If you look out onto a baseball field with a team practicing, you may see some players running along the outline of the outfield wall. Reminiscent of a polar bear at your local zoo, they seem to be scaling along the wall, looking for a way out. However, they are actually running “poles,” a run from foul pole to foul pole, designed to enhance pitchers’ recovery process and performance. These athletes are not smiling, and they aren’t having fun, and for a good reason. Continuing our animal analogy is akin to asking a cheetah to run a marathon. They probably could, but it’s not what a cheetah designed to do. And that is what this article is all about.
It Is Not Superior for Recovery
There are two main reasons for all the running. The first theory is that running long distances enhances recovery. While there is some merit to long, slow cardio helping an athlete recover from competition, it isn’t all that necessary at the youth, high school, and collegiate levels. The number of days between starts is usually more than enough time to recover without any sort of conditioning. Beyond that, light throwing, sprints, general warmups, and simply being active are all proven methods to help enhance recovery. Motion is lotion. Going through a normal practice is more than enough movement and conditioning to deliver all the recovery benefits that running poles and 3+ miles around the school property can deliver. Not to mention that time can be spent on skill development instead of developing cross-country runners.
It Does Not Enhance Performance
The second reason is performance enhancement. This is the biggest myth with running poles on a baseball field. The rationale is that it builds strong legs and endurance, two vital attributes for a pitcher. There are problems with both theories. First, running does not build much strength for an athlete. You don’t see a lot of cross country runners also competing on the powerlifting team for a reason. I’ll leave it at that. Second, jogging does build endurance, but slow endurance. Think about it: if you want to throw hard, you have to practice moving fast. Jogging relies on slow-twitch muscle fibers that help you move slowly, but for a long time. It does not enhance your fast-twitch fibers (the ones you use on the mound) to be more explosive. It’s only logical that running 5-8 mph for a long period of time will not help you throw 90+ mph for a short period of time. It’s two very different types of movement that do not complement each other.
So What Does Work?
Conversely, sprinting, plyometric exercises, and various types of weightlifting help build your fast-twitch fibers, enhancing your ability to be explosive. That type of training is much more relevant to enhancing pitching abilities. Moving your bodyweight slowly for an extended period doesn’t bode well on a baseball field. Jogging is a great example of that. On the flip side, moving weights and your bodyweight will help you throw a baseball quickly and explosively. It makes sense.
An analogy I like to use is in terms of reps and sets. Let’s say you take 5,000 strides in a run. That would make the exercise 1 set of 5,000 reps. There is no rest break, just one set of constant movement. Pitching is quite the opposite. It is a 1 second effort, followed by a roughly 20-25 second rest break. If you get winded, you can take even longer between efforts. Nobody needs to be in great cardiovascular shape to meet demands like that. With that, 100 pitches should be viewed more like 100 sets of 1, not 1 set of 100. This creates a mindset to make each pitch count, with a max effort approach to each throw. Our training should reflect that mindset with short, explosive bursts of effort instead of slow, prolonged ones. Coaches and athletes alike need to adopt this mindset and aim our training efforts away from long and slow ones, such as jogging. We need to train short, explosively, repeatedly. Sprinting, jumping, and weightlifting are the ways to go, not jogging.
On a personal note, I played baseball in college for five years (shoutout to my fellow victory lappers). I roughly estimate that I probably ran close to 1,000 miles there in my time. I didn’t mind it, because I was pretty good at it. I broke our team’s record twice in our 3-mile run we always did. It was (not ironically) the one thing I shined above the rest in. I was the best runner among my teammates, and I enjoyed winning in whatever I competed in. As you might imagine, though, that did not translate to superior performance on the field. To brutally but honestly put it, I was a terrible college ballplayer. I had one of the slowest fastballs on the team, but the best 5k time. Not a coincidence.
Further proving my point, our star pitchers were equally terrible at our 3-mile runs. They could throw over 90 mph but couldn’t run 3 miles in under 25 minutes. That’s no mistake. It isn’t impossible, but those with pretty good endurance like me tend not to be very explosive. Conversely, explosive athletes usually do not tend to have great endurance. I bet you will notice similar things if you are involved with a baseball team.
Let’s change our mindset that baseball players, particularly pitchers, are explosive athletes. Running long and slow will not help improve performance. It isn’t a superior recovery method. Worst of all, it can even be detrimental to throwing velocity. Therefore, running long distances and poles is not in the best interest of baseball pitchers.