Home Baseball Content Should Pitchers Distance Run? What the Research Says.

Should Pitchers Distance Run? What the Research Says.

Written on August 22, 2012 at 9:01 am, by Eric Cressey

Today’s guest blog comes from current CP intern, Rob Rabena.  Rob recently completed his master’s thesis research on the effects of interval training versus steady state aerobic training on pitching performance in Division 2 pitchers.  He’s in a great position to fill us in on the latest research with respect to the distance running for pitchers argument.

“Ok, guys, go run some poles.”

A baseball coach often voices this phrase during the season to keep his pitchers in shape. Utilizing distance running to enhance aerobic performance among pitchers has always been the norm, but do the risks outweigh the rewards? There is strong evidence in the scientific literature to support that coaches should rethink utilizing distance running with their pitchers.

Jogging Might Not be the Answer

The current practice utilized for conditioning is for pitchers is to go for a long run the day after a game to “flush” the sore arm of lactic acid, or minimize muscle soreness to recover faster for the next game. These theories are not supported by the current literature and the physiology of the sport.

In the current research study examining the physiology of pitching, Potteiger et al. (1992) found no significant difference between pre-pitching and post-pitching blood lactate levels of six college baseball players after throwing a 7-inning simulated game. Even though during an inning there is a slight lactate production of 5.3-5.8 mM, (which is not high, considering resting lactate is 1.0mM), it does not cause a buildup of lactic acid in the arm of a pitcher after a game. As a comparative example, a high lactate response would occur from squatting for multiple reps at about 70% 1RM; this might produce a lactate level of about 8-10mM (Reynolds et al., 1997). Furthermore, jogging to flush the arm of lactic acid after a start is unnecessary and not supported by the literature, especially since we learned all the way back in 2004 that lactate was not the cause of muscular fatigue ; even the New York Times reported on this in 2007! A lot of coaches simply haven’t caught wind yet – in spite of the fact that exercise physiology textbooks have been rewritten to include this new information.

Should Pitchers Distance Run?

When a person jogs at a pace where he/she is able to hold a conversation (at or below ventilatory and lactate threshold), the goal is to improve V02 and to enhance aerobic performance. For pitchers, this practice is utilized to enhance and maintain endurance during games, as well as to maintain body composition throughout the season
In the research study conducted by Potteiger et al. (1992), the researchers found that mean V02 only reached 20 ml. kg.min during the simulated game, and returned to 4.9 ml.kg.min between innings (resting is 3.5 ml.kg.min). The V02s of endurance athletes are approximately greater than or equal to 60 ml.kg.min. Based off this study, V02 does not seem to be a limiting factor for pitchers who want to pitch deep into games. Since a high V02 does not make a great pitcher, why are we training like an endurance athlete, when pitching relies predominately on the anaerobic system? While jogging may help you with body composition and endurance, it’s not going to help you throw more innings in a game. Our emphasis should be on building strength and speed, which are more anaerobic qualities.

Endurance Running or Sprints?

Still not convinced that sprint or anaerobic training is right for your pitching staff? Okay, coach, here are a few more studies comparing sprint training to aerobic training and their effects on pitching performance.

One study examined dance aerobic training (yes, dance training) to sprint training in baseball pitchers and found a significant improvement (p<0.05) in the pitching velocity and anaerobic power measures of the sprint groups (Potteiger et al., 1992).

In a similar study that compared sprint training and long, slow distance running in-season, Rhea et al. (2008) found a significant increase in lower body power for the sprint group, and a drop in power for the distance group. Do we want our pitchers dropping in lower body power? I don’t think so!  Would you like to see their power production increase? Absolutely!

My Research

My Master’s thesis, “The Effects of Interval Training on Pitching Performance of NCAA Division II pitchers”, examined the in-season steady state exercise and interval training on pitching performance. Prior to collecting data, I hypothesized that I was going to find a significant difference in pitching velocity, WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched), 30m sprint time, fatigue index and muscle soreness.

The results of my thesis study found no significant difference (p>0.05) in any of the hypotheses. However, there was a very strong trend (p=.071) for the distance training group presenting with more soreness based off a 0-10 scale. The distance group did not drop in velocity, get slower, or decrease pitching performance like the previous studies suggested. When examining the results of my thesis study with the current literature, I continue to question if there is an appropriate place and time to implement distance running for pitchers within a training cycle, and if so, when would it be most efficient to do so?

Now What Do We Do?

Most of the research available supports that assertion that pitchers should stop distance running or not make it a focal point of their baseball strength and conditioning program. Distance running trains the aerobic energy system, where pitching is purely anaerobic in nature. I’m not totally bashing distance running because it does have its benefits for certain populations, just not for the performance goals of pitchers.

Now that we know what we shouldn’t be coaching, what should pitchers be doing for conditioning instead of running poles during practices? There are few things to consider when designing sports specific conditioning for pitchers:

● What should the rest periods be between sprints?
● What distances should pitchers sprint?
● How many days a week should pitchers actually condition, and does this fit into the overall training program?

The time between pitches is 15-20 sec (Szymanski, 2009), or longer for guys who are known for working slow on the mound. This can really help coaches when implementing interval sprints. Based off research and my time spent at Cressey Performance, anything 40 yards and under for 4-8 sprints, 2-3x a week is recommended. This, of course, depends on time of year (in-season vs. off-season). At the end of a workout, if the equipment is available, a lateral sled drag, farmers’ walks, or sledge hammer hits are always a plus to increase the anaerobic energy systems, which for a pitcher are most important.

Training pitchers out of the sagittal plane is another key consideration often overlooked with training baseball players; for this reason, using rotational medicine ball exercises is extremely valuable. Check out this study by Szymanski et al, (2007), which compared a medicine ball and resistance training group to resistance training only. Researchers found an increase torso rotational strength for the medicine ball group.

This explains why med balls are a great option for baseball players to not only develop rotational power, but also to blow off some steam. With that in mind, during a movement/conditioning day for pitchers, exercises like band-resisted heidens and lateral skips should be incorporated, along with the more traditional straight sprints mentioned above.

Conclusion

Based off the literature, long distance running should not be implemented for pitchers. When it comes down to it, a well-developed training program that incorporates strength, movement and conditioning is the most efficient way to enhance the way your athlete moves and plays on the field.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to leave comments below, as this is the start of a process and something that coaches need to further consider and discuss to improve the efficiency of the conditioning programs for pitchers.

About the Author

Rob Rabena M.S., C.S.C.S, is a strength and conditioning coach who is currently interning at Cressey Performance. Rob recently earned his M.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Strength and Conditioning. Prior to his graduate work, Rob obtained his B.S. in Exercise Science with a focus in Health Promotion from Cabrini College in 2011. Although Rob has a particular interest and experience with coaching collegiate athletes, he also enjoys working with clientele of diverse backgrounds and dictates his coaching practice to making his clients feel great, both physically and mentally, while placing a strong emphasis on the specific goals of the client. Feel free to contact Rob Rabena directly via email at robrabena@gmail.com.

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References

1. Fox EL. Sports Physiology (2nd ed). New York, NY: CBS College Publishing, 1984

2. Potteiger, J., Blessing, D., & Wilson, G. D. (1992). The Physiological Responses to a Single Game of Baseball Pitching. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research , 6, 11-18.

3. Potteiger, J., Williford, H., Blessing, D., & Smidt, J. (1992). The Efect of Two Training Methods on Improving Baseball Performance Variables. Journal of Applied Sports Science Research , 2-6.

4. Reynolds, T., Frye, P., & Sforzo, G. (1997). Resistance Training and Blood Lactate Response to Resistance Exercise in Women. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 77-81.

5. Rhea, M., Oliverson, J., Marshall, G., Peterson, M., Kenn, J., & Ayllon, F. (2008). Noncompatibilty of Power and Endurance Training Among College Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 230-234.

6. Szymanski, D. J. (2009). Physiology of Baseball Pitching Dictates Specific Exercise Insensity for Conditioning. Journal of Strength and Conditioning , 31, 41-47.

7. Szymanski, J., Szymanski, J., Bradford, J., Schade, R., & Pascoe, D. (2007). Effect of Twelve Weeks of Medicine Ball Training on High School Baseball Players. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research , 894-901.

8.Torre, J., & Ryan, N. (1977). Pitching and Hitting. NJ: Prentice-Hall Inc.

  • Bill White

    Thanks for an informative post. So are you recomending pitchers do nothing after an outing? My son’s pitching coach always has him do cariokes (sp?) while holding baseballs, water bottles, or gloves above his head… This is more anaerobic and in a way more like sprints…What are your thoughts on this?

  • Ted

    Prior to my arrival at the school I coached at, the head coach routinely led the team in two-plus mile distance runs at least twice per week. And pitchers ran poles like it was the magic that would keep their arms intact. It was a badge of honor that I felt compelled to break.

    As General George S. Patton said, “Fatigue makes cowards of us all”. Long distance running does nothing to combat fatigue as it relates to the baseball field. It seemed obvious to me.

    All throughout my wrestling career, I was taught that the components of fatigue are not simply physical, but mental and emotional as well. You can determine how fatigued-hardened you are NOT by how far you can go, but how QUICKLY you can recover from stressors stemming from each component.

    When I first started implementing wrestling and sprinter training techniques to baseball conditioning and completely blew off distance running, coaches and parents alike thought I was crazy. But properly run, a series of high tax/high stress sets followed by short periods of rest allows the player to train his mind to mentally fight physical and emotional fatigue. And that can make all the difference.

    I’m so glad that we are moving out of the “dark ages” of training with wonderfully qualified and researched advice from Cressey et al. It reinforces what should be intuitive, and also gives shmoes like me a source of authority to back up our season-long madness.

    Thanks again for all that you folks do!

  • Bill,

    I don’t think Rob was recommending that at all. Give this a read:

    http://ecressey.wpengine.com/a-new-model-for-training-between-starts-part-2

  • Robert

    Just more proof of why distance running is not the answer! It amazes me that there is hard evidence, scientifically backed studies showing the detremental effects of distance running for pitchers and why other avenues produce greater results, yet still coaches feel the incessant need to have their players jog for miles on end. The evidence is there as shown in this article and others of Eric’s. Being responsible for athletes development you would think coaches would do their homework, read the studies, enhance their knowledge. I don’t see any pieces out there proclaiming distance running improves recovery, performance, velocity, etc. but coaches don’t want to hear.

    A lot of times it’s like banging your head against a wall in regards to getting proper training accepted in the baseball community. I’m glad at least that their are sites like this that are fighting to break the status quo and actually help improve athletes.

  • Matt

    So no place for distance running in a pitchers conditioning program period? How about as an easy/ cool down day?

  • Matt – Justify it for us. Prove that there is validity to it in the context of promoting recovery or some sort of favorable adaptation that will improve pitching performance.

  • Greg

    Cant say i would agree on that right away because of literature. Not stop running , just place it training blocks. Aerobic capacity should be ideal especially if he’s a starter and is going to need his wind for a while. Then not sure if that many sets of sprints would impact the natural throwing mechanics of the pitch. Training modalities per individuals may need to be different. If running has been routine for the pitchers I say why take it out now?

  • Great blog and please keep pushing the message. There are still soooooo many baseball coaches out there that advocate and implement long distance running, not just for pitchers, but for all of their players. And these are often “successful” coaches. But it is a great example of “This is how I have done it, I have had success, I ain’t changin'”. Understandable, yet not really progressive nor being obsessive with finding optimal methods.

    I would say, however, that there might be one instance where I wouldn’t touch long distance running – if it is a “mental” exercise for the athlete acting as a potentially strong placebo. As we know, successful athletes almost always have very disciplined routines that help get them into their own optimal performance state. Almost sacred. If for whatever reason something like a “relaxing 20 minute jog” the night before a start has become part of that routine I’d tread lightly around messing with it, until the athlete has shown they are receptive to a change to this routine. Like any other act of learning, the student must be in a receptive state for it to take effect.

    So other than that instance where it MIGHT have a positive mental effect that outweighs the physiological downside, this adherence to long distance training really needs to be blown to smithereens. Thank you.

  • Walt

    I wish this information was available to my college pitching coach back in the day. We basically considered ourselves the “second cross-country” team…wasted time, wasted effort.

  • bill inman

    Will running crosscountry in the off season create a greater base for sprints during the baseball season?

  • John

    Interesting that you did not find any significant difference between the two groups like the Rhea study. What was the time period you were evaluating? Could it be possible that you didn’t have a long enough time period to get the results you would expect? I would love to find out long term results of distance running vs. high intensity sprint/strength training.

  • Rick Finley

    Hey Guys this article is so true. In 2011 I took over a select team in Cincinnati,named the Cincinnati Bandits 15 year olds and I tried this concept. It worked miracles!!!! I had 11 pitchers, 5 of them were left-handed. My workout regimen were sprints, medicine ball workouts,Long toss,Bands, and lots of body weight squats/pushups/pullups.

    We had a pitch count in our league which my guys only pitched maybe 5 or 6 innings. With the above exercises which include plenty of sprint work (fast twitch) when we would travel to tournaments our guys threw complete games… In tournaments there wasn’t a pitch count, but make sure your not burning out your pitcher. That summer we had 4 complete games thrown.The key to our succes was after they pitched in a game, each guy is required to do band work ( sets) and run a 10 60’s. The players loved it because they saw themselves being successful.

    During practice and at home I required our guys to long toss, sprint work(10’s 20’s 30’s 40’s 60’s) and band work.

    You can mix in poles as a warmup, but probably doin 2x’s and then go into your dynamic warmup.
    If can cut poles out. Use your sprints to develop team competition…. I like athletes!!!

    Rick Finley
    CEO/President
    MD&I Baseball Academy
    (MD&I stands for “My Dad and I”)

  • Great stuff, Rick!

  • Bill – No! Train slow, be slow.

  • Greg,

    Same comment I made to Matt earlier; justify it! “Just because we’ve always done it” isn’t a valid rationale.

  • Mike – great stuff. Sometimes it has to be “one of mine, one of yours” when you’re trying to win over an athlete with a new idea.

  • Zack

    Eric/Rob,

    Pitchers are do doubt power producing athletes, and I agree 100% with what you both have said on this subject. Time can be better spent doing something other than jogging.

    Rob wrote above, and this would be due to pitchers being primarily anaerobic athletes, during an inning lactate rose above 5 mmol which for an untrained person would put them well with in the point where they would start to accumulate lactate to further produce ATP. If they were to continuously produce lactic acid and lactate, which they don’t because each “max effort” pitch only takes a few seconds then its back to standing around, They would fatigue very quickly.

    So i think this might be where coaches get confused, when that lactate produced by each pitch needs to be cleared. Its not after the game during the 12 poles that the lactate gets cleared; shouldn’t the lactate get cleared in between pitches and innings when the aerobic system would be most active? So if that makes sense (because I’m trying to better understand this myself)….

    Would either of you agree a more powerful and efficient aerobic system that pushes back OBLA to maybe 6mmol (beyond the numbers in your research) instead of 4 mmol would allow a pitcher to continue to work at a high intensity further into the game to keep velocity and other things consistent? Because we wouldn’t want a whole bunch power that we develop through sprints and strength training and then not have the ability to sustain that power for long.

  • Jason

    Eric/Rob, I think, or at least i hope, in the S&C world, the message has been received, that pitchers should not train like endurance athletes (due largely in part to people like you — so thanks). However, I remember a couple years ago reading an article on the topic. It mentioned increasing aerobic capacity (I think — again it was awhile back), and improving the body’s ability to maintain an elevated core temperature, something that could be beneficial for pitchers, between innings. Any thoughts on this?

  • Rob Rabena

    Zack great questions! Energy systems are active all the time, its just which one is more active/dominate during certain events or activities? In this case for pitchers, the research has shown that the ATP-PCR system is most dominate, not the oxidative system.

    To answer your second question, what would push back the OBLA, would be training at or above that threshold; any training below that, the body would be using predominantly the oxidative energy system to fuel the body.

  • Dennis

    Great stuff Eric! Funny story- as a minor leaguer in the early 80s I approached my pitching coach prior to our daily running routine of 10 poles and I told him that I thought running poles was counterproductive for me as a pitcher and felt that it weakened me and that i wanted to feel strong when called on- I was the closer. He looked at me and said “get your ass out there and start running!” Haha! He wouldn’t hear anything I had to say. All these years later it’s a good memory. Pitching is definitely an anerobic power activity. I have experimented with a combination of sprints on the treadmill, stationary bike, and elliptical machines along with power leg exercises (squats & lunges) and power upper body work (bench with a manageable weight using reps and time to challenge anerobic system) and thorough use of pulleys from every possible angle backwards and forwards with challenging resistance. Some of my pitching feats have included pitching 3 complete games in a 24 hour period- all victories with the 2nd of those games a 4 hit shutout (at the age of 40) and tossing 17 innings in a doubleheader- 10 in game 1 and 7 in game 2 (at the age of 50). I don’t recommend attempting this for younger pitchers. But I think I am a good example that long distance running is not necessary to be trained to pitch lots of innings. I also think one missing and sometimes overlooked element is the willingness and desire for the pitcher to endure and to drive and push oneself beyond what someone else’s preconceived notions of limitations may be. Justin Verlander seems to be a modern day example of this. Many others from the past and present also fit this description.

  • Rob Rabena

    Jason thanks for the kind words!, check this research paper out on between inning recovery methods, you might find it pretty interesting.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21311344.

  • James

    What are you considering as distance running? Where are you running distance? Running poles for pitchers the way people do it now is really a big waste of time. Especially “after” games. If you are running miles on end around a track then of course it will not be very effective. But what if you’re running in the forest? Around town that’s full of hills? I think if you were to program it correctly it could be effective to run certain distances. But like Eric says, you have to prove it and be able to back up why you’re doing it.

    Good article.

  • James,

    Would be interesting to see how the distance traveled in a sprint program (including walking components b/t reps) would compare to what one would cover with distance running. There might not be much less total work.

    Good stuff.

    EC

  • James

    Eric, that would be a interesting comparison. Because players let alone pitchers {more so) need to throw long innings or everyday {players}. I really like your med ball training ideas and concepts. Incorporating that into sprints. What I am wondering is how do you train your guys or people for pitching complete games? If you are sprinting you cant just keep adding sprints, Cause that would diminish over time. And do you consider a complete game power endurance rather then just power?

  • James,

    The name of the game is building up pitch count. There really is no way to simulate that without throwing.

  • Rob,

    First of all congrats on finishing up your M.S. I have read other things to this effect and love the heidens and lateral sleds for developing plane specific power (which seems almost like a redundancy now that we understand it is after all, plane-specific) and anaerobic conditioning. I don’t know if I missed something along the way but in terms of the sledge work, have you guys come up with anything similar that has a greater deceleration component?

    Thanks,
    Alex

  • Rob Rabena

    Alex,

    Thanks for kind words and good question! I have not come across a similar exercise that has a greater deceleration component.

  • Dar

    This is a great article, too bad many trainers will ignore this advice and emphasize distance running over speed training. Eventually, they will get it right!

    D~

  • James

    How would this effect a middle school student who would like to compete in Cross Country for his school. Although they are running distance, they are training to run that distance as fast as they can.

    Should competing in these 5k races be totally avoided?

    Is this another time where the child has to choose between one or the other?

  • James,

    At that age, the athlete shouldn’t worry about it. He should do what he enjoys doing!


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