Should Pitchers Run Long Distances?

Cressey Performance

HUDSON, Mass. — I despise distance running for pitchers (and the overwhelming majority of other athletes, for that matter). 

While many pitching coaches are probably reading this and cursing my name already for going against the norm, I’d encourage you all to hear me out on this. 

I have outlined nine reasons why distance running is not the correct course of action .

1. Immunity Concerns
As a strength and conditioning coach, my number one priority in working with athletes is to keep them healthy. 

This refers not only to musculoskeletal health, but also general health. In an outstanding 2006 review, Gleeson wrote that “postexercise immune function depression is most pronounced when exercise is continuous [and] prolonged.”  

In other words, distance running between starts is more likely to cause and spread sickness in your clubhouse than that tramp in the right field bleachers who wants to hook up with every guy in your bullpen.

2. Endocrine Concerns
Baseball players on the pro and college levels have absurd sleeping hours, terrible dietary habits, too much alcohol – and one of the longest seasons in sports.

Effectively, we’ve done everything we possibly can to lower testosterone and growth hormone output, creating a mess of a hormonal environment. 

Frankly, you could get this same hormonal response by forcing pitchers to watch Golden Girls reruns while sitting on bicycle seats and downing estrogen tablets – and you wouldn’t have any incidences of plantar fasciitis.

Instead, you know what’s done instead? 

Distance running! 

Yes, the same distance running that is responsible for the markedly lower testosterone levels and higher cortisol levels in endurance athletes. 

It’s like putting a new engine in a car with square wheels.

It almost makes you wonder if some guys used performance-enhancing drugs just to counteract the negative effects of their running programs!

3. Mobility Concerns
One of my problems with distance running is that it doesn’t allow for sufficient hip flexion to truly activate all the hip flexors. 

Specifically, we get a lot of rectus femoris recruitment, but not much activation of psoas, which predominately is active above 90 degrees of hip flexion. 

Likewise, you really aren’t getting much hip extension at all. 

So, on the whole, by using a repetitive motion like jogging for an extended period of time, pitchers are losing mobility in their hips – and that’s the very mobility they depend on so much to generate stride length and, in turn, velocity. 

4. Stretch-Shortening Cycle
Let me explain the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC).

 The easiest analogy I can use is that when you want to shoot a rubber band at someone, you pre-stretch it before you release your shot. 

Muscles work the same way; pre-stretching them (eccentric action) prior to shortening them (concentric action) stores elastic energy and helps that muscle generate more force. 

Anecdotally, I’ve heard estimates that as much as 25-30% of pitching velocity is attributed to elastic energy – or how effectively someone makes use of the stretch-shortening cycle.

Where we’re different from rubber bands is that we can actually train those elastic qualities to make our tendons more efficient at collecting, temporarily storing, and releasing that elastic energy to help us run faster, jump higher, and throw harder. 

It’s why doing plyos, sprinting, and throwing medicine balls can do wonders for a player’s performance.

In other words, the longer exercise goes, the more we “muscle” it instead of being relaxed. What do we know about guys who try to muscle the ball to the plate?  They don’t throw hard because it impairs pitching specific mobility, and they don’t let the arm whip through.

I will take a guy with a good vertical jump over a guy with a high VO2max any day.  Distance running conditions guys to plod instead of bounce – and this definitely has implications in terms of chronic overuse conditions. 

5.Strength, Power Reduction
As just one example of how stressful the pitching motion is on the body, the humerus internally rotates at 7,500°/second during the acceleration phase of throwing. 

It takes a lot of strength and power to generate this kind of velocity, but just as importantly, it takes a lot of strength and power – and in a timely fashion – to decelerate it. 

We need to not only be able to generate enough force to resist and control this acceleration at end-range, but also be able to generate this force quickly (power). 

To that end, you would think that conditioning for pitchers would be similar to that of strength and power athletes, who avoid distance running altogether.

Instead, most pitchers run several times a week. When was the last time you saw a marathoner throw 95mph?

Using distance running when these athletes could be devoting more time to getting stronger is a huge hindrance to these players’ development, as it conditions them to go longer instead of faster. 

Being able to quickly recruit muscles (and do so powerfully) is crucial for rapidly stiffening joint complexes to create stability and prevent acute injuries like ankle sprains and ACL ruptures. Strength and power athletes are much better off in this regard than endurance athletes.

6. Inappropriate Intensities
In what was – at least in my eyes – a landmark study, McCarthy et al. (1995) looked at “compatibility” of concurrent strength training and endurance training. Traditionally, the attenuation of strength and power gains has been a big issue when endurance exercise is added to a strength training program. In an article I wrote, these researchers found that strength and power loss was only an issue when the intensity of the endurance exercise was greater than 75% of heart-rate reserve (HRR). 

I can guarantee you that the majority of pitchers who are running distances are doing so at well over 75% HRR. 

I strongly feel that the secret is to stay well above (circa-maximal sprinting, in other words) or below (70% HRR, to play it safe) when implementing any kind of running. 

The secret is to avoid that middle area where you don’t go slow and don’t go fast. That’s where athletes get SLOW! And, ideally, the lower-intensity exercise would be some modality that provides more mobility benefits.

7. Nobody Likes To Babysit
Simply put, running is babysitting.

Catcher is actually the position that requires the most endurance in baseball, but we don’t run catchers extra, do we? 

Nope – and it’s because we have bullpens for them to catch, batting practice for them to take, and all the other responsibilities associated with handling a pitching staff and being a pseudo coach on the field.  

8. Existing Imbalances
When we get pitchers after a long season, our first goals are to address range of motion deficits in:

1. Lead leg hip extension (tight hip flexors).

2. Lead leg hip internal rotation (tight external rotators).

3. Lead leg knee flexion (tight quads).

4. Throwing arm shoulder internal rotation (tight posterior rotator cuff and capsule).

5. Scapular posterior tilt (tight pec minor and levator scapulae).

6. Throwing arm elbow extension (tight elbow flexors).

I came to the realization that jogging negatively affects the majority of them .

9. It’s Really Boring!
I am a firm believer that the best coaches are the ones who engage their athletes.

 The best coaches I had in my athletic career were the ones who made me look forward to each training session. With that said, the only people who look forward to distance running are – you guessed it – distance runners! 

Most of the ballplayers you’re coaching have always seen running as a form of punishment for doing something wrong. They hate it as much as I do. They’d hate it even more if they realized it is limiting their development as athletes.

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