Point Of View - Being Better When It Counts

Garrett Ellwood

It feels like it's been ages since I've contributed, but with the NFL Draft coming up - I thought I'd write something outside of the continual drumming of draft news. Yet, at the same time offering a bit of an insight to an angle our FO is likely adding into the equation of selecting from the massive amount of college talent coming out in the draft.

While there are a great and many reasons why the majority of us annually place our faith in the Denver Broncos to play the best American Football in the entire world; there is actually no small amount of science that supports our hope.

The altitude.

I've heard it dramatized as being a much bigger factor than it really is. I've also heard it minimized to being something rather trivial. When in reality it actually makes a substantial impact - specifically because of the NFL Game/Offseason Schedule.

I even choose believe it played a small part in the decision of our current strength and conditioning staff to come to Denver. We have the perfect platform. It was the location where the possibility of achieving peak human performance - as it pertains to American Football - could be achieved.

You see, the number one factor that affects the pros and cons of altitude acclimatization is timing.

The very first effect of an athlete arriving un-acclimatized to a significantly higher elevation is a rapid drop in athletic ability - particularly as it relates to muscle endurance/fatigue. This is due to the lower air pressure preventing as much oxygen from transferring through the lungs mucous membranes as the body is normally accustomed to. Even though the oxygen quality in the air is actually very similar to lower altitudes (around 21%).

It's not the oxygen content that matters, but the air pressure that actually hinders our ability to absorb it. This effects of the increased cardiovascular strain on the heart, lungs, and capillary systems are even more substantial on heavyset men - who's cardiovascular systems are already working harder than a similarly built man (muscularly) of smaller actual body-mass.

So when you see players huffing oxygen on the sidelines - although it may provide a minimal temporary boost in restoring muscle endurance - the effects are lost almost immediately after stepping away from the air. Players have essentially "recharged" their bodies oxygen level somewhat - but the benefit will only remain for a single play, possibly two (depending on how much they exert themselves for that 10-25 seconds). Only if they were to be on oxygen between each and every play would they really be at/near the same level as an individual who is acclimatized.

Below is a small graph showing the general initial fatigue effect of arriving at high altitude:

Following the initial reaction of the body to a high altitude environment, eventually the process of acclimatization begins. At which point we begin to see a rise in the individual's muscular and cardiovascular endurance - though it still remains lower than an individual's at sea level. Visually shown in the image below:

The acclimatization process generally takes 4-7 days for the body to begin to build up enough additional red blood cells and capillaries to support a normal level of oxygen absorption - and this is assuming most of those 4-7 days are spent resting and not burning up nutrients on other physiological processes. Upon the successful completion of acclimatization, however, athletes at higher elevations will actually perform at a lower levels of athletic ability than an athlete at sea-level as shown below:

But this is where it starts to get interesting.

Despite the fact that players playing at elevation are actually performing worse than players playing at sea-level (in different locations of course). This is actually a good thing for the Denver Broncos. Which is because when an athlete that is acclimatized to high elevations - with more red blood cells and capillaries to absorb and transfer oxygen - goes to a lower elevation, they actually have a competitive advantage over athletes acclimated to sea-level. This is due primarily to the increased muscle endurance granted by being able to get more oxygen to the individual muscles (not just throughout the course of an entire game, but between each and every play).

The graph below shows an example of this in action. It also shows, however, that if a player remains at sea-level long enough (that 4-7 day average), they will acclimate back to see level and return to a normal fitness state without the benefits of high-altitude acclimation:

So you see, our Denver Broncos have the built in ability to athletically outperform players on other teams both at home AND on the ROAD! Also due to the way in which games are traditionally scheduled - Broncos players are never back at sea-level long enough during the season to lose the benefits of their high-altitude acclimation that helps them on each and every road game, as well as at home. Due to the science behind exactly how our bodies acclimatize to different elevations, even if an opponent came to Denver early in the week, they wouldn't exactly reap the benefits of acclimatization - since each and every practice at altitude would actually be counter productive to the body producing new blood cells and capillaries.

From my own experience as a consistent runner who grew up native in Colorado living at various altitudes in the state and then being in the Marines and traveling to various locations around the country and world and performing vigorous physical activities - I believe the effect of acclimation also has long term pros and cons. Having the benefits of high-altitude acclimation created the opportunity for me to further push my physical limits and be that-much-closer to my physical peak when training down at sea level during my first couple of years in the Marines first in San Diego, then in Jacksonville, NC.

Even though acclimation is a relatively quick process, I believe there can be longer lasting benefits to individuals who have lived at altitude for substantial periods of time (especially being born at and growing up in higher elevations). The human body is capable of amazing adaptation over short periods of time; but also shows the ability to create longer lasting pros and cons for different people who have spent generations in a particular climate. There is a certain amount of genetic carry-over that translates from parent to child.

Take melanin in the skin as the perfect example. Although all human beings have the ability to "tan" during a hot season to protect from harmful UV rays; human populations that have lived in hot, sunny climates for decades, centuries, and even millennia have a much higher content of skin melanin than most of us will ever be able to achieve regardless of how/where we spend the rest of our life. Altitude acclimation isn't a vastly different concept from this one. It is the body trying to optimize it's ability to survive and perform in extreme climates.

This is something I am positive that Elway experienced during his junior, collegiate, and professional playing days. It is something he has mentioned in various ways, and other players constantly refer to when talking about playing in Denver. It is the primary reason, in my opinion, that our coaching staff places such an emphasis on playing fast, especially offensively. The no-huddle offense is scientifically devastating for a high-altitude team to utilize against a sea-level team (or anywhere lower, really). That 3-6 day window of endurance/fatigue advantage has a massive impact on a game that is decided often by inches, or even a single missed tackle.

The Denver Broncos have a built-in competitive advantage because of the altitude, scheduling, and the science behind acclimation. Despite the fact that our players are actually worse athletes in their home location than other teams are in their home locations... They end up being better athletes than those players when they travel, but even moreso when those opponents come to Denver where the most significant gap/difference in athletic ability exists.

Scientific fact states that the Denver Broncos are NOT the most athletic team in American Football...

... but for the very same reasons we ARE the best athletic team WHEN IT COUNTS!

When you think about that Mile High Magic that always seemed to come to life for Elway's Broncos in the fourth quarter and as he extended plays with his feet... maybe some of that Magic was much more tangible than any of us really noticed. He did - after all bring us back from the bring time and time again, regardless of whether we were at home or not. Just some food for thought and a different point of view.


Since I know some people (such as myself) don't always get to read the comment section, SaguaroBronco offered a bit more insight that I think should be included - as it corrects a bit of information about the true Oxygen content. Plus, it offers a few other useful nuggets.

"One minor scientific comment, though. You are right that the oxygen content, as a percentage, is about the same at altitude or at sea level. However, at altitude, the air is actually less dense, meaning that there are fewer oxygen (and nitrogen) molecules per liter (or per lung full), so there actually is less oxygen available. This is also the reason that kicks fly further at Mile High and baseballs don’t break as well at Coors Field. It’s not just an effect of air pressure on the ability of the body to absorb the oxygen available – there really is less air up there.

You’re right about the acclimatization effects giving the Broncos an advantage at Mile High (since the opponents aren’t fully acclimatized) AND at sea level (since the effects of the Broncos being acclimatized to altitude give them more efficient use of oxygen than a typical “lowlander”). This is one reason why elite-level athletes train at altitude or in hypobaric conditions – to get an advantage on their competition.

The other effect of oxygen related to performance is mental – not just a psychological effect, but the brain actually functions measurably better when it’s fully oxygenated. This is why airplane pilots carry supplemental oxygen even if they aren’t flying at life threatening altitudes. The more efficient you are at using oxygen, the better (and quicker) your brain will function, which is why a fast-paced, complex offense like Manning is running is such an advantage to a high altitude team like Denver.

It’s important to remember that Denver is pretty much alone in this in the NFL. The next highest elevation team is the Cardinals who play at about 1500 feet elevation (much less than the 5280 in Denver). Even though they train at 7000 feet in Flagstaff, those acclimatization benefits are mostly worn off after they break camp and return to Phoenix for their opening game."

- SaguaroBronco

Thanks SaguaroBronco!

This is a Fan-Created Comment on The opinion here is not necessarily shared by the editorial staff of MHR

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