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The Science Behind Denver's Altitude Effect

January 10, 2013

By Russell Manalastas, clinical director at Maryland SportsCare & Rehab

With the Broncos holding home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Ravens will have to prepare to play at 5,280 feet above sea level in Denver. The Ravens plan to travel to Denver this Friday to try to avoid being hampered by the side effects of playing football at higher altitudes.

Traditionally, most teams will attempt to travel early during the week to get adjusted to the physical changes the body endures. There are some who agree with this thought process and there are some who will travel as close to game time as possible to minimize the risk of players feeling the side effects of acclimatization.

Most research has been focused on the effects that higher altitude has on endurance-type athletes. As altitude increases, performance decreases. There have been some studies that show minimizing exposure to higher altitude before performance does not affect short-duration, sprinting-type exercise.(1) Football is a sport that combines both sprinting- and endurance-based performance. Because the majority of football is played in short bursts, with most plays lasting anywhere from 8-10 seconds, you can make the argument that the altitude might not affect the Ravens as much as you think.

A major factor when playing any sport at higher altitudes is the reduction in the pressure of oxygen. From a physiological standpoint, oxygen exchange in the lungs is based off a pressure gradient. In order for oxygenated blood to be delivered throughout the body, there needs to be a certain amount of pressure to help drive oxygen-rich blood from the lungs into the bloodstream.

With a reduction in the pressure gradient, the exchange of gas is reduced, which hinders the amount of oxygen readily available to the body.(2) The immediate responses the body will show, regardless of how long you've been at a higher altitude, are an increased breathing rate and an increased heart rate to compensate for the reduction in oxygen consumption. An athlete's VO2max, which is a gauge to measure exercise capacity, is also reduced.

Acclimatization at higher altitudes can range from a few days to multiple weeks for the body to be able to regulate when exercising. I think you can make an argument to travel earlier or later during the week, but there are number of factors to consider, and every player reacts differently.

The Ravens have to hope that limiting the exposure to the high altitude will preserve strength and stamina, leading to a win in Denver.

Posted Jan. 10, 2013

1) Burtscher, M., M. Faulhaber, M. Flatz, R. Likar, and W. Nachbauer. The Effects of Short-Term Acclimatization to Altitude (3200m) on Aerobic and Anaerobic Exercise Performance. Int J Sports Med 27: 629-635, 2006.
2) Peacock AJ. ABC of Oxygen: Oxygen at High Altitude. British Medical Journal 1998; 317: 1063-5.