As the change of seasons is marked by changes in the weather here in Colorado, fall marks professional baseball’s changing of seasons. For teams not in the playoffs, October signals the end of a 6-month competitive season and the start of a 4-5 month off-season depending on the level that you are competing at. The professional baseball season is a marathon. Major League teams play 162 games in approximately 180 days. Minor league teams play 142 games in approximately 160 days. There are only 20 days off during a typical MLB season and half of these occur when the team is on the road and away from home. For MLB teams not involved in the playoffs, the off-season starts around the second week of October and 1 to 3 weeks later for playoff teams. For minor leaguers whose teams fail to make the playoffs and those individuals who don’t go to instructional league, the off-season beings around the first week of September. Minor league players involved in the playoffs or instructional league start in mid to late October.
The off-season starts with a 3 to 4 week period of active rest. This is a “no formal training” phase designed to allow players to recover physically and mentally from the competitive season. It's the bridge from one year to the next. What players do in this phase greatly affects how they are able to prepare for next season. As previously mentioned, it’s a tremendously long and taxing season. Depending on the league, level and playoffs, a team can play up to 180 games plus 4-6 weeks of spring training in approximately 220 days. At the end of the season, players are physically tired and mentally spent. They all have aches and pains, bumps, bruises and nagging injuries that need time to heal. With that being said, they need what should be considered active rest and not “couch potato” rest. Players are encouraged to stay active to prevent losing the gains made in the previous year while allowing the body to heal properly. Maintaining a general fitness base will help players make quicker improvements when the off-season conditioning program begins and raise the upper limit on how much improvement can be achieved before the next spring.
The body’s ability to recover and repair improves with activity. Movement can facilitate muscles, tendons, ligaments, etc., to regenerate as well as allow the mind to unwind and recover. Most players do things that they enjoy but don’t have time for during the season. They play golf, tennis, fish, hunt and stay active enough to maintain a decent fitness level as they recover from the season. Players are encourage to take at least three weeks for this active recovery before starting any off-season training. While the actual length of active rest is unique to each individual, I have observed that less than two weeks off can significantly compromise both physical and metal recovery but anything longer than four weeks begins to cut too much into the already short off-season.
Start the Rebuilding
Once a player is mentally and physically recovered and a bit recharged, it is time to initiate the rebuilding process. Like working on a race car after a race, you need to strip the car down to the frame and start to put it back together. Athletes are very similar in that you need to begin with basic foundational work. The rebuilding process starts with the writing of personalized training programs. These programs address the strengths, weaknesses and specific areas of improvement needed by each player as well as provide a progressive/systematic plan leading up to Spring Training. While these programs are well thought out, there are many factors that can require the strength and conditioning coach to alter these plans. Workouts sometimes have to be scheduled around or in conjunction with players travel plans, hunting trips, golf tournaments, holiday plans, etc. In many cases it is unrealistic to think that every player will be able to consistently follow the plan as laid out. Coaches must to be able to adjust workouts programs to accommodate the player’s realistic off-season schedule in order to provide maximum guidance. Some players for example play Winter Ball; therefore their off-season workout schedule and timeline will be different than those who are not competing during the off-season. The Winter Ball season (Caribbean Baseball League) starts in October and ends in January with the Caribbean World Series Championship. The start and duration of off-season workouts for these athletes are dictated by when they start and finish playing in this league. Understandably there are some positive and negative outcomes of this type of off-season schedule.
The off-season is divided into three, 4-5 week training phases. Phase one is the first formal training phase of the off-season plan. It starts in November and lasts for approximately 5 weeks with a designed 2-3 days off for Thanksgiving. Workouts are designed to produce a solid general fitness base. Players “train to train” by building a higher work capacity with a lower intensity workouts that utilize basic movements and emphasize range of motion and proper form. Players are encouraged not to immediately overload the body by doing high intensity work. The goal is to gradually build functional strength and work capacity in the major muscle groups while thickening tendons and stabilizing joints, so they can adapt and handle the more stressful work to come in later phases. Doing too much (high intensity & high volume) too soon can lead to overuse or overtraining injuries such as, patella tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, biceps tendonitis, etc. Therefore, most of Phase I workouts consist of unilateral body weight exercises to help correct asymmetries and increase work capacity. Players train four times per week and do a total body workout each training session.
For me, this is the most important phase of the off-season program. What a player is or is not able to accomplish during this phase will significantly effect how much improvement they achieve overall during the off-season. In many cases, the impact is the difference between thriving or surviving the regular season. The goal for the following 4-5 weeks is to develop as much functional strength as possible but in some cases as needed. Notice I said “as needed." I truly believe that there is an individual level of strength needed for each player to play at their highest level and to stay as healthy as possible. I have have pushed players and have seen players reach extremely high levels of strength, only to conclude that maximum potential strength is not necessary to play baseball at the highest levels. There is however a level that is above the demands of the game that allows a player perform at a high level while staying healthy. Too little of a stimulus and a player will be more likely to get injured. Too much of a stimulus and the physical and mental effort needed to obtain higher levels of strength are wasted when there is a large gap between off-season and pre-season demands. Also, players are more likely to become over-trained when they attempt to combine high intensity strength training and high volume skills work during Spring Training and leading-up to the season.
Players switch from full-body workouts to upper and lower body split workouts during this phase. Using split workouts allows players to perform higher intensity work with more recovery between workouts as well as alternate heavier and lighter workout days. On heavy days, players perform primarily multi-joint, core exercises. On lighter days, the focus is more on unilateral exercises. A player who for example performs a trap bar deadlift on his heavier day, will switch to a single leg squat on his lighter day.
By December, most players have fully recovered from the stress and strain associated with the previous season, and are ready to increase baseball related activities. At this point, most will start throwing and hitting 2-3 times a week. As players approach the end of the strength phase, basic plyometric movements are introduced to help prepare for the transition to the strength/power training phase of the off-season program. As explained earlier, workouts are designed and scheduled to ensure that players have opportunities to improve, recover and still fulfill their personal holiday and travel plans. Players push hard until just before Christmas and are scheduled off until the second day of January. Experience has shown that if a player knows that a break is coming soon, it is more likely that he will push harder during training and be able to relax more during the break. In doing so, this allows them to come back after the break with renewed mental and physical energy.
Anyone who is or has ever been involved with a professional baseball season knows that there is an internal clock that goes off when the calendar flips to January and a new year begins. For some it's like the alarm clock beside your bed and for others it can be like a tornado siren. All relative to the individual assessment of the volume of work that is needed to be accomplished within the short amount of time remaining before Spring Training. Everyone involved has experienced how quickly time seems to pass once January hits.
So as we begin this last phase of the off-season, the scale of training vs the scale of baseball skills begin to even out as it pertains to the volume, intensity and importance of each. This is where the strength gains achieved up to this point begin to be apply to making gains in power through plyometrics, agility/COD drills, sprinting and increased baseball skill work. The first thing I do is decrease or level off the weight of all exercises to allow the body to handle the different exercises, new volumes and intensities without completely overloading the system. In the beginning this usually entails; two days of conditioning, one day of plyometrics and one day of agility/COD work. For the most part, I stay with the upper and lower split barring a truncated week. By the end of this phase, I like to have guys built-up to doing two days of agility/COD; two days of plyometrics; 2-3 days of sprints/conditioning with increased volumes and intensities for all.
Calm before the Storm
About two weeks out from player’s report dates, I like guys to transition into their initial individual Spring Training routines. This once again allows the body to get a handle on changes in workout routines before it has to handle a lot of specific baseball skill changes and volumes associated with the beginning of Spring Training. The week leading up to the official start date, should be a very individualized transition from the off-season to the pre-season but definitely a light week before they begin. A lot of this has to do with the reality of all that needs to be done by the players to get settled-in prior to starting Spring Training as well as there is a need for a reduced workload in order to physically and mentally recharge before it all begins again. Staff included! ..................And so it begins!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!