High Intensity VS Low Intensity Cardio for Pitchers

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High Intense Short Distance Cardio VS Low Intense Long Distance Cardio for Pitchers

By Brian Commerford
2015 Summer Internship Final Paper

Baseball has been around a long time, and for the longest time players and coaches have done pretty much anything to improve their performance.  This goes from nutrition to strength training and even steroids.  I will discuss what type of cardio for pitchers is better, high intense short distance cardio OR low intense long distance cardio.  The norm for training baseball pitchers has always been long distance endurance running, because the thought is that coaches want their pitchers to last longer in games and throughout the season.  Recent research has proven over and over again that high intensity interval sprints are a far more effective training model cardio for pitchers over long distance endurance training.  Still today, many coaches and trainers make their pitchers run poles or long distance after they pitch or even everyday at practice.  I am still not exactly sure why some coaches are stubborn to new and improved ideas, but in this research report I will dissect the differences of sprinting vs endurance running cardio for pitchers and how this can effect pitching performance and overall well-being of the pitchers.

The first thing I want to address is power output.  Pitching is a very violent, powerful movement, and it can be extremely taxing on a pitcher.  Pitching is one max effort explosion, rest, and then another explosion over and over again.  When we think about that last sentence we should now be concerned with two things: total power output by the athlete and the ability to summon said power over and over again as close to 100% as possible.  Let’s focus on getting power first; as you might guess it takes far more power output by an athlete to sprint 100 yards then to jog a mile or more.  Dr. Layne Norton talks about the effects of cardio on strength and hypertrophy, and brings up the point that endurance training will actually make you lose muscle and power while highly intense sprinting will help gain it! Just look at a marathon runner next to a sprinter, and you can clearly see which kind of training promoted muscle power and growth.

There was research done in 2008 on 16 NCAA division 1 baseball players to test these 2 types of cardiovascular training throughout the course of their season.  The researchers took the 16 athletes and split them into 2 groups where one group participated in speed/sprint training 3-4 days a week and the other group participated in regular endurance training.  Both groups still participated in regular periodized weight-lifting routines 2-3 times per week, which consisted of compound lifts as well plyometric movements.  The researchers found that during the season the endurance group actually lost power output in their legs, while the sprinting group improved significantly.  The goal of so many pitching coaches and strength trainers for their pitchers is to avoid strength loss throughout the season, but this study shows that sprinting does not just maintain their strength, but it actually improves it.  We also see that endurance training does not even maintain the power output of the pitchers, as it decreases significantly.  So this study tells us that the common way to condition pitchers is actually doing more harm than good, while this new idea of sprinting routines helps pitchers much more than expected.  Over these two points, we can conclude that sprinting is more useful for generating the power athlete than classic endurance training.

Another thing that is important to look at is the mobility issue with running long distance.  If you ask any long distance runner to stretch, chances are you are going to see a lack of flexibility in the runner.  We that that in long distance runners, because that style of running does not allow proper hip flexion and thus does not activate all of our hip flexors.  If you looks up the best marathon runners and look at hip flexion you will see that their thigh is pretty much at a 45-degree angle at peak height.  Now add a lot of mileage on that movement over and over again, and you will find that the athlete will lose mobility due to the athletes’s shortened range of motion with the jogging stride.  On the other hand when you look at top sprinters you will see that the hip flexion is all the way to 90-degrees.  That is double the range of motion we see with joggers.  With this increased range of motion not only are we going to see strength increases with muscles that were not firing before, but we will also see an increase of flexibility and overall range of motion in the athlete.  Since a pitcher’s stride is very long, it is important for him to maintain flexibility to have a productive delivery without added risk of injury.  Also if the pitchers has a limited range of motion he will have to work harder to get to his normal delivery and will have to muscle his way through the ball.  However, muscle building up while pitching is not a good thing. If you are familiar with baseball and pitchers, then you will know that when a pitcher tries to muscle a ball through a pitch, velocity falls and the pitch is usually inaccurate.  We want pitchers to be loose and fluid which enables them to use the stretch-shortening cycle fully without trying too hard.

My next point is that pitchers usually have very obvious imbalances to their bodies, especially after a season.  Expert baseball strength coach, Eric Cressey, talks about how his first goal after a pitcher’s season is to address the pitcher’s lead hip extension, lead leg hips internal rotation, lead leg knee flexion, throwing arm shoulder internal rotation, scapula posterior tilt, and throwing arm elbow extension.  All of these are major issues for any baseball pitcher, or position player, and running long distance slowly really does not help any of these and could even be adding on to the problem, like we just talked about.  Since sprinting gets the player more range of motion then this will help the tight hip flexors, quadriceps, and external rotators.

On thing that you hear from coaches at all levels is that you have to flush all of the lactic acid out of your arm after you pitch.  This is a very common misconception among baseball players and coaches.  Most pitchers hear this and automatically assume it to be true.  Well, a study was done to test blood lactate levels of 6 college pitchers before, during, and after a start.  The researchers put each athlete through a 7 inning simulated game and monitored levels throughout the game.  The results found that “lactate showed no differences between pre-exercise values and post-inning 4 and 7 measurements” (Pottier et al. 1992).  Another study done in 2004 came to a conclusion that, “research evidence also disproves the concept of a lactic acidosis” (Robergs).  Their search states that lactic acid is not the cause of muscle fatigue.  Another study done in 2002 found agreeing data that lactic acid is not the cause of muscle fatigue and that “Instead, inorganic phosphate, which increases during fatigue due to breakdown of creatine phosphate, appears to be a major cause of muscle fatigue” (Westerblad).  This tells us that lactic acid build up in the shoulders while pitching is a myth.  These studies tell us that running to relieve lactic acid build up is unnecessary because there is insignificant lactate build up.

Coaches want pitchers to run to “flush out lactic acid,” so that they will recover from soreness quicker.  A study done by Rob Rabena looked at endurance training vs sprinting while in season for Division 2 pitchers, and he found that the most interesting thing was that based on a continuous 1-10 scale, the distance group had more soreness trend throughout the season as compared to the sprinting group.  Another debunk of a long time baseball myth, this study proves that sprint work for conditioning helps soreness over long distance running.  So with no lactic acid build up an not much soreness relief in general, long distance running has lost its two main perks in the minds of most coaches.

The three (3) most common ideas brought up in regards to the sprint vs endurance cardio battle has been effect on velocity (power), health of the pitcher, and flushing out lactic acid.  The research I have presented has clearly identified that short distance high intensity running has more benefit than endurance running.  There are many studies that show endurance running contributing negatively to power in an athlete an that high intensity sprints contribute positively to power.  We learned that we can just apply the eye test to a sprinter vs a marathon runner to quickly determine whom we would rather throw a baseball.  Scientist and body builder, Dr. Layne Norton, told us his research has found that short high intensity sprints are the best thing cardiovascular training in order to develop more power and will actually help you get in shape quicker.  We found in numerous studies that slow endurance running did not help pitchers, but instead hurt them by decreasing power output.  When coaches look to run their pitchers to help their health, they seem to think it will add longevity to their bodies.  Research shows that constant low intensity cardio reduces the range of motion in pitchers’ legs and therefore creates a bigger risk for injury.  We find this loss of range of motion through a shorter stride generated through jogging as compared to the full leg and arm action sprinting presents.  Along with a risk of injury, loss of range of motion means pitchers have to “muscle” or face the ball more through their delivery, which causes a decrease in velocity and loss of control.  The last thing that most coaches will swear by is that pitchers need to “flush run” to get the lactic acid out of their system.  Research has shown us that lactic acid is not the major cause of muscle fatigue, and there is not enough lactic acid build up in the shoulder to require a flush run.  All these reasons point to short high intense sprints as the most beneficial kind of conditioning for baseball players.  Even sometimes when we stop to think instead of following the norms we can make ourselves better.  Moreover, pitching is a bunch of powerful short explosions with rest in-between so it only makes sense to strive for our pitchers to have 100% power by short sprint bouts with rest in-between.  We can ask ourselves, do we want to throw like a sprinter runs or jogger runs?  We are preached “practice like you play.”  Dr. Jacob Wilson says, “Specifically, our research suggests that athletes seeking to concurrently train to obtain simultaneous increases in muscle hypertrophy, strength, and endurance should select a modality of endurance exercise that closely mimics their sport to avoid the occurrence of competing adaptions.”  The longest play in baseball is over in 12 seconds, so why do people continue to train longer than that?  Let’s make our pitchers healthier and better at their craft by running them the correct way.

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