It is a nostalgic sport deeply rooted in tradition, it was the first sport I played as a child, and it was the first professional sport I coached as a strength and conditioning specialist.
However, what makes baseball so great, its strong tradition, has lead to some very antiquated strength and conditioning practices.
I was asked today about the value of "flush runs" for pitchers to help remove lactic acid post game (a widely practiced activity).
Here is the thing...
This is a myth, fallacy, falsehood!
A myth rooted in deep tradition.
A Little Ex Phys Lesson
Lactate (often referred to as lactic acid when in the blood) is produced during the rapid breakdown of glucose. This typically happens during anaerobic glycolysis, one of our anaerobic energy systems.
Although all energy systems are typically contributing to activity, the extent of which they do so is typically dependant on both the intensity and duration of the activity.
High intensity activities lasting up to approximately 30 seconds tend to rely primarily on our other anaerobic energy system, the ATP-PC phosphagen system. Beyond this point aerobic and anaerobic glycolysis begins to take over.
Therefore, for lactate to accumulate in the blood a few things need to happen. First, we need to be functioning at an intensity and duration great enough for us to ramp up anaerobic glycolysis. Second, we need to generate lactate faster than our body is capable of removing it.
The point at which blood lactate removal no longer surpasses production and levels begin to quickly elevate is called our lactate threshold. In untrained individuals this tends to occur at VO2 levels as low as 50% and VO2 levels as low as 70 percent for elite athletes. The lactate threshold has also been correlated with heart rates of 85-90 percent of heart rate max.
Back to Baseball
Research conducted by Potteiger, Blessing, and Wilson (The physiological response to a single game of baseball pitching. J. Appl. Sport Sci. Res 6(1):11-18. 1992) demonstrated that 1) the highest VO2 expressed through the entire game was 45%. 2) Peak heart rate reached by any subject was only 147 bpm (others were lower) and occurred in the fifth inning (and the HR could have been elevated from the 2 blood draws previously performed) which would place the athlete/s around 70+ percent of their HR max, and 3) blood lactate levels did not surpass resting levels...which is not surprising taking numbers 1 and 2 into consideration.
Granted, this was a “canned” experiment so the values are probably a bit lower than what would actually occur during a real game. However, I have found no evidence to dispute its validity so I will call it “adequately in the ballpark.”
Since increased accumulation of blood lactate simply does not occur, lactate removal is not the recovery issue we need to address. Even if it were present, levels would naturally return to a resting level within approximately one hour post event (Disposal of Lactate during and after Strenuous Exercise in Humans, Journal of Applied Physiology, Vol 61(1), pp338-343, 1986). Therefore it makes no sense to do a flush run to get rid of it.
It is also important to understand that lactate is not always our enemy.
- It does not cause DOMS (delayed onset of muscle soreness) micro trauma does.
- Hydrogen Ions released when glycogen is broken down are responsible for the increase acidity and resulting “burning sensation” not lactate.
- And finally, it has been estimated that about half of the lactate produced can be converted to blood glucose and glycogen and then used to create more energy (ASTRAND, P.-O., HULTMAN, E., JUHLIN-DANFELT, A. & REYNOLDS, G. (1986). Disposal of lactate during and after strenuous exercise. Journal of Applied Physiology 61, 338-343.). Since lactate can be utilized as a metabolic fuel it can serve to benefit some athletes.
Although flush runs for pitchers are not necessary to remove lactic acid, they may serve to accelerate some other recovery processes. The question then becomes, are they the best method to accelerate these other processes? Are there other more productive means of recovery for a pitcher?