Spring Training Workloads: Too Much, Too Soon?

by Apr 13, 2016Athletes, Coaches3 comments

The fact that injury rates are highest in the first couple months of the Major League Baseball season (e.g., Posner et al., 2011) is just one of several indications that many professional baseball players are going into Spring Training unprepared.

Poorly-designed and/or executed off-season physical preparation programs are partially to blame for this lack of preparedness, but a big reason may just be that the workloads in Spring Training are simply too much, too soon. (Dan Weigel did a good job covering the “Dangers of Spring Training” here.)

Time off from the game is important for a host of physiological and psychological reasons. It gives an athlete time to improve physical qualities that are difficult — if not downright impossible — to address when he has to got out and perform everyday (or, every couple of days, in the case of pitchers). Moreover, competing in a sport 6+ months a year can be psychologically overwhelming for players who bare the cognitive and psychosocial demands of school.

But, time off from playing often coincides with a drastic reduction — if not anelimination — of specific workloads such as sprints, swings, and —- throws. And this reduction in specific workloads can increase the risk of injury, if these loads are re-introduced too quickly (e.g., Spring Training).

Sure, an athlete who spends his off-season running, jumping, throwing medicine balls, lifting weights, improving joint function, and fine-tuning his mechanics is going to be much better off than a guy who sat on a beach in Mexico all winter.

But, when it comes to gearing up for the start of the season, specific workloadsneed to be built up gradually over time to match — exceed, even — the demands of the competitive season. This means that baseball players need to progressively take more hacks, run more routes/bases, and throw more baseballs — and do all of those at progressively higher intensities — as the season approaches. For most guys, this means re-introducing specific workloads in the off-season well before Spring Training starts. This is especially important for guys vying for a roster spot, who quite literally need to show up on Day 1 ready to compete.

In the case of pitchers, pitch counts need to be properly progressed throughout the pre-season (often beginning in the late off-season). Many pitchers — starting pitchers, especially — would benefit from beginning their return-to-throwing programs much earlier than they currently do. The fact of the matter is: Many pitchers have simply not thrown enough by the time they show up to Spring Training. If you are a college pitcher, and the season starts on the third weekend of February, why are you picking up a baseball for the first time on January 1st? A 6-week pre-season is simply not enough time to ramp up your pitch count when you come back from Christmas holidays at Ground Zero. Furthermore, it makes absolutely zero sense for starters and relievers to begin their return-to-throwing programs at the same time, and on identical schedules. Yet, this is common practice at all levels of the game (and particularly in college baseball).

This idea of earlier and more gradual return-to-throwing is just an opinion — but it’s an informed opinion. A recent study by Wilk et al. (which we reviewed here) found that 46% of professional pitchers exhibited external rotation “insufficiency” on Day 1 of Spring Training. That means that almost half of the guys who showed up to big league camp had less than a 5% discrepancy between their throwing and non-throwing shoulders! (News Flash: For a group of guys that throw baseballs for a living — that’s not a lot!) Considering that increased external rotation range of motion is an adaptation to increased throwing loads (e.g., Dwelley et al., 2009), it’s reasonable to assume that a good majority of these pitchers simply hadn’t been throwing all that much prior to Spring.

Why is this an issue? Well, pitchers who come into Spring Training without much throwing under their belt have a very, very short period of time to progress to competitive throwing loads, and to acquire all the structural adaptations (such as increased external rotation at the glenohumeral joint) that accompanies that increased load — and this puts athletes at a much, much greater risk of injury. (Interestingly, external rotation insufficiency was also the only pre-season measure in the Wilk et al. study that predicted future shoulder injury.) This is supported by converging evidence from sports such as cricket, rugby league, and soccer which suggests that large acute “spikes” in workload are primarily to blame for injuries we have traditionally conceptualized as simply a product of “overuse”.

This research, which has come to the forefront thanks to recent work from sports scientists like Dr. Tim Gabbett, Michael Drew, and Professor Caroline Finch, verifies what many physical preparation coaches have long suspected: Moderate-to-high workloads are not inherently dangerous, and may actually help protect against injury, by ensuring an athlete is adequately prepared for the demands of competition. That is, training hard and smart (as Tim Gabbett would say) can help protect against injury, as long as workloads are progressed gradually.

This research demonstrates it’s not just about how much you throw.

It’s also about how you get there.

Just think about that for a moment. This makes intuitive sense. Who do you think is more likely to get hurt: A 40 year-old couch potato, who decides he’s going to start running five miles a day from Day 1, or the same guy who starts at a half-mile, and works his way up over a period of several months?

Applied to baseball, this means that throwing loads really become an issue when they are progressed too rapidly, or when they exceed what a pitcher’s body is currently prepared for. This amounts to a discrepancy between capacity and demand; an inappropriate workload, or what Drew & Purdam (2016) recently dubbed a “training load error”.

Importantly, athletes are not only susceptible to these “training load errors” in Spring Training. Once they’ve been established, throwing loads need to be maintained within a fairly narrow bandwidth throughout the regular season. (Or, at least progressed gradually.)

This underscores the importance of monitoring our pitchers in-season, which we briefly discussed here.

And, if you’re interested in more information, stay tuned for our free guide to monitoring in-season throwing load!