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Aerobic Fitness for Baseball: Part II (Application)

In Part I here, we provided the physiological rationale for incorporating aerobic development into baseball physical preparatory programs.  Here, we’ll discuss how to translate theory into practice.  To begin, we must dispel some common myths about aerobic development.

The first is that one can train the aerobic system, or any energy system for that matter, in isolation.

At any point in time, all three energy systems work concurrently to respond to environmental stressors as efficiently and safely as possible.  Remember, in biology, everything has a cost – and potentially a benefit.  Even as you read this article, presumably in a state of rest, your glycolytic system is “working” and producing lactate.  The concentration of lactate, however, is not sufficient to skew the energy balance into the anaerobic realm.  In medicine and physiology, we compartmentalize things into different buckets to make the whole easier to understand.  In reality, there is one “energy system” that calls upon different balances of various chemical processes (phosphagenic, glycolytic, aerobic) depending on an athlete’s physiological output.

Lecture on “Buckets”

The second myth is that interval training is necessarily anaerobic.

Interval training is only “anaerobic” if during the course of the protocol, the rate of lactate production exceeds the rate of lactate removal.  Many (not all) of the interval training studies people cite in support of “anaerobic” training, especially those conducted on untrained subjects, utilize aerobically-based intervals performed at a higher intensity than the steady state control group.  Untrained subjects, in particular, aren’t fit or motivated enough to push themselves deeply enough into glycolysis for successive repetitions.  That kind of stress is often too threatening for somebody unaccustomed to high intensity work.  What these studies do suggest is that in certain populations and in certain contexts, aerobic interval work performed at higher intensities (but still below anaerobic threshold) may be superior to the steady state training traditionally associated with the aerobic system.  Baseball players may, in fact, be one such population.

The expression “train slow, be slow” requires context.  This saying is more applicable to true speed and power athletes than to athletes who accumulate several miles of running throughout a game.  Most team sport athletes, baseball players being an exception, are not speed and power athletes.  Therefore, steady state training or long(er) duration intervals performed below anaerobic threshold serve more of a purpose in disciplines like soccer, MMA, and basketball, for example, than in baseball, powerlifting, and track and field throws and jumps.  Appreciating the manner in which aerobic development may enhance performance in speed and power sports does not mean that all athletes should train the aerobic system the same way.

One of the best ways to develop the aerobic system for baseball is tempo running.  Charlie Francis discusses the “tempo method” at great length in The Charlie Francis Training System.  Tempo work consists of interval-based running sessions conducted at submaximal velocities that often still far exceed the velocities encountered in other aerobic, and even glyocolytic, protocols.  The difference lies in the manner in which the distances and rest periods are manipulated.  When working with sprinters, Charlie utilized both extensive (less than or equal to 75% intensity) and intensive (generally between 80 and 85% intensity) methods depending on the duration of a sprinter’s event.  For the purposes of this article, only extensive tempo methods apply.  During an extensive tempo session, a sprinter might perform 50 to 100m repeats at 75% or less than the speed he/she is capable of running for that distance.  So a 10.0s (10m/s) 100m runner would perform extensive tempo repeats no faster than approximately 13.5s/100m.  Since team sport athletes, including baseball players, rarely ever reach top speed in a game, even this “slow” tempo work is faster than the overwhelming majority of running that occurs in competition.  Extensive tempo work remains “aerobic” as long as adequate rest is provided between repeats.

In Applied Sprint Training, James Smith cleverly modifies Charlie’s tempo volume prescriptions for team sport athletes.  So while a 100m sprinter may perform 1000-2000m of extensive tempo in a session, 3000-4000m might be more suitable for a soccer or Aussie rules football player.  Smith does not provide a prescription for baseball players, probably because baseball is physiologically simpler than the other sports he covers.  1000-1500m of extensive tempo work performed 2-3 times/week seems sufficient enough to aerobically cover a baseball player.  Moreover, the extensive tempo work is fast enough to groove sprinting technique and condition the hamstrings for pure speed work conducted at different points in the training cycle.  There is a lot of controversy about how to best prevent hamstring injuries.  Confining an athlete’s training to the weight room until he/she leaves for camp, as is often done, is definitely not best practice.  Calisthenics and medicine ball work can also be incorporated into the tempo sessions to increase the volume of work and the demand on the cardiac system.  An example 8-week off-season extensive tempo progression for a baseball player might look something like this (remember MAXIMUM of 75% of peak velocity for that distance):

Week 1: 16x (Run 50m, Bear Pose x5 breaths in through nose/out through mouth, Med Ball Throw x5 per side), heart rate recovery to 110bpm after each repetition.
Week 2: 18x
Week 3: 20x
Week 4: 22x

​Week 5:10x (Run 100m, Full Rockback on Elbows x5 breaths, Med Ball Overhead Chop Slam x8 total throws), heart rate recovery to 110bpm after each repetition.
Week 6: 12x
Week 7: 14x
Week 8: 15x

Performing a breathing-based exercise after the run forces the athlete to control his/her breathing with an elevated heart rate, a useful skill when confronted with any kind of stress.  It also prevents athletes who have a difficulty autoregulating their intensity from running too fast.  The key during the run is to feel smooth and relaxed.  The medicine ball work should be performed dynamically but not with max intensity.  Once again, smooth and relaxed.  Tempo sessions should be performed on low CNS days if one follows a high/low template or on recovery days.  Assuming someone does pure speed and strength work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the tempo work would be done on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  Tempo running is A way, albeit an effective and relatively specific one, to develop the aerobic system for baseball.  Unless you can hit like Babe Ruth or Big Papi, you too might benefit from incorporating more running into your program.  Just don’t run too long or too slow.

If you’re already at this level of ballerness, disregard everything you just read…