheetah, going full-speed or lying in wait with little in between.

But as leaders in the industry, we should worry about how others interpret our information. What started out as a smart new way to condition pitchers has become a source of dogma, confusion, and, in many cases, a new problem. I heard again recently, from a coach I greatly respect:

 

Pitchers should only do sprints. I’d never have them run anything longer than 60 or 100 yards; any more than that makes them slow.

 

The advice might be sound, but it’s not one bit practical.

This is also a case where any finger I point comes right back at me. I’ve written this same statement in previous articles, expressed the same sentiment to coaches and players over the years. I embraced the never run distance mentality in college and tried implementing it during much of my pro career. “No distance for me,” I declared! A year or two in, I stopped flying that flag in favor of the everything in moderation flag. 

 

The Problem: A Program is Only Good If People Follow it

The problem here lies in the real-world practicality and application of a sprinting-only conditioning regimen. I’m a firm believer that any training program is only as good as its:

  • Practical application – is it realistic given the resources and the environment a person lives in?
  • Realistic expectations – would most players actually be motivated to do it? Or is it too hard?
  • Viability in both the short and long term – will this just burn a player out, cause injury or put him further off-track later on? Can it work for years to come?

I lived on both sides of the fence, both as a full-time strength coach and as a pro pitcher who spent multiple seasons as both a reliever and starter. I killed myself with strength in conditioning in college, and now have perspective on what striking a balance feels like.

 

 

I’ve watched former Major Leaguers conduct their pre-game routines, and helped rookie players build theirs. I know what it feels like to do pre-game sprints at 3:00 pm, in 95-degree heat, before game #118 in late August. Programming workouts for tired, beaten-down ballplayers is not as straightforward as it is sometimes professed to be.

Here’s what your players are thinking when you tell them that sprinting is the only thing that’s good for them…

 

#1. If Sprinting Is My Only Option, And I Don’t Have the Energy Today…What Else Do I Do?

If running slowly will make a player worse, and he’s too tired, hurting, or unmotivated to sprint, then he may just pack it in and not do any conditioning. Is that what we want?

I personally don’t believe that doing nothing is better than doing something. Is a 10-minute jog on a day when I’m exhausted really that bad for me? Especially if I don’t have the energy in my legs to legitimately sprint?

 

#2. Our “Sprints” Are Actually Hard Jogs – Is That Still Worthwhile?

If you haven’t watched players sprint in pre-game – at any level – then you need to. 90% of them perform a half-hearted effort that is five hard steps followed by coasting. Most “sprints” are merely hard, short runs.

If a coach prescribes six 60yd sprints, he’ll get a 360yard hard jog…which is useless.

 

#3. Sprinting is Hard and It’s Very Hot Outside. Are You Sure It’s Good For My Longevity?

I think coaches sometimes forget. A 90% sprint won’t build the power and explosiveness that we intend. So if a player bears down and truly gives 100%, the time, does my likelihood of injury increase? They still have baseball to play, after all. 

You want me to run only sprints in the months of June, July and August? In pre-game when it’s 95 degrees for three straight months and I have a game every night?

My knees hurt, my Achilles tendons are swollen. I wear cleats for 4 hours a day. Is sprinting really the best thing for me? What if I can only go 70% without pain? Is sprinting all the time good for my longevity? Will I start breaking down earlier?

A reasonable volume of sprints for a relief pitcher is 200-300 total yards per day. It’s a little longer than that on the sprint days for starters. 200-300 yards breaks down into four 40s and two 60s, or seven 40s. If you run those hard, it takes a lot of out of you when you’re on your feet all day, pitching at night with two days off per month as a pro.

And it’s not better as a college player. They have practice on non-game days. They walk to class.

Or as a high schooler. They play other sports and have practice for all of them. They don’t get enough sleep or eat enough.

 

#4. We Don’t Build Good Conditioning With the Amount of Sprints We’re Often Capable of Doing.

Personally, I pitched better when I was in good cardiovascular shape. I felt stronger on really hot days and my body reacted in a more positive manner to in-game stresses like pressure situations. Good conditioning allowed me to feel stronger and more in control when I was under fire.

And, I knew that I couldn’t get enough volume in sprints to both stay sane, stay healthy, AND get into good shape – it’d take too much sprinting to build the cardiovascular endurance I wanted, and my knees sometimes start barking at me late in the year.

 

#5. We Don’t Lose Our Velocity or Ability Because of a Few Lousy Jogs.

During my playing career, I jogged or ran longer distances 1-2 times per week in the offseason and in-season. Nothing changed, except it allowed me to stay in better shape, burn more calorie and keep my bad weight down, and gave me something to do when I was too tired for more of those horrible sprints.

What’s wrong with moderation? Certainly a jog or longer set of intervals once or twice per week won’t ruin me.

Does anyone have an example of when a player showed some measurable decrease in velocity because he ran distances longer than 60yards a few times per week? If it’s as ruinous as we all claim, there should be casualties.

 

#6. Longer Distances Have Value In Other Ways

400 meter sprints are maybe the hardest thing I did as a player. In the last 150 meters, your body starts flailing because of how tired your legs, core, upper back, and lungs get. You try – often in vain – to not trip over your feet. You feel your core legitimately give out; a jellyfish-like feeling ensues as your limbs feel out of control.

Is this not the same phenomenon we try to prevent in the 7th inning of a start? Pitchers get tired – in their legs, their arms and their core – and they try to hold their mechanics together. I think 400 meter runs do a darn good job providing functional conditioning: giving a pitcher the mental and physical conditioning to keep themselves together and make good pitches late in the game.

 

#7. Isn’t Everyone Different? What About Individuality?

Most good strength coaches are champions of individuality, constantly reiterating that we should place all our clients into the same category, program, etc. But with conditioning recommendations, it’s pretty much one-size-fits-all. Why is there a disconnect?

I totally understand that though unique, we are all united with standards – yes, all baseball players need explosive training, no matter who we are. But, we are also all wired a little differently; can you really say that jogging hurts me, even when I say that my body feels better, I think I pitch better, and it keeps me in good cardiovascular shape?

Talk to pitchers. Some say that they thrive on a little (or a lot) of distance running. Sure, maybe they don’t know that they’d be better if they changed their ways. Or, maybe they’ve found what works for them.

 

Where We Go From Here

I think most strength coaches would agree that 75% effort sprints aren’t the way to more explosive pitchers. But, in years of observing my peers in pro baseball, 75% is the average effort level with which pitchers perform their sprints.

I think it’s safe to say that if you’re prescribing sprints, your players will give you 75% effort sprints on most days. Do your recommendations change, knowing that? Why not run 75% effort for longer distances, to let them burn more calories and challenge their heart and lungs?

Or, we can dial it back, be less dogmatic, and allow more diverse conditioning choices so that when players are told to sprint, they actually feel able to give it a true 100%. We need to admit to ourselves that some longer distance runs aren’t leading to any measurable decline in the velocity or ability of pitchers who do them.

A vast number of players jog as part of their routines and it can’t be killing all of them. Could they be made a little better by sprinting more? Maybe. But, the common sprinting prescription is akin to a doctor telling a diabetic patient to eat nothing but vegetables. Sure – great advice for his long term health!  But, it’ll never happen. Such unrealistic advice just shows that the doctor isn’t in tune with how to help his patients improve their habits. A strategy that shows a balance of best-case scenario and realistic expectations is best.

 

Creating a Balance Conditioning Plan

We should be looking to advocate for balanced conditioning plans, ones that better address the following:

  • Reasonable demands of mental and physical energy
  • Accumulated fatigue over a long season
  • Environmental demands such as the oppressive late-summer heat
  • Individual differences in what makes a player feel prepared
  • Starter versus reliever
  • Body composition, prior injury history
  • The desire to keep pre-game routines motivating and challenging
  • Many athletes don’t have access to joint-saving cardio machines like bikes or ellipticals that can still allow for a decent workout with reduced stress

 

Preparation is Key

Finding balance in training programs is as difficult in baseball as in any other sport – there are so many unique demands and the season is so long. But, if we marry practical advice with sound methodology and exercise choices, then we can better prepare ballplayers to both get better and stay healthy for the long term.

Should Baseball Pitchers Run Long Distances?

There is still an on-going debate about conditioning for pitchers: running poles. Unfortunately, the old school thought of running poles seems to dominate the new school thought of taking energy systems into account when training baseball players.

You’re running poles for the wrong reasons.

Not only will this article provide the more efficient way for improving conditioning for pitchers, but it will also provide counter arguments for two common misconceptions.

Pitchers, I’m sure if you ask your coach why they make you run poles they will say one of two things: 1. You need to be conditioned or 2. You need stamina to go deep into a game.

To provide the clearest answer for all pitchers and coaches reading this article, let’s tackle these two arguments.

 

“You need to be conditioned”

I believe that it’s extremely important to have a well-developed aerobic system to recover during a workout/game or from intense training sessions/games.

However, is running poles the best option? I don’t believe so. In my opinion, you would benefit much more from performing movement based circuits.

Utilizing movement based circuits was something I picked up from my time down at Cressey Sports Performance where many of the athletes performed “movement days”.

To give you an example, here’s an example of a complete “movement day” many of my athletes have performed :

In this workout, I was able to not only improve the athlete’s aerobic capacity but also his movement quality, hip mobility, thoracic spine (upper back) mobility, ankle stability, core stability, scapular control, anterior core control, spinal stability etc.

Long-distance running is not able to improve upon all the above.

 

“You need stamina to go deep into a game”

Do you really think running pole after pole is improving a pitcher’s ability to explode off a mound and throw a ball as hard as possible to home plate?

I don’t think so.

Here’s what I think: I think pitchers have to be extremely powerful. Think about it… If you’re a pitcher, you’re EXPLODING off the mound and throwing the ball to home plate (single fastest motion in all of sports) and you’re doing this for upwards of 80-100 times a game.

You can call this “stamina” but my intuition tells me that by executing this explosive maneuver 80-100 times a game will require the athlete to possess a good amount of alactic capacity.

I think that if the athlete (in this case, the pitcher) improves alactic capacity in the specific limb required, it will allow them to maintain velocity deep into a game.

I also believe the pitcher will be able to improve resistance to a shoulder/arm injury as the arm won’t have to overcompensate for lower body fatigue.

Just because something has been done for years (running long distance) doesn’t mean it’s right. In my opinion, there are much better ways we can improve our performance other than running poles.

Rather than running yourself into the ground by running poles, focus on improving your movement patterns during the season.