When it comes to baseball, speed and agility are important on both sides of the field. From a defensive standpoint, speed is very important in the outfield where hit balls must be retrieved quickly, and the same is required in the infield over shorter distances. From an offensive standpoint, speed puts great pressure on the other team and allows for increased activity on the base paths.
The principles and drills discussed in this article have applications to other sporting endeavors, but this article will explore some of the movement requirements for baseball while giving trainers some practical tools for assessing and developing new levels of speed and agility in their baseball clients.
Some people believe that a person is either born with speed or is not. This may be true to a certain extent because of inherited limb length, muscle attachments, and proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers. However, although a person may inherently be unable to sprint well, most athletes can improve their running speed. Therefore, a slow athlete may not become “fast” but he or she can certainly become “faster”.
The primary components of running speed are stride frequency, stride length, form and speed endurance. To improve all these components, a well-designed program can include strength training, assisted running, resistive running, plyometric activities, interval training and running technique(1).
By improving stride frequency, or the number of steps taken in a specific time period, one reduces the amount of time between steps and therefore increases speed. One of the best ways to increase stride frequency is through sprint-assisted training, since it enables the athlete to run at increased linear speed(1).
A good example of this is downhill running. Downhill running should be performed on an even surface with a slope of 3 degrees to 7 degrees. Downhill running distances should range between 30 m and 50 m.
Trainers, be careful of the stride frequency and the degree of slope. When the stride frequency increases beyond what the athlete is capable of maintaining, he or she will begin landing on the heels rather than the balls of the feet. This is essentially a braking movement that eliminates the benefits of sprint-assisted training. Prior to attempting downhill running, the athlete should participate in a good base sprinting program for several weeks.
Stride length, or the distance covered in one stride, is developed by increasing speed-strength, which is the ability to perform maximal force during high-speed movement. Strength training, pulling a weighted sled (resistive running), resistance applied by a running harness, running uphill, running up steps, plyometrics, and running chutes can be used to increase speed-strength(1). A speed development program should not, however, be based exclusively, or even almost exclusively, on resistive running. While stride length may improve with such a program, stride frequency may not.
Sprinting with good form is a motor learning process that must be learned at slow speeds (60-75% of maximum) and transferred to high speeds. Form running (correct running form and drills that emphasize certain movements while running) is used to establish efficient and error-free movement. Form running drills are used to help ingrain neuromuscular movement patterns and increase leg turnover, therefore increasing stride frequency. Leg turnover is the rate at which the recovery leg completes a cycle, that is the period of time from when the foot leaves the ground to when it touches again. In addition, improved running mechanics promote greater running efficiency through optimal stride length and frequency(1).
Speed endurance is the ability to repeatedly perform maximal or near maximal sprints with various sport-specific recovery intervals. Speed-endurance programs should be designed with reference to the sport’s primary energy systems, which in baseball involves the ATP-PC system. Speed-endurance is normally enhanced by interval training, which involves high-intensity exercise bouts alternated with bouts of recovery. Interval running is the term used to describe a running program that utilizes interval training methods. Training intervals should last 6 to 20 seconds, running speeds should range from 10 to 14 mph so as to stress the ATP-PC metabolic energy system(8).
TESTING PROCEDURES FOR SPEED
Before starting any training program for your baseball client, it is always wise to establish baseline values from which you can establish goals. Below are two tests for the trainer to conduct on your baseball client before starting any training program. Both tests require the trainer and the baseball athlete to perform the testing at either a.) an actual baseball diamond, or b.) in an area where a distance of 60 yards or more can be achieved.
Both speed and agility tests require proper footwear and a non-slip running surface for injury prevention of the baseball client. Speed and agility tests will also require a stopwatch, and a trainer who is well versed in its functions.
60-yard Sprint Test
The protocol for the 60-yard sprint test involves measuring 60 yards and marking both the start and finish. Your client, positioned in a base-stealing stance with his left foot behind the start line, starts with a crossover step and sprints through the finish line. The trainer, who is positioned at the finish line, starts the timer on your client’s first movement and stops when he or she crosses the finish line.
Home Plate to 1st Base Test
The protocol for sprint time from home plate to 1st base 90 feet away involves your client positioned in his or her batting stance at home plate in preparation for a pitched ball. Your client simulates a full swing or actually swings at a pitched ball. In the later, he or she may not begin running until they make contact with the baseball. The trainer, who is positioned at 1st base, starts the timer upon contact and stops it when the client touches first base.
Testing should be done at the beginning of the training period and every 4 weeks afterward to note improvement. Each test should be completed 3 times and then averaged. All times should be recorded for future reference.
TRAINING FOR SPEED
'Speed strength' can be defined as the ability of the neuromuscular system to realize a maximal impulse within a period, which is limited according to the respective movement (10).
In my experience, performing the following drills as little as 15 to 20 minutes 3 times per week can have a positive effect on one’s ability to react and move.
Throughout the training period, be sure to look at the athletes running mechanics and monitor his recovery rate. An average work-to-rest ratio of 1:3 or 1:4 should be implemented.
Plyometric training (conditioning exercises that utilize the stretch-reflex and the elastic properties of the muscle) is a popular training approach among athletes (11). The ability to rapidly apply force (reactive force) is the major goal of plyometric training. Plyometrics are used to apply an overload to the muscles with speed-strength as a goal.
Plyometric exercises can include jumps-in-place, standing jumps, multiple jumps and hops, box drills, and depth jumps; and most other drills that require the athlete to jump either vertically or forward. Change-of-direction plyometric jumps may involve a repetitive 90-degree change (zigzag pattern) or a 180 degree change (side to side). Other reaction/plyometric drills that can be considered essential for baseball include timed low-to-medium intensity double and single-leg hops and jumps in horizontal, diagonal, lateral, and vertical directions. These drills promote utilization of the neuromuscular system, specifically to react quickly to the lengthening of the muscle by rapidly shortening the same muscle with maximum force.
Linear Speed Drills
Linear speed is obtained by measuring the distance in meters that a person travels in a certain number of seconds, and then dividing the distance by the time. Increasing linear speed should be a high priority for the baseball client. Below are examples of linear speed drills using a speed ladder that can be implemented to improve sprinting speed. A speed/agility ladder is effective for developing linear speed as well as agility and quickness, but drills should be quick, and adequate rest should be allowed between drills.
A basic drill requires the athlete to run through the ladder while placing one foot in each box of the ladder. The challenge level of the drill can be increased by requiring placement of both feet into each box, performing the drills in the backward direction, or by switching the direction from forward to backward halfway through the ladder.
|Linear Speed Drills
- Backwards In/In/Out
- Backwards Out/Out/In
Beginner Clients should perform 1-2 sets, intermediate clients 2-3 sets, and advanced clients should perform 2-4 sets. Trainers should select 3-5 of the above linear speed drills and implement them into an overall conditioning program for the baseball client.
Agility has been defined as the ability to change direction quickly and easily while maintaining proper posture. Some objectives of agility training are enhanced power, balance, speed and coordination(9). Improved performance in tests of agility should be one goal of a plyometric program, since plyometrics are aimed at reducing the time spent on the ground preparing to move.
The crossover between the goals of both types of exercises, and the principle of exercise specificity, calls for advanced exercises that fit the definition of both plyometrics and agility training. Combination plyometric/agility exercises may reduce training time and get athletes to undertake agility training with more of a plyometric-style explosivness.
Plyometric drills that include changes in direction may be categorized as agility exercises. Likewise, agility drills performed with maximal explosiveness may be classified as plyometric exercises. Increases in power and efficiency due to plyometrics may help one achieve his or her agility training objectives.
TESTING PROCEDURES FOR RANGE: QUICKNESS AND AGILITY
Range is a variable specific to the defensive game of baseball. The requirements of infielders and outfielders differ with regard to range, therefore the tests must be specific to the movements performed for each position. Based on personal experience in baseball and with strength and conditioning, the 5 point test for infielders and the 30 yard pattern run for outfielders have been devised to assess range(12).
The 5-point test is most valuable when conducted on the infield surface since it mimics the requirements of the position. The trainer sets up the course as shown in Figure 1 with the cones positioned 4 yards from the start. Disc cones can be used because they require your client to reach the ground, thus simulating the fielding of a ground ball.
Figure 1. 5-Point Test
From a fielding position at the start area, your client sprints to Cone A, touches the cone with his glove hand (to simulate fielding a ground ball), and sprints back to the start area. Upon returning to the start area, your client will come to a momentary two-footed stop before proceeding to Cone B. He or she continues the test in the same manner, sprinting to Cones B, C, D, and E. Clients should use a crossover step into a forward sprint as they proceed from cone to cone.
Note that your client does not proceed clockwise from cone to cone but rather from left cone, to left-front cone, to right cone, to right-front cone. The letters in Figure 1 correspond to the order in which the client proceeds. The trainer starts the timer on the client’s first movement and stops it when the player sprints through the start area after touching Cone E.
The 30-yard pattern run is set up in an outfield area, with the cones positioned 7 yards apart and the distance from Cone C to the finish line approximately 9 yards. (see Figure 2)
Your client starts from a fielding position (his back to the course) at the start line, drop steps, and sprints to Cone A where he or she reverse pivots (opens his or her shoulders to the middle of the course) and sprints to Cone B. While going around Cone B, the client once again reverse pivots and sprints to Cone C. In going around Cone C, he or she plants either foot then sprints directly to the finish line at Cone A. The trainer, who is positioned at Cone A, starts the timer on the client’s first movement and stops it when the client crosses the finish line.
Figure 2. 30-Yard Pattern Run
By requiring your client to use reverse pivots for changes in direction, the test simulates movements in game situations. A reverse pivot when playing outfield allows a player to track the flight of the baseball at all times.
Box and Lateral Speed Agility Drills
Agility box drills are common in several sports and baseball is no exception. Establish a box for your baseball clients with cones as markers. Sprint to the first cone, shuffle to the second, backpedal to the third and finish with carioca (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Agility Box Drills
Ladder drills as discussed above, will also improve agility. As the athlete’s ability to perform ladder drills improves, the level of difficulty can be increased by using more than one ladder and by incorporating several different movement patterns.
Improving lateral speed is important for infielders and outfielders alike. The infielder has to be especially quick with lateral displacement of the body in order to field hard hit baseballs. Proper execution of the crossover step allows baseball players to react faster and cover more distance laterally. Drilling this movement helps develop balance and mobility while reducing unnecessary movements and decreasing movement time.
Below are examples of lateral speed drills that can be implemented into your clients program. Progress the number of sets in the same way we did with the linear speed drills. Ultimately, lateral and linear speed drills should be combined into one cohesive program for the baseball client, depending on the client’s position and their strengths and weaknesses on the field. The infielder will require less linear speed work and more lateral speed drills and vice versa for the outfielder.
|Lateral Speed Drills
- Shuffle Drill
- Krumrie Formation
- Crossover Step Drill
- Agility Box (Figure 3)
- Ice Skater
- Double or Single Leg Zig Zag
- Rebounding Across Ropes
- Crossover Steps
- Box Crossover Steps
- Lateral Bound
- Lateral Bound Off a Step
Few plyometric movements include ballistic, explosive backward movements (straight or at an angle) (9). But many sports – including baseball – require powerful movements backward, momentum shifts between backward and forward movement.
Most often, athletes need only one or a few explosive steps in reverse direction before they turn and run forward or stop and reverse momentum. The goal then, of reverse movements in plyometric training, would be improvements in power, balance, coordination, and efficiency for momentum changes and directional shifts that are required in sport.
4-Point Pattern Drills
One example of backward movement training in a plyometric program is the 4-point drill. The design of this exercise hinges on a numbered diamond or square shaped pattern (Figure 4).
Your client begins facing directly forward. Each set is a 4-jump pattern and he or she touches every point. The perfect diamond or square shape allows the client to concentrate on a symmetrical pattern, even though he or she will be able to jump farther in some directions than in others. (9)
Figure 4. 4-Point Pattern Drill
One set of exercises is described by a 5-digit number. When you, the trainer, call out the number pattern, the first number automatically becomes the point where the client is standing while the next four delineate the order of jump directions.
As with other plyomertic drills, the goal is to minimize ground contact between jumps. In other words, there is no land and pause but rather an immediate explosive change in direction to the next point.
With the 4-Point Pattern Drills, there are 72 possible 4-jump number sequences and 144 movement patterns, each sequence can be used for the diamond or square pattern. With the square pattern, most sets will include more direct front-to-back and side-to-side jumps. With the diamond pattern, more jumps will occur at 45-degree angles.
The 4-point drills are advanced exercises, particularly because of the explosive backward movements and the need to interpret the numerical pattern quickly.
Trainers may want to teach 4-point drills using the square pattern first, then introduce the diamond pattern. As clients progress, the drills may be done as double-leg bounds or single-leg hops.
Program variables should be modified for specific sport situations, injury history/potential, and the athlete’s experience and level of participation. Some variables that can be modified are the number of sets, rest periods between sets, initial jump direction, sport-specific jump sequences, added resistance, complete reversal sequences (180 degree changes) and square vs. diamond pattern.
It is evident that baseball requires speed and agility offensively for running the base paths, but more importantly, for the defensive side of the game. The development of these two components is equally, if not more important, than the development of batting power and throwing arm stability. Implementing the exercises and techniques above into your client’s overall baseball conditioning program will surely lead to greater success in both speed and agility.
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