SPEED TRAINING: Does Science Say “Speed Kills”?
Baseball is a unique sport when it comes to speed, agility, and quickness (SAQ) training. For one, it is the only sport where the player is never mirroring and reacting to an opposing player (in most cases).
The stimulus is the ball!
For example, when an outfielder is chasing down a fly ball, he must take an initial open step to create an efficient path to the ball, and then try to reach top speed to catch up to that ball in the gap.
This one exception alone does not mean that baseball players do NOT need SAQ training, because they can absolutely benefit from it. BUT, most athletic movement in the game of baseball happens to be in a straight path.
Previous researchers have stated that offensive-acceleration in baseball begins from a post-hitting contact position to within the first 49 feet.
Transitional acceleration occurs from roughly 52-98 feet. Notice something significant about the top end of this range? IT IS ABOVE 90 FEET!
This goes to show that due to the structure of the game, baseball players NEVER reach top acceleration. Offensive-acceleration is curvilinear rather than linear, with the only linear path being within distances of 90 feet or less.
At every single showcase you go to, the first thing you do is the 60-yard dash.
Do baseball players EVER run 60-yards in a linear fashion? The answer is NEVER.
Why do college coaches and scouts always put players through a 60-yard dash then? Simply put, it is just an assessment that has been used for years to measure acceleration and top speed.
However, if college coaches and scouts want to be more specific, they should use home to first time when ball contact is made, an infield hit, or beating out a double play.
There isn’t a lot of data out there using these metrics, but according to the author of this article, left-handed and right-handed hitters should be reaching first base within 4.2 seconds and between 4.1-4.3 seconds, respectively.
In this article, I will review and cover what acceleration really is, conditioning, energy system development, and periodization for maximal speed development.
Overcoming Static Positions
Acceleration training in baseball has a main goal in teaching the player to overcome a large, mass moment of inertia.
These drills (within the first 5-10 yards) may include visual or auditory cues to initiate forces in a linear and angular fashion.
These same cues are important to use as they act similarly to responding to a first base coach or pick-off attempt at any base.
This series of drills mimics baseball-specific actions such as accelerating during base-running, fielding, and catching situations.
- Get Up Series –> the athlete lies on the back or stomach and reacts to a certain cue that forces them to pop up and instantaneously sprint.
- Lateral Ground Hop –> used to create a greater hip extension and abduction pattern to accelerate laterally
There are times when the baseball player begins to rapidly accelerate from a slow preparatory motion. For example, when a third-basemen creeps in for a bunt or a player getting a walking lead to steal a base.
- Walk Sprints –> used to initiate a rapid acceleration from a slow motion. These can be changed for the player to change direction either forward or laterally.
- Walk-Back Sprints –> walking back to the starting line, the player then must rapid rotate his hips through the opposite direction to accelerate to the finish line
- Backward Jog Sprints –> used to teach the player a “nose over toes” acceleration position
Leadoff to Acceleration
In baseball stealing, there are two schools of thought: the crossover step and the open step.
The crossover step teaches the player to initiate ground forces with the lead leg, whereas the open step teaches the player to open the hips towards second base and drive from the back leg.
Often debated, the crossover step has been shown to be ineffective in base stealing. But why?
Specifically, the crossover step usually puts the athlete into an ipsilateral position, reducing the amount of force production into the ground.
Some say that you need a wide base, and some say that you need a narrow-ish base. Just like hitting, the stance is highly subjective and you should pick a stance based on feel.
However, to accelerate from a static position, it is all about creating optimal angles to push down and back into the ground so we can propel forward.
Physics of Base Stealing
A wide base (greater than shoulder width) with a low center of gravity, knees bent inside the feet (valgus position), and having the arms hang within the base of support may not be optimal for the acceleration push off to steal a base.
If our center of gravity is too low and our arms are bent within the base of support, the muscles of the legs are not in the correct positions to create peak force output.
Our muscles have a specific length-tension relationship that will allow them to quickly generate peak force.
The base stealer should only slightly pop up from a starting position rather than descending from a beginning upright posture.
Just like linear sprinting, we want to achieve an acceleration angle of roughly 45 degrees in the horizontal plane. Here is specifically what to look for in creating optimal angles:[pic here of acceleration]
- Feet –> stance is around shoulder width; the right foot is slightly behind the left foot and slightly turned towards second base.
- Shin angle –> the knee should be no greater than 55-60 degrees, as this will contribute to a lower center of gravity and increase the amount of time to reach peak horizontal force.
- Trunk –> should be balanced with the hips within the base of support. Increased trunk flexion will require the athlete to first extend the lumbar spine before applying a horizontal force into the ground.
- Arms –> the left hand should be placed at the left hip, and the right elbow should be placed at the right hip to create a small eccentric load of the torso. Elbows should be bent, and shoulders should be relaxed.
The initial push from the lag leg (left leg) with a consequent opening of the right hip will allow the player to create a “lane” needed to get directly to second base.
The key to a good steal start is to be powerful in that 45-degree angle towards second base.
However, the lower body sequence is initiated with powerful arm drive and trunk rotation to get the body moving towards second base. The right arm pulls back behind the body while the left arm accelerates forward, staying as close to the body as possible.
Initial and Transitional Acceleration Training
In baseball, offensive-acceleration towards the bases seem to be more important than reaching top speed.
It is all about how much force you apply into the ground! Given that body mass is constant (a = F/m), a player that can accelerate quicker will produce more force output into the ground.
- Reverse Squat Jump Sprint –> used to teach a rotational takeoff from the left- and right-handed sides
- Triple Jump Sprint –> used to avoid increasing bound length
- Lateral Hop Sprint –> used to enhance rotational acceleration and force transfer to the lead leg
- Shuffle-Hop-Shuffle –> used to introduce the secondary lead
- Mountain Climber Sprint –> used to teach acceleration with an elevation pattern to increase rate of force development into the ground
- Catcher Sprint –> used to exaggerate the “pop-up” position used to throw runners out
I believe the most important themes to incorporate into any sprinting drill are the push from the lag leg, while maintaining the 45-degree angle, and proper arm drive.
Here are some drills that use these themes:
- Walk-to-Steal –> starting in your steal position, take a crossover step with your right leg, followed by a subsequent step in the same direction with the left leg. The MOMENT your left foot touches the ground, begin to push away and get into your sprint
- Pivot Sprints –> take 3 quick pivots, throwing your hips towards second base. On the fourth pivot, take off into your sprint. This drill will also require the athlete to focus on arm drive.
- Skater Sprints –> take 3 mini-lateral bounds (skaters) and get into a sprint on the fourth bound. This drill will also require the athlete to focus on arm-drive
In most sports, the athlete rarely accelerates in a linear fashion. It is important to consider the angular forces that are placed upon the base runners, and outfielders, during play.
Although the curvilinear distance is set on the base paths (for the most part), they can be manipulated in defensive outfield play.
When training for curvilinear acceleration, coaches can manipulate the radius of the curve to accommodate for intensity. The greater the radius, the greater the intensity.
Curvilinear sprinting drills are great for not only body awareness, but for ankle supination/pronation strength (turning in, out) as well.
When sprinting, the inside foot (left foot) is in supination while the outside foot (right foot) is in pronation.
Baseball is a VERY one-sided sport, so using curvilinear running drills in both directions to balance volume is a critical detail that cannot be missed!
Here are some drills that focus on curvilinear acceleration:
- Drop Step Arc –> the athlete will begin the sprint with an open drop step. Start with a moderately-sized radius (great for outfielders)
- Snow Cone Arc –> the athlete starts his sprint on a linear path and then proceeds to make the cut into his curvilinear sprint, mimicking the bath from home to first/first to second.
- Circle Arc/Half-Circle Arc –> continuous running as tight to the outside of the cones as possible, fighting centripetal forces
Periodization and Energy Systems
Many coaches use running as “conditioning”. To some point, this may be a viable option, but in the game of baseball it must be used wisely.
The baseball player, on average, will work for no more than 10 seconds at a time at very high intensity.
The primary energy source for baseball is the ATP-CP system (1-10 seconds), but there will be some instances when the player switches over to the glycolytic system (15-30 seconds).
Approximately, it will take the player 4-5 seconds from home to first, 7-8 seconds from home to second, 10-12 seconds from home to third, and 14-16+ seconds from home to home.
During the offseason, it is important to get the player conditioned, but it is just as important to allow for certain rest to occur so that the cellular systems fully generate.
Rather than using a linear approach, such as gradually increasing intensity each week, an undulated approach may work as well.
Weeks that fluctuate between high-load and low-load training to combat nervous system fatigue and metabolic damage can preserve these energy systems.
A work to rest ratio of 1:8 is sufficient to tap into the ATP-CP system. For example, if the player works/sprints for 10 seconds, allow for 80 seconds of rest before attempting the next repetition. This ratio works well for tempo runs.
When the intensity of effort increases, work to rest ratios can increase to 1:12-1:20. For example, if a player works for 10 seconds, allow for at least 120 seconds of rest.
As the season approaches, it is important to keep work intensity high, but the volume of this work will not nearly be as high as the offseason. The reason why we still want to work on high-intensity work is because we still need our players to maintain a certain level of fitness.
Prescription wise, I would plug in anywhere from 6-8 sprints depending on the time of the year and the fitness level of the athlete.
Jarad Vollkommer, CSCS
Crotin, R. (2009). Game speed training in baseball. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Reseach 31(2), 13-25.