By now, readers of this blog are familiar with the concept of the “well rounded athlete”—the athlete who focuses on the fundamentals of movement and conditioning in order to master the finer points of his sport. While I believe that all baseball players should embrace this philosophy, I urge pitchers to exercise particular caution in applying it. This is especially true with regard to distance running and pole running, two long-time staples in the pitching community. As I explain in the following paragraphs, these conditioning methods may harm a pitcher’s on-field performance more than they enhance it.
Common Misuses of Conditioning
The first misconception about distance and pole running is that they help to remove excess lactate from the blood after a pitching outing. This belief embodies a basic misunderstanding of the physiology of pitching. Pitching is a maxium effort burst movement that is repeated dozens of times over the course of a game. The burst motion of pitching relies on the phosphogen or ATP-CP system, which is regarded as a lactic anaerobic energy system because it neither uses oxygen nor produces lactic acid if oxygen is unavailable. In laymen’s terms this means that, contrary to popular belief, pitching does not increase blood lactate levels significantly. Therefore, “flush” runs designed to lower blood lactate levels merely expose pitchers to a decrease in power and increased risk of injury without bestowing any measurable benefit.1
Distance and pole running present other problems as well: a lack of neural adaptation (high powered nervous system output); limited or diminished strength gains; and an underdeveloped range of motion in portions of the lower body that are essential to the pitching motion. Holloszy and Booth produced the following paragraph while studying the biochemical adaptations to endurance exercise in muscle.
“The nature of the exercise stimulus determines the type of adaptation. One type of adaptation involves hypertrophy of the muscle cells with an increase in strength; it is exemplified in its most extreme form by the muscles of weight lifters and bodybuilders. The second type of adaptation involves an increase in the capacity of muscle for aerobic metabolism with an increase in endurance and is found in its most highly developed form in the muscles of competitive middle- and long distant runners, long distant cross country skiers, bicyclists, and swimmers. Although many types of physical activity can bring about varying degrees of both types of adaptation in the same muscle, it does appear that these adaptations can occur quite independently of each other in their most extreme forms. For example, the hypertrophied muscles of weight lifters do not appear to have increased respiratory capacity, whereas the muscles of rodents trained by prolong daily running, which have large increase in respiratory capacity, are not hypertrophied and show NO INCREASE IN STRENGTH”2
As I have discussed elsewhere, bodyweight is directly correlated to ball velocity. Distance running reduces an athlete’s fast twitch muscle fiber count and muscle mass, which leads to diminished overall body mass and ultimately robs a pitcher of crucial miles per hour on his pitches. However, there is good news even for pitchers who have unwittingly sacrificed body mass and velocity by doubling as distance runners. By using creatine as a dietary supplement, a pitcher can increase body mass both quickly and safely, and will likely reap the benefits in the form of increased ball velocity. I discuss this topic at length in my article “Why All Baseball Players Should Be Using Creatine.”
Further proof that pitchers should avoid distance running is offered in a tremendous article titled “Noncompatibility of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players.” This study split 16 Division I collegiate pitchers on the same team into 2 groups, both of which were tested before and after th season. The sprint group performed repeated maximal sprints ranging from 15 to 60 meters with 10 to 60 seconds rest between each sprint. Workouts were performed 3 days per week and consisted of 10–30 sprints. The second group (8 Pitchers) performed moderate- to high-intensity aerobic exercise (jogging or cycling) 3–4 days per week for 20–60 minutes per day (mainly poles). Over the course of the season, the sprint group increased power by ~20% while the endurance group decreased power by ~ 3%. That’s dramatic.3
In short, pitchers should think long and hard before incorporating distance and/or pole running into their training routines. Basic physiology suggests (and the research confirms) that these endurance-based practices jeopardize a pitcher’s power, muscle mass, and skill-specific endurance. Any pitcher intent on succeeding at the highest levels of the game should focus on building and maintaining muscle mass and fine tuning mechanics to optimize the power transfer between his wind-up and delivery. Ball velocity is, and always will be, the factor that separates the wheat from chaff.
Optimal Conditioning for Pitchers
Here are three options I use for conditioning for pitchers (all baseball players for that matter). Be sure to fit your workload and rest frequencies to the aerobic and muscular systems that you are working on.
- Sled Pushes
Sets of 10-40 yards. You can adjust loading parameters to meet your goals with regard to power, speed, and strength.
Shout to @josh_heenan giving me that 700lb sled push for breakfast.
— John Murphy (@ItsJohnMurphy) November 11, 2013
- Flat Ground Sprints
Sets of 10-40 yards. You can play with the number of sets to fit your goal of repeated power.
- Hill Sprints
Sets of 10-20 yards is sufficient. You can play with the number of sets to fit your goal of repeated power. Obviously the steeper the hill, the more you will hate life!
Just because a practice has become tradition does not mean that it is the best, or even a good way, to enhance on-field performance. Further research and anecdotal evidence will undoubtedly reveal even better ways than the ones I offer above to optimize a pitcher’s output. However, the next time a coach tells you to run poles or run a few miles, politely share this article with him and ask their opinion. I welcome any and all feedback, and I sincerely hope that this post is merely the start of a much larger conversation.
1. Potteiger JA, Blessing DL, Wilson GD. The physiological responses to a single game of baseball pitching. J Strength Cond Res. 1992;6(1):11–18.
2. Holloszy JO, Booth FW. Biochemical adaptations to endurance exercise in muscle. Annu Rev Physiol. 1976;38:273–291. doi:10.1146/annurev.ph.38.030176.001421.
3. Rhea MR, Oliverson JR, Marshall G, Peterson MD, Kenn JG, Ayllón FN. Noncompatibility of power and endurance training among college baseball players. J Strength Cond Res Natl Strength Cond Assoc. 2008;22(1):230–234. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31815fa038.