Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning

Why Pitchers Should Not Do Cardio

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In exercise science, the principle of specificity says thatyou get what you train for”.  Thus, if you train by doing a lot of long distance, jogging, cycling or other forms of “cardio” work you will improve your aerobic fitness, but you won’t improve your ability to perform on the field. Why? Because the art of pitching is an anaerobic activity, not an aerobic activity. Making a pitch takes place in a fraction of a second followed by 20-30 seconds of rest. Success requires strength, speed and power, not aerobic fitness.

If you are doing a lot of cardio, you are not only training a system that you won’t use, you are weakening the primary system (anaerobic system) that you need to be successful in baseball. Research shows that even small amounts of aerobic training (20 minutes a couple of times per week) when combined with strength / power training can decrease both the rate at which you can produce force and your peak power (1). In other words, “if you spend 80% of your training time doing cardio, you are spending 80% of your time practicing to be slow”.

How does aerobic training interfere with speed / power development? First, it causes the body to recruit “slow twitch” muscle fibers over “fast twitch” fibers (2). This shift favors low-force, sustained exercise over the high-force, short duration efforts needed for pitching, and a shift towards slow-twitch fibers is the opposite of what you need for speed / power. Second, it can lead to an increase in cortisol (catabolic hormone) and a decrease in testosterone (anabolic hormone). This hormonal shift encourages muscle wasting over muscle building and lower levels of “naturally” occurring anabolic hormones, including testosterone (3). Can you see any reason to intentionally lower your “naturally” occurring steroids?

Don’t pitchers need endurance? Yes, but not the low-force, steady-state endurance produced by aerobic training. Pitchers need power endurance, i.e., anaerobic endurance.  A high level of anaerobic endurance will allow you to throw a baseball 90+ mph, rest for 20-30 sec and repeat it 130 times without a drop in velocity (power).

How do you develop this power? By running high intensity interval sprints (HIT). Research shows the improvements in both aerobic and anaerobic power are significantly higher when athletes run HIT sprints than when they run long distance (5), how long, how hard and how often do you need to run? Very seldom should a pitcher run more than 100 yards and all running should be at or above 70% of max sprint effort. There are a number of effective HIT interval off-season, pre-season and in-season workouts that work. An example of an effective in-season, anaerobic, running program is presented in Table 1.

What about “flush runs” the day after a start to flush out lactic acid and reduce arm soreness? They are not needed for a variety of reasons. First, there is no lactic acid to flush out. There is no accumulation of measurable amounts of lactic acid when you pitch (4). Why? It takes less than 5 sec to make a pitch. It takes 30+ sec of sustained all-out effort to produce lactic acid. The main fuels for pithing are adenosine triphosphate and creatine phosphate (ATP-CP), not lactic acid. ATP-CP are stored in the muscles, re-built in the muscles between pitches and provide the energy needed for HIT efforts lasting up to 6-8 sec.  Any effort beyond 6-8 sec uses carbohydrates (blood glucose, muscle glycogen and liver glycogen) to produce energy for HIT muscle contractions and these do not produce lactic acid. The only way a pitcher is going to make measurable quantities of lactic acid is by legging out a triple. The bottom line is that steady-state flush runs interfere with power development. Pitching does not produce lactic acid and even if it did, it would be cleared in less than 24 hours.

So what causes soreness after pitching if not lactic acid? There are several factors. First there is mechanical damage to soft tissue (muscle and muscle-tendon complex). Soreness also occurs as a result of nerve traction forces and general inflammatory mediators recruited for the healing process. Don’t blame lactic acid.

Is there anything about aerobic training that might have benefits to baseball players? Yes, it improves glucose uptake, CP regeneration, blood flow, body composition and strength and endurance in cartilage, tendons and ligaments. However, each of these positive adaptations can be achieved more effectively with HIT interval training without negatively affecting strength, speed and power.

The system used, is the system trained. Doing cardio uses and trains the aerobic system. Doing HIT interval sprints uses and trains the anaerobic (ATP-CP) system. Baseball is an anaerobic sport. Doing cardio not only trains a system that you won’t use, it also interferes with the system that you need for successful performance.

Table 1. Sample In-Season Running Program between Starts

 

Day After Start

Reps x Distance (yd.)

Rest between reps (sec)

1

2×100 yd. in 15-20 sec

4×75 in 10-12 sec

6×50 in 6-8 sec

8×25 in 4-5 sec

10×10 in 2 sec

60

30

20

20

10

2

4×75 in 10-12 sec

6×50 in 6-8 sec

8×25 in 4-5 sec

10×10 in 2 sec

30

20

20

10

3

6×50 in 6-8 sec

8×25 in 4-5 sec

10×10 in 2 sec

20

20

10

4

10×50 in 6-8 sec

20

References

 

  1. Hennessy, LC, Watson, ASW. The interference effects of training strength and endurance simultaneously, J Strength Cond Res, 1994.
  2. Thayer, et al. A decade of aerobic endurance training: histological evidence for fiber type transformation. J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2000.
  3. Kramer, WJ, et al. Compatibility of high intensity strength and endurance training on hormonal and skeletal muscle adaptations. J Appl Physiol, 1995.
  4. Elliott, MCCS, et al. Power athletes and endurance training. Physiologic and biomechanical rational for change. Sports Med, 2007.
  5. Tabata I, et.al. Metabolic profile of high intensity intermittent exercises”. Med and Sci in Sports and Exercise, 1997.

 

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Gene Coleman was the Head S&C Coach for the Houston Astros from 1978-2012 and is currently a strength and conditioning consultant for the Texas Rangers.

 

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One Comment

  1. Chris Pfau / September 19, 2015 at 9:42 pm /Reply

    You show a table for inseason HIT interval sprint training. Do you also have an example of a HIT interval sprint training schedule for offseason? If so, I would be interested in seeing what it would look like

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