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Why do We Make Athletes Run?

Anytime I post anything about distance running on social media it gets the most likes, retweets, and comments mostly from frustrated athletes whose coaches are running them into the ground. They intuitively know that these long runs are not helping their performance; if anything, they’re hindering it.

At Redline we work with mostly baseball and volleyball players so I’m going to gear this post towards these athletes.

Baseball is the most power-driven sport there is. Those that don’t play it like to claim that it’s the easiest sport because you may never use your aerobic system during an entire game. We basically stand around for 3 hours then do really hard skills at extremely high speeds.

Volleyball players need a little more conditioning than a baseball player, but it is still very much a power-driven sport. The average rally in division 1 women’s volleyball lasts 13 seconds, and I would assume it’s even shorter in beach volleyball since there’s only 2 players on a team. Depending on how fast the ball gets back to the server they may have around 30 seconds or so rest between rallies.

The movements performed in a rally are reactionary power movements such as jumping, diving, and accelerating to get to a ball. Once a volleyball player has built an aerobic base they should avoid any steady-state conditioning such as jogging because it trains the opposite energy system used in their sport. A volleyball player should be doing interval-based conditioning.

Building an Aerobic Base

I hate conditioning as much as the next athlete, and I especially despise any distance running, but it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. It is still important to have an aerobic base even if you are a power athlete.

Your aerobic system is going to aid you in recovery. Meaning you will bounce back sooner from hard training sessions and in between games. Good recovery is going to allow you to get more quality reps of the fun stuff like lifting, throwing, hitting, jumping, and sprinting.

The key is to keep your conditioning intensities low enough so that they don’t hinder your power development. If your working above 75% max intensity that’s going to be too slow to develop speed or power, but too intense to be used as a recovery method.

In other words, don’t let today’s workout ruin tomorrows. If I’m doing speed work on Friday, quality matters. Thursday’s conditioning should be low enough intensity to allow me to recovery from the previous speed workout and prepare me for the next one.

This is where the problem lies, as this almost never happens. Here’s some of the texts I’ve received from my athletes in the last month since they’ve gone back to college.

The athletes’ bodies feel like crap, they’re running slower, and losing weight and muscle mass that they worked hard to put on over the summer. And let’s not forget that often times these conditioning sessions are done at 5 and 6am so they’re getting crappy sleep as well.

When the athletes complain they get told a series of myths as to why they should be doing this.

“Running Flushes Out Lactic Acid”

This is just not true, and the research has indicated this for a very long time. In a research study on college pitchers by Potteiger et al. (BACK IN 1992!), they found that blood lactate levels came back down to normal in between innings; roughly 5-6 minutes. Why then would we ever have guys run poles after games or the day after they pitch to flush lactic acid If it has already been cleared?

“Running Increases Pitching Endurance”

This should be a no brainer, but it still gets said all the time. Running is not going to help you pitch deeper into games. Your aerobic system is not used to throw a baseball. Even if it did, do you really think it’s your legs that are going to become fatigued before your arm or shoulder?

In the same study mentioned above, the researchers found that VO2 Max had NO significant impact on the pitcher’s performance.

If you want to increase pithing endurance you have to slowly increase throwing volume over time.

“We Need to Run to Build Mental Toughness”

This is just a lazy take and I think it’s said because “the way we’ve always done it” is a worse answer. Conditioning isn’t the only way to build mental toughness. Mental toughness can be built in the weight room developing strength. I’d guess a strong and powerful athlete is going to be tougher than a frail one.

Speed Training > Conditioning

When an athlete has built an aerobic base early in the offseason it is very easy to maintain. The focus should be speed and power because those qualities dominate the field of play.

The more speed an athlete has the less conditioning will play a role. This is called speed reserve.

Take an athlete that can run 20mph vs an athlete that can run 15mph. If a play has them moving at 15 mph the athlete that can run 20 is conserving tons of energy. The athlete that is moving at their max speed is not going to last as long no matter how well they’re conditioned.

Panthers running back, Christin McCaffrey, who is one of the top RBs in the league, has taken a new approach to his conditioning the past 2 off-seasons. He reduced training volume and shifted his focus to top-end speed.

He’s quoted saying, “It’s obviously important to have a little speed endurance in football, but I’ve learned when I condition myself hard, I feel myself kind of getting slower. I’ll probably rub a lot of trainers the wrong way saying that. But, I started doing this last year, and I can honestly say there were very few times I felt tired during a game”

There’s no way a baseball player or a volleyball player needs to do nearly as much aerobic training as a football player, especially a running back.

If one of the most demanding sports and positions is progressing and reducing conditioning protocols, then a baseball or volleyball athlete, two totally power-driven sports, should be doing the same.

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