In the NFL, teams play 17 games per season. In the NBA, 82. That makes the MLB season extra long and physically draining, with each team playing 162 regular-season games. To prepare for all that time on the field, athletes get their minds and bodies in top shape at spring training.
Here, the strategies MLB players implemented to get ready for Opening Day on March 28. "They're all directly applicable for the everyday athlete," says Matt Berenc, Beverly Hills-based director of education at the Equinox Fitness Training Institute. "Whether your goal is to perform on the weekends or to reach a goal in the club, each of these techniques can be part of your success."
During the off-season, Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo works out with trainer Tom Flynn in Coral Springs, Florida. They do multi-joint movements—such as burpees and push-up variations—to teach several muscles to work together. Rizzo does reverse pyramids of three moves each. For example, he’ll start with 15 reps each of cleans-to-presses, box jumps, and stability ball knee tucks, then repeat the sequence doing 12 reps of each, then 10 reps of each. After a 2-minute break, he’ll repeat that program with new exercises.
In the Arizona Diamondbacks weight room, everything is done with the goal of functional fitness in mind. “If alignment and posture aren’t right, the body has a tendency to become tight in certain areas and weak in others,” says Ken Crenshaw, the team’s Chandler, Arizona-based head athletic trainer. Adds Berenc: "Taking a functional approach to training with a focus on form and technique will help you go faster and lift more."
The players focus on single-leg and rotational movements to mimic game play, such as pistol and split squats, single-leg deadlifts, cable chops, and medicine ball throws.
Baseball requires quick bursts of speed to run the bases, but also stamina for marathon 18-inning games. The Diamondbacks log intervals with a two-to-one work-to-rest ratio—for example, going hard for 1 minute and recovering for 30 seconds, then repeating for 20 minutes, Crenshaw says. They’ll use cardio equipment such as self-propelling treadmills, rowing machines, and Versaclimbers. Intervals are even a staple on recovery days, though they keep their heart rate below 130 beats per minute during the sprints.
Rizzo uses an Olympic-sized swimming pool for zero-impact workouts that allow the joints to recover between bouts of high-impact, high-intensity training. NFL players do plyo work in the pool for bulk, but baseball players often stick with swimming because they don’t need more mass, Flynn explains. Rizzo alternates between different strokes for an hour, twice a week. The first chunk of the sessions focuses on steady-state swimming and stroke refinement. At the end, speed and sprints are priority.
One of the major concerns during spring training is optimal hydration, says Leslie Bonci, Pittsburgh-based sports nutrition advisor at Klean Athlete and former nutrition consultant for MLB teams such as the Washington Nationals and the Toronto Blue Jays. She encourages players to think beyond the glass and get more water from foods such as produce, soups, and smoothies.
“As with tennis and golf, baseball involves repetitive movements that cause asymmetries,” says Steph Armijo, a St. Petersburg, Florida-based yoga teacher who has worked with several MLB teams including the New York Mets. That makes it especially important to stretch the muscles in the overworked side. Identifying exercises that will support and counter repetitive stresses is crucial to performance, Berenc says. That's where yoga comes in.
For a balanced body, Armijo recommends Lizard pose to loosen the hip flexors, Reclined Pigeon pose to stretch the quads and open the internal hips, and Child’s pose to stretch the back, hips, and feet. “Holding ten poses both before and after each game keeps players in better shape.” Do so on both sides when applicable, but longer on the tighter side if there’s a major imbalance.
Spring training is also about revisiting non-physical skills that players haven’t used since the previous season, says Bob Tewksbury, mental performance consultant for the Chicago Cubs. To sharpen their mindset, players choose mantras, visualize success, and practice positive self-talk. Berenc sums it up nicely: "Mental toughness can be the difference between running an 'okay' race and hitting a PR."
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