Softball players seem to run a lot, and I’m not talking about around the bases. Many college coaches require their players to run miles in addition to strength training and practicing skills. At the high school, middle school, and travel levels, running is often the ONLY organized team workout promoted by coaches.
Let’s stop and really think about running for a minute.
Softball and baseball require a tremendous number of sport-specific skills—more than most sports. Sprinting around the bases, fielding with range and agility, throwing and catching, hitting, and pitching are all distinctly different skills with their own set of mechanics, supported by certain physical capacities. Each skill requires strength, stability, and flexibility/mobility. And every softball player wants to be able to perform these skills with more speed and more power.
Sustained slow to moderately paced running—which is what you get when you jog for miles— does not improve strength, stability, flexibility, speed, or power. Additionally, hitting the ground repeatedly with poor posture and leg alignment can lead to shin, knee, hip, and back pain. I’ve never seen a softball coach go running with his or her players to keep a constant watchful eye on their running form, and players who start the season without prior physical conditioning are usually weak and susceptible to poor running mechanics. Nevertheless, many believe that running long distances with little to no real supervision or mechanical correction will get players into shape. Not so. Instead, players should work to strengthen the specific capacities and components that contribute most directly to softball performance.
What physical capacities actually contribute to speed and power? Your running speed, as well as your pitching, hitting, and throwing power, come from how hard you can push off the ground with your legs. When you’re sprinting around the bases or running down a fly ball, your feet are pushing off the ground one at a time. When you pitch, you’re pushing with one leg off the pitching rubber. When you hit, your swing is initiated by a quick push in your back leg. When you throw, you set your foot on your throwing side and push off of it to initiate the throwing motion.
Here is a little physics lesson: the ground is enormous and by comparison you are very small. Because of this, when you push into the ground, the earth pushes you back and you are propelled away from it.
The more force you apply to the ground through your legs and feet, the faster and farther you’ll propel yourself. When you’re sprinting, you want to use that energy to keep moving forward as powerfully as possible. When pitching and hitting, you want to collect all that force and then use a strong, stable front leg and core to redirect the energy into your bat or pitching arm.
How do you push harder into the ground? By making your legs stronger. Specifically, you need tremendous strength in your gluteal muscles and tremendous stability in your hips and core for each of softball’s required skills/components that long-distance running does not address. So what’s the most effective way to make your legs stronger? Exercises like squats, dead lifts, lunges, step-ups, and jumping activities are a good choice. If you were to slow down video of a fast runner taking off into a sprint or a great windmill pitcher pushing off the rubber, and then compare it to a slow-motion Olympic lift, you’d see that the explosive action of pushing off the ground actually shares many similarities with the acceleration phase of the lift—more similarities than that action shares with jogging.
Athletes can begin doing these exercises using just their own body weight and gradually increase with weights as they become stronger, ALWAYS with supervision for proper form. If you must run, run on hills. In contrast to running with low resistance on flat ground, you will need to push hard and use your gluteal and abdominal muscles to stabilize your hips and core—strengths which, as I mentioned above, are necessary for softball skills.
Long distance running does have one notable benefit: cardiovascular endurance. Endurance is absolutely necessary for overall fitness, and running has long been the most popular choice for achieving this because it’s easy and free.
However, running is not the only way to achieve cardiovascular endurance. Performing the above-mentioned exercises in rapid circuits (never sacrificing form!) will provide you with a great cardio workout, one that can be even more challenging than running. It’s also more efficient than running and weight training separately, because you’re working on both strength and endurance at the same time, all the while constantly developing softball-specific physical abilities.
As the legs get stronger, running speed along with power in other skills will come naturally. You wouldn’t try to improve a hitter’s poor swing by having her swing over and over again hoping something clicks; you’d break it down with specific drills to address the components that need to be improved. The same holds true for running: endurance aside, repeating it over and over doesn’t even make you much better at RUNNING, never mind softball. Strengthen the various capacities that contribute to the skills, and improvement will surely follow.