With the baseball season in full-swing, and with pitcher's going deeper into games as their throwing conditioning is improving, it is important to have a solid weekly approach to recovery and development. Too often, amateur pitchers will start a game, and during the subsequent days after their start, not have a beneficial weekly plan to get them ready to perform for their next start. Even worse, some of these athletes will be so sore and fatigued that they simply wont be able to pick up a baseball for a couple of days or will throw through this soreness.
The purpose of the day after a start is to expedite the recovery process. View pitching as a workout; hundreds of muscles are contracting and extending, sometimes simultaneously and other times sequentially, to deliver the baseball at maximum intensity. This functional muscular movement is repeated over and over, creating a break-down in muscle fibers. Your body needs to recover from this, but how?
Immediately After the Start
Even though this article is entitled "What's the Protocol for the Day After the Start," the recovery process starts immediately after we have completed our pitching appearance. A proper cool-down is needed to begin muscle fiber repair by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This is done simply by completing a static stretching routine (click here for some upper body stretches and click here for some lower body stretches) in which we calmly stretch the muscle fibers in the opposite direction in which they were just contracting. By holding each stretch for an extended period of time (start by shooting for one minute per stretch), we create a balance in muscular movements and allow for optimized muscular health. Once we start to hold stretches for three minutes, we begin to stretch the fascia, the interconnective tissue surrounding muscles, which is crucial for full range of motion and structural integrity. I have all of my pitchers stretch for 30-45 minutes after games, depending upon how much they threw. If you like to ice after your start, please make sure to stretch before icing as we do not want to stretch muscle fibers when they have been cooled. Icing is great for limiting inflammation and therefore immobility in the muscles and joints, however, we want to supply the muscles with plenty of oxygen-rich blood in the coming days to repair.
The Day After: Warm-Up and Mobility
Now, for the day after our start. As mentioned previously, this day is all about assisting the recovery process. To begin this day, we start with a basic dynamic warm-up consisting of exercises such as straight-arm jumping jacks, windmill calisthenics, high knees, ballet kicks, etc. These exercises are designed to engage the nervous system while increasing blood flow to our muscles to begin the day's activities. This is also the time to perform mobility work, especially in the areas in which you may notice soreness or stiffness after throwing. Out pitchers perform The Stick Series (as seen on our YouTube page) to mobilize the muscles in and around the shoulder and thoracic back. All of these movements promote active recovery as the PNS is engaged.
The Day After: Running
When we are done warming-up and mobilizing our body, we continue onto the running portion of our recovery day. There is a lot of debate about what type of running to engage in and why we run in the first place. Let's begin with the latter.
A common misperception is that running after a start is used to clear the lactic acid from you body. In actuality, lactate is cleared from the bloodstream by the liver within 60 minutes after it is produced as it is converted into glucose or even amino acids. (This process is expedited with an active recovery, like static stretching). It was also once thought that lactate was responsible for muscle fatigue and the subsequent muscle soreness after performing a workload. However, muscle fatigue occurs from an increased acidity in the bloodstream from the build-up of hydrogen ions, and muscle soreness (or delayed onset muscle soreness, DOMS) is caused by muscle cell damage and elevated release of various metabolites surrounding the muscle cells. The human body prefers to generate its energy aerobically, i.e. with the use of oxygen. Most of the game of baseball is spent in this aerobic zone as individual plays do not last very long and there is usually adequate break in between plays so there are minimal amounts of lactic acid build-up. There are rare occasions in baseball, such as being the player in a run-down between bases, in which the body requires a greater production of energy faster than oxygen can be delivered throughout the body. In such cases, the working muscles generate anaerobically. This is accomplished through a process called glycolysis, where glucose is metabolized into pyruvate. When oxygen is limited, the body then converts pyruvate to lactate. This process allows the breakdown of glucose for energy production to continue. Once the body is in a state of rest/recovery and oxygen is readily available as our energy source, lactate reverts back to pyruvate. As a pitcher, this anaerobic energy production is not prevalently engaged, so their is not much lactate build-up.
So why do we run after a start? Running after a start, when appropriately utilized, is a great way to engage the PNS to promote full body recovery. When we pitch, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) is engaged, which stimulates the release of the hormone norepinephrine. Under prolonged activation of the SNS, adrenaline is released to spike performance. We do not want our body to constantly be under this stressful environment, especially on non-competition and non-athletic conditioning days (such as workout days). Now that we know that we can run to engage the PNS, we need to look at the type of running to participate in to do so effectively.
While running, we want to stay in the aerobic training zone if our target is to primarily engage the PNS. Generally speaking, we are looking to be around the individual athlete's 60-70% maximum heart rate, though we do not want to go over the 80% mark, as we will transition to an anaerobic and non-activating PNS workout. There are a couple of effective ways to do this without the constant repetition (repeated impact on joints) and monotony of running traditional foul poles.
Place two cones about 45 yards apart.
Starting at one cone, begin jogging to the other.
With each stride, gradually increase the speed at which you are running.
By the time you reach the cone, you should be at about 80% of your maximum sprint speed.
After reaching the cone, break down until you stop. Turn around and walk towards the end-line cone.
Once you arrive at the cone, repeat back to the other cone.
Continue this exercise for 12-25 minutes, depending upon the athlete's level of aerobic conditioning.
Place two cones 100 yards apart.
Starting at one cone, begin running to the other.
Stride length should be long and extended while turnover rate of feet is moderately paced. You should be running at about 70% of your maximum sprint speed.
Once down at the end cone, break down until you stop. Turn around and walk towards end-line cone.
Once you arrive at the cone, rest for 15-20 seconds, then repeat back to the other cone.
Continue this exercise for 8-20 minutes, depending upon the athlete's level of aerobic conditioning.
It is also worth mentioning that increasing aerobic conditioning has other benefits for pitchers and athletes, in general. The more efficient the aerobic energy system is in the body, the faster the body can transition out of an anaerobic energy state, therefore expediting the process of the removal of excess lactate and other metabolites in the system. Also, heartbeat efficiency is also improved. With less effort to deliver oxygen and nutrient-rich blood throughout the body, the body is generally under less stressful conditions and can more effectively perform and recover. This has positive effects during games, practices, and recovery periods. If any athlete is able to perform under a higher intensity with less energy requirements, they can perform harder and longer and recover faster than an athlete with an inferior aerobic energy system.
The Day After: Static Stretching
Once we are done with our aerobic running, it is time to provide a proper cool-down for the muscle fibers and to continue aiding your recovery process. We once again go through a static stretching routine, much like we did after our start yesterday. Depending upon how much you threw the day before and how much aerobic conditioning you just performed, this stretching routine should be at least 30-60 minutes in length. Although certain stretches may be uncomfortable in places experiencing soreness or a lack of mobility, by gently opening up the muscle fibers from their contracted state, we expedite recovery time by allowing oxygen-rich blood to stimulate cellular repair and waste excretion.
The Day After: Reviewing Game Charts and Establishing a Plan for the Week
The day after a start is also a great opportunity to review the previous game charts so we can reflect on our performance. What did you do well with? What did you struggle with or would like to see improve? How was your mental state throughout the game? Questions like these provide us with an objective review to our performance, thus allowing us to make appropriate and beneficial goals for the week. I like my athletes to analyze their performances the following day after pitching because they tend to have less reactive (or emotionally-based) responses and more analytical responses as they are further removed from the game mentally the day after. Although it is always a good idea to get an initial insight into the athlete's perspective immediately after the game, we save the more in-depth questions for the following day.
Thoughts on Throwing and Working Out
I am not a proponent of having athletes throw the day after a start, especially for those who went deep into a game. As mentioned previously, pitching is analogous to a workout, so to throw would be like trying to recover from push-ups by doing more push-ups. Instead, we can take this time to activate and repair the muscle fibers used in throwing in a more productive and healthy manner to assist in recovery. The day after our recovery day can and should be used as a throwing day in which we are promoting range of motion through the throwing delivery, especially around the shoulder/rotator cuff area. This is accomplished by throwing balls on a moderate arc while getting the body involved in delivering the arm, especially as we get out to further distances.
I am also not a proponent of working out the day after a start. I know several pitchers like to work "heavy legs" after a start, but once again, we are not promoting an efficient recovery process. "Heavy legs," or any intense workout for that matter, will activate the SNS, disengaging the recovery-based PNS. Not to mention, if you are pitching with optimal mechanics, your legs should be playing a large role in your pitching delivery and would also need adequate recovery work, as well. Each of my pitchers perform one neuromuscular training session a week. One of the beauties of neuromuscular training is these workouts engage the entire body, and not just one part. Along with this, the effective nature of the workouts allows for optimal in-season maintenance with just one, moderately intense training session a week, which frees up more time to focus on either more recovery or baseball specific development work throughout the week. This is ideal instead of trying to find time to do two separate workouts a week (one lower-body and one upper-body) by sacrificing recovery time.
Putting it All Together
Regardless of your age or athletic ability, the day after your start is an important day that sets up the rest of the week's success. By proactively assisting our body's ability to recover from strenuous activity, we free up more time during the week to work on so much more of our game. Take the smarter training route and utilize this day to get recovered so that your next start will yield even better results.