Questions by Andrew Ferreira, answers by Resilient's Doug Kechijian
AF: Baseball is notorious for it's slow pace and athletes that lack conditioning, why the need for a strong aerobic foundation?
DK: At first glance, baseball does not seem like a sport that requires much development from the aerobic system. Baseball athletes certainly don't need to be able to run a competitive time in a marathon but a requisite level of aerobic preparation is necessary. The best baseball players are generally the ones who produce awesome amounts of force very rapidly (e.g. throwing a fastball or hitting a home run). In the most extreme cases, however, baseball requires that power be repeatedly produced with little deterioration throughout the game. The best starting pitchers, for example, are those who can throw as hard in the seventh or eighth inning as they can in the first. The aerobic system/long term energy system helps to replenish the short term energy system associated with powerful, explosive efforts. Fatigue compromises technique and biomechanical efficiency. All things being equal, power athletes are more likely to be injured in a fatigued state because the nervous system develops compensatory strategies to delay fatigue. Compensatory strategies may help to maintain power outputs (throwing velocity, base running ability, bat speed) but can put joints and soft tissues in compromising positions. A well developed aerobic system attenuates the "need" for compensatory motor patterns because it delays the onset of fatigue.
AF: What is it's relevance in terms of physical preparation, recovery, and on-field performance?
DK: The aerobic system can improve on-field performance for the reasons mentioned above but its relevance is even more substantial when the athlete is not competing. Improving recovery is one of the biggest initiatives in the field of sports science. There are compression pants, fancy ice machines, devices that allegedly stimulate areas of the brain associated with relaxation, nutritional supplements, you name it...the truth is, we don't know if any of this stuff really works to improve recovery. Think of a well-developed aerobic system as free recovery. Biological power and the ability to produce energy is finite, like a bank account. Athletes spend a certain amount of "currency" just to meet basic survival needs. Aerobic fitness is associated with increased vagal tone and parasympathetic dominance. This means that the "cost" of living at rest is less for the athlete with superior aerobic conditioning. Athletic performance is costly from a biological perspective. It induces a stress on the system that necessitates the need for a compensation that inoculates the organism against subsequent stressors. Athletes who lack the requisite level of aerobic fitness for their respective sport are "competing" when they're not playing relative to their more aerobically fit counterparts. The aerobic system is the off switch that facilitates recovery after competitions involving explosive efforts. Simply put, the biological cost of energy production is less the greater the relative contribution of the aerobic system. Physiology is a trade off between efficiency and speed. The aerobic system produces energy less rapidly than the anaerobic system but with less of a withdrawal fee. Overnight shipping is more costly than ground shipping. When less biological resources are invested to sustain basic function at rest, more resources are available to replenish energy substrates depleted during competition.
AF: How you would best go about regaining and establishing an aerobic foundation after a long season of deconditioning? Is aerobic exercise in the traditional sense (jogging, biking, etc.) the preferred way or is there a more optimal means - e.g. cardiac output training?
DK: The heart is a "dumb" muscle so if the goal is simply to develop the heart's ability to distribute blood to the working muscles, the means don't really matter. Energy utilization comes down to delivery and extraction. In the aerobic system, the heart pumps oxygen-rich blood to the working muscles and the muscles must utilize this oxygen to produce ATP, the cell's energy currency. Both delivery and extraction must be trained to optimize the power of the aerobic system. The delivery side of the equation can be trained with more generalized means since developing the pumping capacity of the heart is the primary objective. Extraction should be developed with more sports specific movements since extraction is a local phenomenon. In the next article in this series we will discuss specific ways to develop these different components of aerobic development for the baseball player.