Throwing a baseball is a certainly a stressful endeavor. Our knowledge and training has improved over the last couple of decades and so has our knowledge of our recovery as it relates to throwing. However, recovery has now become a cottage industry unto itself and has begun to mean doing more stuff after throwing. While this “active” recovery absolutely has a place, doing a ton of exercises immediately after you’re finished throwing may not be optimal.
What Happens Post Throwing?
Immediately after throwing, range of motion (ROM) and strength are diminished and can take multiple days to return to baseline levels (Mirabito et al., 2022). Specifically, shoulder internal rotation, shoulder external rotation, and elbow extension ROM decrease after throwing as well as shoulder rotational strength. The compulsion by many athletes will be to get the recovery process started as soon as throwing is finished, however, that can present some problems as we’ll cover below. So first, let’s discuss the considerations that should be made before adding more activity to the recovery protocol.
Nailing the Basics
The “sexier” interventions we can use can be very helpful for improving recovery and health over the course of the season or offseason, however, none of these interventions are as useful as the basics we’ll discuss in this section.
Sleeping a minimum of 8 hours per night seems to be solid advice for humans across the board and there’s an abundance of research to back this up. Athletes, however, likely need even more sleep, often upwards of 9 hours per night.
In a very interesting study performed on the Stanford men’s basketball team, players maintained their usual sleep-wake schedule for 2-4 weeks to create a baseline, followed by a sleep extension period of 5-7 weeks. During the sleep extension period, the players tried to sleep for as long as possible each night, with a minimum of 10 hours in bed being the goal. Basketball specific performance metrics were measured after each practice, including timed sprints and shooting percentage. After the sleep intervention sprint times improved, free throw percentage improved by 9%, and three-point percentage improved by 9.2% (Ma et al., 2011).
When it comes to nutrition, very simply the goals are to make sure you’re eating enough total calories and eating nutrient-dense foods. On a slightly deeper level, hitting your minimum macronutrient (carbohydrates, fats and protein) requirements is the next piece to the puzzle.
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are the main fuel source for muscle contraction and they enable protein to be used for repairing and building tissue (such as muscle). This is one reason why low carb approaches may not be suitable for athletes. The minimum requirement for most athletes should be 1.8g/pound of bodyweight (Slater and Phillips, 2011). Once carbs are ingested, they are broken down into more basic forms of sugar (glucose, fructose, and galactose) that can then be used for energy. Glucose that is not immediately needed is stored for later use in the form of glycogen. Glycogen is stored primarily in skeletal muscle and the liver, but there is some in the blood. Glycogen is an efficient source for producing ATP (energy source for all physiological processes) and often helps fuel short, intense bursts of activity. Therefore, adequate carbohydrate consumption is required to perform at your best, in order to maintain glycogen stores that can be used to quickly fuel activity. This is especially important for pitchers as they engage in intense bouts of repeated movement with short recovery intervals. The rate at which glycogen is used to produce ATP is primarily dependent on the intensity of the physical activity (Murray and Rosenbloom, 2018). This means that glycogen stores will be depleted quickly during pitching.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which are the “building blocks of protein.” In order to function properly your body needs 20 different amino acids, nine of which are considered essential. The nine essential amino acids can’t be produced by your body so they must be consumed through food sources. This is one of the reasons plant-based diets can be suboptimal when you’re training for peak performance. Animal protein sources such as meat, eggs, and dairy products are complete proteins meaning that they contain all of the essential amino acids. Most plant-based food sources are not complete proteins. Protein intake is especially important compared to carbs and fat due to the fact that the body cannot store protein like it can carbs and fat. Whether your goal is to gain muscle, lose fat, or maintain strength and body composition, skimping on protein is not a good idea. Protein is extremely important for building and maintaining muscle mass.
During periods of caloric surplus (eating more than you burn) protein requirements seem to be lower. However, during periods of a caloric deficit, protein requirements are higher in order to minimize muscle wasting (Mettler et al., 2010). In other words, if you’re restricting your calories protein intake is even more important. One study found that consumption of roughly 1g of protein per pound of bodyweight was superior to about 0.5g per pound of bodyweight for maintaining lean mass (Mettler et al., 2010).
During periods of calorie restriction, the body tends to break down protein into glucose, through gluconeogenesis, to provide the brain and other tissues with fuel. Skeletal muscle is not as important for day to day function as internal organs, so it becomes the body’s primary source for protein if intake is not high enough. Eating adequate protein can help minimize this process.
In order to maximize muscle building and/or minimize muscle wasting optimal daily intake seems to be about 0.75-1.0g/pound of bodyweight (Schoenfeld, 2010). So, for a 200-pound male this equates to about 150-200 grams of protein in a day.
Fat is not something to be feared as long as it is consumed as part of a calorie-balanced diet. Fat itself will not make you fat, rather, an overall caloric surplus is what leads to weight gain.
Fat can be divided into four different types; polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, saturated fats, and trans-unsaturated (trans) fats. Certain types of fatty acids cannot be produced in necessary amounts by the body, so they must be consumed as part of the diet. Others, such as EPA and DHA are important for brain health, cardiovascular health, and regulating inflammation. (The main sources of EPA and DHA are fish, other seafood, seaweed, algae, and fish oil)
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats should make up the majority of your fat intake. Polyunsaturated fats are essential fats and include two main types: omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. They are required for normal body functions such as building cell membranes, covering nerves, blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation.
Saturated fats seem to fall somewhere in the middle in terms of intake. They should be consumed in relatively small amounts (roughly 10% of fat calories), but they don’t need to be eliminated and are likely not as bad as previously thought (Harvard, 2015).
Trans fats have no known health benefits and should be limited as much as possible.
Fat is also necessary in order for the body to absorb and store fat soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K and plays an important role in hormone balance (Sallinen et al., 2004). So, if you want to build muscle and perform at your best, adequate fat consumption is a must so that testosterone and growth hormone production are not negatively impacted (Sallinen et al., 2004).
Once your protein and carbohydrate requirements have been achieved, fat should fill in the rest of your calories, generally totaling between 20 and 35% of your total calories.
On top of the macronutrient requirements aim to eat a serving of fruits or vegetables at every meal and you’ll likely cover many of your other bases as well.
Ensuring that you’re well hydrated is critical from both a health and performance standpoint as even minor dehydration of about 2% can result in reductions in strength and power by 2% and 3% respectively (Cheuvront and Kenefick, 2014). Additionally, dehydration can place an athlete at greater risk of musculoskeletal injury (Berning and Steen, 1991). The exact amount an athlete should drink will vary between individuals based on how much they sweat, their body mass, and what the environment is like. However, there are some basic markers of solid hydration that can be adhered to such as urine color being mostly clear and drinking when thirsty.
Along with fluid consumption, electrolyte intake should be monitored and potentially supplemented depending on the above factors. Sodium may be especially valuable in athletes as intake tends to be lower due to the reduced intake of processed foods, so replenishing this electrolyte after games and training may be of greater importance.
The National Academy of Medicine recommends that men drink roughly 100 oz of water per day (Harvard, 2023). This isn’t exact and athletes in especially hot climates may need more while smaller athletes or those in colder climates may require less. In terms of replacing sodium, table salt works well if you don’t have the desire to drink it or a specific electrolyte mix. Adding some extra salt to your food can work well and may even make you feel like Brian Shaw (probably not though).
As with all other times of year, no amount of recovery practices can help if throwing or training load are excessive. How training is performed in the offseason in terms of intensity, volume, and frequency helps determine what in season training will look like. The more well-trained an athlete is, the more they can do during the season, while the opposite is also true.
One of the best ways this is described is by Chad Wesley Smith when he discusses the maximum recoverable volume an athlete can handle versus the minimum effective volume. During the season we’re generally shooting for somewhere closer to the minimum effective volume. Maximum recoverable volume means that we’re digging a pretty deep hole in terms of stress and during the season this is inappropriate as readiness to compete must remain high.
What Actually Needs to Be Addressed?
Once the above boxes are checked, post throwing recovery exercises may be appropriate. However, immediately after throwing can present some problems as a ton of specific fatigue has already been driven to the tissues that athletes are trying to “recover.” Rather than blowing up your forearm and rotator cuff right after you get off the mound, you’re better served to get into a parasympathetic state (rest and relax) via some nasal breathing strategies and to just relax. Then, 6+ hours later some activity is appropriate. Generally, these exercises should take place at least 6 hours after throwing as connective tissue changes are maximized through short duration sessions spaced out by roughly 6 hours (Baar, 2017). At this point the goals of the exercise are to restore range of motion (ROM) and target any specific restrictions.
Post throwing ROM tends to be decreased through elbow extension, supination, and shoulder internal rotation. In order to restore this ROM utilizing end range isometrics and other slower tempo movements through a full ROM can be very helpful.
Low intensity aerobic activity can also be combined with the mobility and/or slow tempo strength work to elevate the active recovery effect. This can be performed in the form of a circuit (like the mobility circuits I’ve written about in the past) that’s personalized to fit the needs of the athlete.
Below are a few examples of isometrics and mobility drills we use in our post throwing recovery sessions.
Wrist Extension PAILs/RAILs: Restore elbow and wrist extension ROM by using isometrics and taking advantage of reciprocal inhibition.
Pronation and Supination Iso Holds: Restore supination ROM and strengthen end range.
Shoulder IR/ER PAILs/RAILs: Restore internal and external rotation ROM and end range strength.
Shoulder CARs: Restore shoulder ROM through multiple planes.
Thoracic Rotation: Restore thoracic rotation ROM
Recovery has become a buzzword in baseball that has shifted athletes’ focus to doing more after they throw. There is a time and place for activity, but immediately post throwing is not the optimal time. Nail the basics first then add some active recovery at least six hours after you throw.