Op-ed: The downside of sport-specific training

You can’t upkeep a healthy routine if you approach It like a chore or job.

After a survey found that over half of15,000 professional baseball players (over a 100-plus year period) were overweight, we talked to experts to discover the root of the problem. Inour feature, nutritionists revealed the challenges players face trying to eat well on the road and after games. But food is only part of the problem. Here, former San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt makes a case for how sport-specific training can be limiting and how fear of injury keeps players from pushing themselves in the gym. Plus, he explains the reason they tend to pack on even more pounds when they retire—and how he’s managed to be the exception to the rule.

Americans are increasingly out of shape and overweight because we are busy. Really busy. People finish their workdays feeling too tired to work out. I don’t think it’s anyone’s intention to become unhealthy. It's just a product of the environment. It’s tough.

Staying in shape is tough on professional athletes too. Playing pro baseball tends to encourage sports-specific training. You have to train like a baseball player, and baseball players train to be explosive for short amounts of time (think: throwing a pitch or catching a ball). There's not a lot of training for long endurance.

As a pitcher, I couldn’t get too big in the chest or shoulders because I needed that nice fluidity of arm action to get the speed on the ball. So, I focused on the legs, core, and back, and the upper body was neglected.

Players try to use the off-season to fix imbalances like these, but your body's so beat up that you have to give it time to heal. We always have to worry about injury, so we’re cautious about how and when we work out. This doesn’t allow us to get that total-body fitness everyone’s looking for. One of the sayings that goes around the gym is, “Hey, you want to be on the front of Muscleand Fitness magazine? Then retire and do that. Right now you're a baseball player.”

As I got older, my body hurt a little bit more. My groin and lower ab were torn and covered over with scar tissue. I had to back off on the core work. I also couldn't run as much outside. I wore knee braces to pitch during the last five years of my career because I had MCL and patella tendon issues. I tried to do leg workouts, but only to a certain point because I didn’t want to get so hurt that I couldn’t pitch.

It gets even harder when you retire. Some guys stop working out altogether. They say, “I’ve been lifting weights and working out for my entire baseball career. I’ve been outside running around, doing physical activity all the time, and I don't want to do any of that anymore.” They gain weight but they don't care, because they had to care for so long.

Also, a lot of athletes lose their identity when they get done playing. They identify as athletes and it’s hard to lose that. It can make you shut down, and when you shut down, after what you did for so long, your body will start to break down. Then you can't work out, or you have ailments, or your body hurts.

It was a fear for me. I didn't want my identity to be in sports. I wanted my identity to be in the impact I make with those around me. I also don’t want arthritis, stiffness, joint issues, and aches and pains. I like being outside doing physical activities. I have three little boys and a talented wife, and I want to keep up with them. I want to continue to be productive in the community. I love speaking about leadership and helping to develop young leaders. So I want to keep my brain going.

And frankly, I want to look fit. I want to feel fit. If you look and feel fit, you look and feel good. Your mental state, your sense of self, and your mental clarity will all follow from fitness.

The first thing I did when I retired was give my body a year to heal. Then I got after it. I don’t have to worry all the time about injury. There are so many things I can do now that I couldn’t do when I was playing. I couldn’t run too much because it hurt. I couldn’t do leg exercises because it hurt. Now I've got my leg strength back so I’m picking up tennis for cardio.

I don't want to be a body-builder. I want to be athletically strong. I want to move correctly and be as flexible as I can be. I've got really tight hips from pitching, so I've started doing Pilates and some stretching to open myself up. I’m also working on getting my core really strong again (after having reconstructive surgery for the lower ab and groin tear); I need a strong core to protect my back. Now that it doesn’t hurt as much, I can golf. I can hike and go mountain biking. I can play with my kids without worrying about blowing out my shoulder, or my knee, or my back.

It has taken a couple of years, but my body is functioning so much better. I’m still working on getting the results I want, but I’m competitive so I want them faster—I’ve even done blood tests.

I'm all about the fitness stuff. It excites me. I get up in the morning, I take the kids to school, I go work out, or I golf. If I golf in the morning, then I'll work out in the evening, or in the afternoon right before I get my kids. This doesn’t keep me from my family or my work. I’m still productive with my speaking and my book writing. I just have a routine.

So whether you’re a retired baseball player or not, make a workout part of your everyday. You don’t need a beach body—you just need a workout routine. If you don’t have one, then later you’ll wish you had. And if you get one, then you’ll feel better. In fact, the older you get, the better you’ll feel. That’s my goal. The better we stay in shape, the better off we’re going to be.

Jeremy Affeldt is a World Series Champion, former major league baseball pitcher, humanitarian, public speaker, and author. His baseball career spanned 14 years with the Kansas City Royals, Colorado Rockies, Cincinnati Reds, and the last seven years with the San Francisco Giants. He played on all three Giants World Champion teams, 2010, 2012, and 2014. For his career, Affeldt has a record of 2-0, 0.86 ERA in 33 post-season games, the third lowest in history among pitchers with at least 30 innings. He has 22 straight scoreless post-season appearances since allowing one run in Game 1 of the 2010 World Series, one shy of Mariano Rivera's record. He retired from baseball on Sunday, October 4, 2015.
Jeremy is an active leader to end human trafficking and modern day slavery and is an advocate to support and feed the hungry at home and around the globe. He is the co-founder of Generation Alive, a non-profit organization that works to teach and inspire a generation of young people to act by serving others. He is an executive producer of the new movie,The Heart of Man. Follow Jeremy on social media @JeremyAffeldt.