Running poles is still a widely accepted and practiced “cool-down” or conditioning method in baseball, but baseball needs to move beyond this outdated practice. For those of you who don’t know, running poles is usually done post-game to “flush” the pitchers’ arms from “a build-up of lactic acid.” Coaches usually make the pitchers run from foul pole to foul pole in some fashion. This could be done as wind sprints or simply jog an arbitrary number of reps. In this discussion we will focus on the wind sprint version.
The wind sprint version could look like a sprint to the far pole, walk back to center field, sprint to the starting pole and back to center, and continue to repeat for a number of reps or amount of time. Anyone who has run these before, knows that if the first rep is a true sprint, the rest will slowly degrade each rep.
The other mechanism for the athlete to survive these is simply to down-regulate their intensity from the beginning – sandbag it. This idea that running poles as a cool-down will “flush” the lactic acid after an intense bout of pitching is not only erroneous but more harmful than helpful when developing pitchers.
Busting myths about lactic acid
A commonly held misconception is that post-game there is an intense build-up of lactic acid in a pitcher’s arm; in reality, this build-up could only occur if a motion similar to Buddy the Elf slinging snowballs at a million miles an hour was sustained.
The truth is that our bodies are incredibly efficient at clearing lactic acid. As lactic acid is produced in hypoxic environments, it is broken down into lactate and hydrogen ions. It is the build-up of these hydrogen ions that creates acidosis and potentially the burning sensation we experience during intense physical activity.
Lactate is an energy source in the body, and the most efficient energy for the brain, but it is not the source of that burning pain in your arms when you pitch, nor is it able to be “flushed” by running poles after a game.
This idea is also a very reductionist approach, thinking that your system is like flushing fluids in your car, rather than realizing the complex system of sub-systems you are. This is why detoxes are stupid, but that is a different conversation. For more information on the myth of lactate and lactic acid, check out Dylan Dalhlquist’s (Sport Scientist at Red Bull) recent article titled, “Lactate – friend or foe?”
When we look at the intensity of pitching, it is a highly neural and alactic activity. This means it is very taxing on the nervous system, but that it is not producing lactic acid (a- = without + lactic = without lactic). The arm is moving at very high speeds (upwards of 7000 degrees/sec) for a split second. Think of this like a sprinters’ legs during the 100m. The limbs are moving at very high velocities, but the sprinter has to continue to move at those speeds for the whole race rather than one pitch at a time.
The pitcher, on average, gets 18-30 seconds between pitches. A pitch from the start of windup to the release is about 1.8 seconds and about 1 second from standing on one leg to release. So that is a 1:10 to 1:30 work to rest (W:R) ratio. This means there is no lactic acid, hydrogen ions, or lactate build-up from pitching. With a sufficiently developed aerobic system, the body is able to handle metabolic byproducts. So, what are you “flushing” out with your post-game poles? If you want a further breakdown of the science, take a peek at the research on Eric Cressey’s website here.
So far, we’ve discussed why “flushing” isn’t real, why lactic acid isn’t the enemy, but now let’s look at the nervous system and why this idea of running poles could put your pitchers at higher risk of injury (ROI).
When is an athlete at the highest risk of injury regardless of sport? Is it on the first pitch? Or is it in the 5th or 6th inning after 100 pitches? If you thought the answer is “in a fatigued state” then you are correct.
So, now the game is over, your starter has 5 days before their next start, and rather than starting the recovery process, you choose to make the pitchers run some form of poles. Their arm is already feeling like it’s going to fall off, their nervous system is fried, and you have chosen to increase the stress on their system.
The increase in stress comes from the added work at a moderate-high intensity, digging a deeper hole the athlete now has to recover from. This effectively delays their recovery for their next practice and performance. If this happens chronically, then they are never able to fully recover for their next performance and the hole gets a little deeper each session because they never quite return to baseline.
By following the red line in the diagram, we would assume that the next practice or game would occur on the uptick of the red, creating another dip downward, and this cycle would continue. This is a sure-fire way to set yourself or your athletes up for injury. It will usually start with something small and nagging (maybe related or maybe not), velocity will start dropping significantly, and then if left too long something catastrophic will occur.
What can we do instead to set our players up for success?
Best Recovery Practices
We like to adhere to the K.I.S.S. principle when it comes to pitching cool–downs. Keep your cool-down simple, aerobic, and with a total body focus. The goal is to set your athletes up for a successful training week and subsequent performance.
The recovery process begins as soon as the athlete’s game is over. The aim is to decrease sympathetic activity and increase parasympathetic activity. There should be a steady decrease or stepwise decrease in intensity with general circulatory activities.
Throwing in extra band work, working on posterior pulling, and light shoulder work are all aerobic and will circulate blood flow without the intense fatigue of running poles. As stupid as it sounds, think of it like your warm-up. The warm-up starts slow and builds up in intensity until you’re ready to go. You will have touched intensities close to 90-100% by the end of your warm-up. For your cool-down you will do the opposite. Start at around 75% and start working your way below 50% over about 10 minutes.
What you want to do if you’re a pitcher
We suggest something aerobic in nature. If you have an exercise bike at the field start with 2 minutes at a sustainable, but somewhat difficult pace with some resistance. Then bring it down for 3 mins to a moderate pace (light resistance) and an easy pace for 2-3 minutes (light to no resistance).
Alternatively, jog one lap of the field at a moderate pace, followed by one easy lap of the field. I’ve also used something as simple as 4 x 10m A-runs at full height with walk back rest and progressively slower. I would then follow this with 2 x 10m half height A-runs at an easy intensity (borrowed from Derek Hansen). Afterwards, focus on some simple band and shoulder work, primarily focused on pulling and reverse pitching movements. This can be high reps (10-20 reps each movement), rest as needed between sets, and it’s ok to feel a little burn in the posterior shoulder. This low-intensity aerobic work will help facilitate blood flow through the whole body, including the arm, while reducing sympathetic activity.
This is far more conducive to recovery and will contribute to the healthy development of the nervous system. It also sets your athletes up for success mentally and physically.
The Next Day
Going through a complete general warm-up the next day is a great starting point. We’re looking at some simple dynamic mobility movements to get a pitcher’s whole body prepared for physical activity.
We recommend incorporating some easy catch, keeping it non-strenuous and under 60-90 ft. Nothing to the point of extreme fatigue but preparing your body for physical activity by keeping it under that 75% threshold. This of course only works if you have the day off and are not playing in back-to-back games. If you play Saturday and then again Sunday, this process will be the same, but you will continue to ramp up intensity to 90-100% to prepare to play.
Depending on how you feel, you may take a little longer to ramp up intensity or you may increase intensity quicker with some strategically placed rest periods. Effectively, you may decrease the steepness of the ramp or increase depending on how your body responds. This is something that will be honed over your career and is subject for another discussion.
In conclusion, I want coaches and athletes to think about why you are doing what you’re doing in practice and after games. If you don’t understand why you’re doing something, ask your coaches. If they don’t know, hopefully they will look into it. If they say “because this is the way we’ve always done it” then run for the hills! Coaches, if you’re not sure why you’re doing something, but it is something that “has always been done” maybe it’s time to question it? I encourage you to think about or ask yourself, “is there a better way?”