Monday, September 17, 2012

Vol. 2 No. 89 Fastballs and Distance Runners

   In 1967  This photo was taken at the end of the first lap at the Big 8 Conference Mile Run at Norman, Oklahoma.  The following correspondence between myself and Bill Blewett (Oklahoma U runner on the pole) and Dr. David Costill, renowned exercise physiologist discusses what distance runners and their coaches often must confront regarding when to back off and rest during periods of intense training and racing.  Bill is a physicist and has done extensive reading and study on the subject of racing and resting.  This aspect of sport carries across many disciplines and can be applied to the science  of pitching in baseball.      Bill has recently written a book  "The Science of the Fastball" (McFarland & Co.) coming out this December 5, 2012, but  it can be pre-ordered on numerous booksellers' websites.   He is also currently working on another book about distance running.  Recently several of you have written about overtraining.  We all know overtraining ourselves or an athlete we are coaching is about the easiet thing to do and one of the biggest mistakes one can make.  Trying to decide when enough is enough and convince a highly motivated athlete that he or she will not benefit from more work is constant problem in coaching.  We've all had our own experiences with this.  The most difficult thing to do  is to say , "Enough." ed. 

"Jim Ryun won the Big 8 mile that year in 4:08.5. If you look closely at the photo you'll see my nostrils flaring as I reached the quarter in 60.5 not feeling at all lightfooted as I had a week earlier when we ran Kansas in a dual meet in Norman. I led the Big 8 race for 2 1/4 laps. I was advancing to the rear of the pack by the 1320 mark (in 3:14) and took on a passenger in the last quarter mile to finish 14th out of 16."
Bill Blewett

That 8x10 has resided on my bookshelf for years, and one day about four years ago, I noticed for the first time the position of my left foot.  After just one lap of the race, I was already on my heels, an indication that I had lost my efficient foot mechanics (forefoot strike).  That's not supposed to happen, of course, until late in the race.  I ran a "personal worst" that day, just eight days after running a personal best.  I looked back at my workout log and found that I did nothing out of the ordinary in those eight days, and I had eased off in my training in the two days before the Big 8 meet.  Data from one of Dr. Costill's books indicate that a runner restores glycogen in about 48 hours after a workout (I have reprinted that graph with permission from TAFNEWS Press from "A Scientific Approach to Distance Running" in my book), so why were my calf muscles glycogen deficient eight days after the last race?  The answer, I found is that muscle damage that occurs with eccentric contractions slows the restoration of glycogen.  The only muscles that were sore after every mile race (or longer races) were my calf muscles.  As Dr. Costill says, it is due to the inflammatory response, and what I found in my literature search was a study indicating the macrophages, which do their work in the inflammation phase, vacuum up not only the debris from the muscle damage but also the glycogen granules that are stored among the myofibrils.  

One of the themes of the book about running I'm working on is that distance runners overtrain and over-race, and the main victims of this culture of overtraining are the high school runners.  Dr. Costill's statement is his email reply is very powerful relative to the issue of overtraining.

George, I think you'll find this article interesting.  It appeared in Baltimore Sun July 9.  I didn't have space (700 word max) to explain why muscle damage retards the restoration of glycogen, but it is an issue that first sparked my curiosity with regard to running; why did it sometimes take more than seven days for the calf muscles to fully recover from a mile race?  It is a very important issue in pitching.  


The biology of the midseason pitching slump

Fatigue sets in when fastballers don't have time to restore the glycogen in their muscles

July 09, 2012|By William Blewett
The All-Star Game brings more than just a midseason shot of excitement to Major League Baseball. It provides much-needed rest for the players, a four-day respite in a 162-game season that often produces fatigue and injury.
The players who most need rest are the starting pitchers, who, paradoxically, get the most rest during the season, playing only every fifth day. Yet, midseason pitching swoons, like the Oriole starters have recently experienced, are not uncommon.
Perhaps the best-known case of pitching fatigue to occur around the All-Star break was that of Bob Feller, the Cleveland fireballer who at age 17 struck out 17 batters in his fifth major-league start. In his third season, 1938, Mr. Feller fell into a slump after being selected as an all-star. He won nine games before the break, then lost nine games after it. His earned-run average for August soared to 8.71, up from 1.43 in May. Cleveland newspapers declared his fastball gone. No one knew why.
Modern science offers an explanation of Mr. Feller's power outage. The likely cause was fatigue of the most heavily worked muscles of pitching: the wrist flexors and finger flexors of the forearm.
A major-league fastball requires exceptional hand speed and arm speed, which demand an abundance of the powerful fast-glycolytic muscle fibers in the arm and shoulder — the same fiber type Olympic sprinters and jumpers rely on for explosive power. Physiologists have a second name for this high-performance fiber: fast-fatigable.

This fiber fatigues rapidly because its main energy source is a limited supply of microscopic glycogen granules stored in each fiber. A pitcher can deplete the glycogen from his forearm flexors in a single outing, but it takes more than a day to restore the glycogen. If there is substantial micro-trauma to the muscle fibers — a routine occurrence in pitchers' forearm muscles — restoration can take a week or more. The glycogen energy system, technically known as intramuscular storage of energy substrate, is much like a rechargeable battery.

Depletion of glycogen causes muscle fibers to lose power, to contract more slowly under a load. At very low glycogen levels, fibers can shut down — enter a state of stiffness — or begin to act like slow-twitch fibers, relying not on glycogen but on a very small, less-powerful aerobic capacity.
This leads to differential fatigue, in which the flexion of the wrist and fingers lags the arm in its high-speed rotation. The result: the pitcher loses his precise coordination between the two fastest movements of pitching: forward arm rotation, with speeds as high as 10,000 degrees per second, and wrist flexion, up to 4,500 degrees per second.

This temporary loss of perfect coordination affects control, often leaving the fastball up in the strike zone. It also produces a slower spin rate, resulting in less movement of the fastball, making the pitch more easily hittable.

The remedy is simple. Rest. Skip a start. Add an extra rest day to the cycle. Or send the pitcher to the bullpen, where the workload is lighter. Pitchers, however, sometimes work harder in response, worsening the problem.

Because the restoration can take days, the workouts between outings that forcefully activate the fast-glycolytic fibers of the pitching muscles — such as wrist curls, chin-ups, long tossing, or near-game-speed bullpen throwing sessions — delay the full recharging of glycogen.The effect of muscle micro-trauma on restoration can be seen in the contrast between a no-hitter and the game after the no-hitter, particularly with high pitch counts. Johan Santana threw a no-hitter on June 1, the first in New York Mets history. Seven days later, he gave up six earned runs and four homers in five innings. His manager was blamed for the dismal performance because he delayed the next start by two days. It would likely have been even worse, however, had Mr. Santana stuck to the five-day cycle.
Compared to pitchers of a century ago, pitchers today routinely throw faster, expending more stored energy per pitch. They also train harder during the season, depleting more glycogen between starts. Bad games, short outings, shellings, and inconsistent pitching were less common 100 years ago. There was no All-Star Game then — and no need for a midseason break to forestall pitching fatigue.
William Blewett, who writes from Bel Air, is the author of "The Science of the Fastball" (McFarland & Co.), to be released this fall. His email is

Dave,   a friend of mine sent this article to me and I'm forwarding because I know this type of physiology is right in the middle of your expertise and interests.   Bill Blewett , the writer , is a physicist who also ran a 4:02 mile back in the 60's and a sub 14:00 minute 3 mile.  In high school he never broke 5minutes for the mile.  He came to Oklahoma the year after I left, and we only met a few years ago.  His son is pitching in the minor leagues, so that's what peeked his interest in the science of throwing.     Some day Bill  may come to Dayton for a visit, and I'd like to bring him over to Muncie to meet you and pick your brain a bit.     George

George and Bill

Yes, in the 1980s we looked at glycogen storage after exercise that had induced some tissue damage and found a very slow recovery.  Per Blom and I did studies after marathons that showed a very slow glycogen recovery, primarily due to the inflammatory response tissue damage and complete depletion.  However, it is hard to say how this translates into pitching and the injuries caused by excessive training.  I had many arguments with top level coaches who insisted on excessive training with the philosophy that "the athlete that trains the hardest is the best."  Boy, that's an easy one to deflate, but highly motivated coaches and athletes don't want to be confused by facts!  I'm sure many athletes never realize their full potential, simply because they trained too hard.
Dave Costill


It was great to get this note and its affirmation of the effect of slowed glycogen restoration.  Thank you.
The observation that led to my search about this effect came from that photo taken of me and the other milers at the 1967 Big 8 conference meet in Norman.


Note from Bruce Kritzler, Savannah , GA
George, Bill, etc,
Thanks for sharing the article on pitching in baseball (and obvious applications to distance running/racing).
I believe all recovery is aerobic related? Would pitchers benefit from running easy distance on off days, for recovery of arms, shoulders, wrist, fingers?
Have always felt the ability to race well late in the season is getting the right mix of aerobic/anaerobic (distance/speed) throughout the year. Definitely agree that most high schoolers are over-raced. Guess not every athlete has to run every meet. Some meets can be used as development type meets for novices, while big invitationals can be used for top flight kids.

Note from Rick Lower , Beaverton, OR

Always enjoy your topics, this one more than most! I wanted to give you my recent POV with the issue of “overtraining” in high school runners here in Oregon. There seem to be two prevalent camps, with neither  allowing kids to reach their potential.
-Camp one are the programs run by coaches who know the power of Lydiard training, but don’t control the pace or surfaces run on adequately. Consequently, we have kids running 60-70-80 miles /week but get sick of it or get injured. As long as they can get a lot of kids out each season, their programs are successful because they always have enough kids that can withstand the pounding.
-Camp two are the programs that tried the above, then decided to blame mileage for the injuries. Subsequently, they pride themselves on low mileage but replace the miles with too many workouts of intervals/tempos, basically hard workouts to try to make up for the lack of aerobic base work. Just as many injuries as camp one for different reasons.

Take care!


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