In Season Conditioning for Starting Pitchers
By Jason Polakowski, CSCS, ATC, USAW
A pitcher possesses the baseball more than any position in baseball. This leads to a high amount of activity each game, especially when it comes down to the starting pitcher. Watching a game, it may not seem like a big deal because they’re resting and standing still in between each pitch. But let’s remember the pitcher is launching this baseball as hard as they can over the plate, over and over again, reaching speeds in the high 90’s and now many even hitting over 100 mph. All that torque on the shoulder and elbow, and continuously pushing and blocking with their legs off the mound is a lot for the body to go through 70 to 100 times a game. Due to these circumstances, it is absolutely vital for a starting pitcher to be the best at recovering in between pitching bouts so they can remain strong and healthy through a long season. And quick recovery starts with a strong conditioning program.
When it comes to the body’s ability to recover, the energy system that is going to do most of the work is the aerobic system. For maximum recovery, the aerobic system needs to be trained during conditioning sessions. The aerobic system is the most adaptable energy system in the body. While it is possible to adapt the lactic (anaerobic) and alactic (phosphagen) systems, they are harder to improve over time and their strength depends a lot on genetics. Some are concerned that working the aerobic system can diminish power output, but there are many ways to train aerobically without doing so. This is where smart coaching comes into play, and hopefully I can explain how design a conditioning program to improve recover, without diminishing power output1.
In the Phillies organization, we work mostly with athletes who pitch on a five-day rotation. The starting pitchers condition every day, including game day. They work on work the aerobic system to some compacity every day! They never train the lactic system body because it is draining, and it takes a too much time to recover from lactic training sessions.
Continuing to talk about the lactic system, I’ve heard athletes and coaches say that “lactic acid” builds up in pitchers during games, so they need to work that system more between starts in order to be increase tolerate to lactate build up. That, however, could not be further from the truth. According to Potteiger, et. al.,2 the amount of lactate (which actually isn’t a bad thing; it’s an energy substrate) produced by the body after a game of pitching is insignificant. The only significant biproducts of pitching a game were Creatine Kinase and Lactate Dehydrogenase, both biproducts of muscle/cell damage, which means that any soreness or discomfort after pitching is due to muscle damage, not the accumulation of “lactic acid”
We train the alactic system because it works very closely with the aerobic system. Alactic energy system training includes multiple, quick 6-10 second bursts of activity. These quick actions prevent the athlete from diving into his lactic system for energy. The aerobic system is used during the rest periods between exercise sets to facilitate recovery, restore ATP and help the athlete return to homeostasis before another bout of running2.
Now that the energy systems utilized in training have been discussed, let’s examine how a week of conditioning looks for a starting pitcher. The majority of the conditioning will be running based because pitchers are athletes after all, and they need to be good on their feet. The only day that they will stay off their feet is right after they pitch.
· Game day. Once a pitcher exits the game, they ride a stationary bike for 10 to 15 minutes to help kickstart the recovery process. Now, they aren’t going for a nice little ride with Dorothy and Toto. They are really working the aerobic system to fully charge it for the week to come. They ride against resistance to get the heart rate up, but they stay below the anaerobic threshold. The intensity requires them to breath heavy, but still able to hold a conversation. This type of conditioning is called high intensity continuous training (HICT) and it is effective for increasing the number of mitochondria within cells and increases oxidative abilities in fast twitch fibers2.
· Day 2. Pitchers begin to run on game 2, but the goal is to enhance recovery so the aerobic system is the energy system being utilized. Since this is also the furthest day out from the next time the athlete pitches, it will also involve the most volume (yards). The run will consist of some type of high intensity interval run, such as, a pole run. The athlete will run 8 to 14 poles (depending on the time of the season, player’s fitness level, and affiliate level). The goal is to have the player run at brisk pace and complete each pole in 34 to 38 seconds, with a 1:2 work to rest ratio. This type of conditioning should challenge the aerobic system without going over the anaerobic threshold2.
· Day 3. Day 3 is the only time that a pitcher will get close to working the lactic system. Players will perform pace runs at an intensity around the anaerobic threshold. Pace runs will be shorter than the runs performed on day 2 but with more intensity (85 to 95% full speed). An example of day 2 work includes some sort of gasser variation. It may take pitchers anywhere from 10 to 20 seconds to complete one rep, and the pace is right around that threshold (heavy breathing following the training session and not wanting to have a conversation). Pushing the alactic energy system to its max requires the aerobic system to work hard to restore the cells with oxygen and energy. Each rep will be followed by a rest approximately three times the duration of the run (1:3 work to rest)4.
· Day 4. Once they hit day 4, pitchers go back to working primarily the aerobic energy system using a program similar to day 2. Using the aerobic system on this day allows the body to continue to recover from the previous day in case the athlete was pushed too far into the lactic system. The workout will include an interval type of run, but it will be a bit shorter than day 2, because it is closer to the next game day. For example, we usually like to use ¾ pole or ½ pole runs on this day. The work to rest ratio will be 1:2, and maybe 1:1 if it’s earlier in the season. Players will perform 8 to 14 reps depending on his fitness and affiliate level.
· Day 5. This is the pre-game conditioning day and is strictly speed based and acts as a nervous system primer. Each sprint is 30 to 40 yards in length and lasts 5 to 6 seconds, thus allowing the athlete to remain in the alactic system. Recovery is provided by a long walk back to the starting line. The athlete will complete 8 to 12 of sprints to help prepare the nervous system for another great game of pitching the following day. After the athlete pitches, they repeat the previously described conditioning cycle and change volume as needed throughout the season.
This article was prepared to serves as nice guide for coaches trying to structure an in-season conditioning program for starting pitchers. The energy systems can sometimes be hard to comprehend, so a good resource is “Ultimate MMA Conditioning” by Joel Jamieson. Although, a lot of the book relates to fighting, the author effectively explains how the energy systems work with one another. Understanding how the energy systems coexist is essential when developing a conditioning program for starting pitchers. It’s a long season and it’s important that pitchers stay in tip-top shape to last the year and remain healthy. Proper conditioning is an absolute must for starting pitchers.
1. Jamieson, J. (2009). Ultimate MMA Conditioning. Performance Sports Inc.
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. Gibala, M., and McGee, S.L. (2008). “Metabolic Adaptations to Short-term High-Intensity Interval Training: A Little Pain for a lot of Gain?” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 58-63.
4. Ghosh, A. (2004). “Anaerobic Threshold: Its Concept and Role in Endurance Sport.” Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 1, 24-36.
Jason Polakowski, CSCS, ATC, USAW, is a Minor Leauge Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Philadelphia Phillies.