This is a topic that is often left up to guess work and is really one in which could create a stronger athlete later in the season if this program is devised correctly. The biggest misconception when it comes to conditioning is that sweat and ballplayers that are keeling over have just been through a quality conditioning session.
If we actually break down what conditioning is meant to be we would arrive at a simple definition: To increase the current work capacity which will allow the athlete to train at a higher level with less strain on the cardiovascular system of the body.
The determining factor that will allow a coach to see whether or not his athletes are in shape is their ability to get their heart rate down at a rapid pace, a.k.a. recovery heart rate. Now this statement doesn't mean we should run our ballplayers for 1 or 2 miles and then see how fast their heart rate drops.
When it comes to actually devising a conditioning program there are several variables that we need to keep in mind:
In order to create the most efficient program possible without wasting time or overtraining our athletes we must analyze the sport that they play. Often times I hear coaches say that they test their athletes with a 1.5 mile run at the beginning of the season to test their AEROBIC shape because baseball players need endurance because it is a long season. Well I hate to break it to those coaches, they are training their athletes AEROBICALLY for and ANAEROBIC sport!!
So what does this mean to the average coach. Simply put, we are basically training our ballplayers to be distance runners when in fact our sport replicates more of a sprinters game. If we are training for distance, the speed of the run is typically going to be at a slower speed, whereas if we are focusing on our sprinting, we will be training at a higher speed. Our bodies will adapt to the type of training we give them.
If we train SLOW, we will be SLOW! If we train FAST, we will be FAST!
Since baseball is a game of quick bursts on the base path, while chasing down fly balls, while swinging, and pitching, we must work to replicate that action and DISTANCE IS NOT THE ANSWER!!
The only distance I would recommend a ballplayer do would be early in the year, ex. November/ December/ January on standard exercise equipment such as a bike or elliptical just so they are able to build an aerobic base and establish basic conditioning levels. As the season approaches, that method will slowly change to high intensity intervals and sprints allowing maximal effort for short bursts with a full recovery, allowing the heart rate to get back down to just above resting.
In regards to the aforementioned variables we will break each down accordingly.
In order to make a conditioning program as sport- specific as possible we need to analyze the sport. In the game of baseball most actions are short, quick, and explosive. Usually the work: rest ration in baseball is about 1:3. For instance if you are in the batters box and swing, the anticipation of the pitch and then the swing might take a total of 15 seconds and then you would have between 45 seconds and a minute off before the next time you set in the box, creating a work to rest of 1:2-3. So when devising a program, one option might be to mark off a distance of about 30-40 yards and have the athletes sprint out at full speed and hold a timer to see how long that run takes. After you get the time, the rest would be 2-3 times that.
Each athlete on the team is at a different conditioning level. It is important that you monitor your athletes as they participate in each conditioning session. Once their form and posture begin to collapse, then it is time to stop the drill and let them get a full recovery so they are able to maintain proper mechanics and lessen the risk of injury. Once the mechanics begin to fail consistently, that is the athletes body saying that is enough. We must monitor body language to prevent overtraining.
As mentioned previously, our conditioning workouts in December are much different than those in February. In December it is ok to build that aerobic base on standard equipment, but once we start approaching the season we need to elevate the intensity and begin to work the athletes outdoors doing quick sprints, base-running, pass patterns, and sprinting in fielding patterns used during the game.
The goal of the program should take the athletes goals into consideration and as previously stated each month should have a particular goal based on how close to the season you are. If an athlete is overweight, obviously conditioning would need to be a major focus and some significant amount of time would need to be dedicated to it. If an athlete is already in peak shape, we might need to make the conditioning program more intense by adding a higher intensity or increasing the volume of the intervals. Instead of doing 3-4 two minute intervals, maybe we will do 6-7.
It is very important to not OVERTRAIN athletes. The volume of playing, lifting, and conditioning is enough to create a syndrome of overtraining and actually reverse performance goals making the athletes perform worse. When form goes, cut the drill even it has only been 1 minute. Change distance running for quick burst sprints and intervals and monitor the time it takes for the heart rate to drop. Using a heart rate monitor is a great way to see this. Finally, pay attention to your work: rest ratios. More is not always better, most of the times it is worse.
Dana Cavalea is a nationally recognized strength and speed consultant specializing in baseball. His website, www.mlstrength.com is a great resource for any athlete, coach, and/parent. Check it his new blog, The Grind and discussion board coming soon.