The Mile High City.
Sitting exactly 5,280 feet above sea level, Denver has the highest elevation of any major U.S. city. This gives the professional sports teams who call it home an invisible edge that’s all too real for opponents.
Since 1975, the Denver Broncos sport the best home record in the NFL. Since 2007, the Colorado Rockies have the 14th-best home record in the MLB—yet rank dead last in away record during that same span. Since 2003 (the longest data set I could find), the Denver Nuggets have the fourth-best home record in the NBA yet rank 13th in away record.
Coincidence? I wouldn’t count on it. Denver’s sky-high altitude rages war on visitor’s bodies. The air is actually thinner, meaning each breath they draw contains less oxygen than they’re accustomed to. It’s also more difficult for the body to move that oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream. This isn’t a big deal for tourists, but for those who are expected to undergo intense physical activity—such as professional athletes—the effects can be suffocating. Heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure all increase substantially as the body goes into overdrive in an attempt to deliver more oxygen to cells. Fatigue increases and rate of perceived exertion increases. It’s a stressful change, and one that favors the hometown team in venues like Mile High Stadium, Coors Field and the Pepsi Center.
John Fox, who served as the Broncos head coach between 2011 and 2014, believes the edge is undeniable. “It’s probably the best home-field advantage in the NFL,” Fox told DenverBroncos.com in 2013. “That’s why I think our home record is so good.” The teams do everything possible to play up this X-factor. The Broncos have erected a large mural outside the visitor’s locker room which makes reference to the elevation, and the Nuggets’ PA announcer has been known to outline the symptoms of altitude sickness prior to tipoff.
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Former New England Patriots linebacker Teddy Bruschi says it was impossible to ignore the altitude anytime he played a road game in Denver. “It’s real,” Bruschi told ESPN. “It affects you. The oxygen you’re breathing into your muscle isn’t the same. You feel yourself gasping.”
Speaking of the Patriots, perhaps no team knows the damage Denver’s Rocky Mountain air can wreak than this modern dynasty. Tom Brady has a career record of 4-7 at Mile High Stadium, a rare blemish on an otherwise impeccable career. It’s his worst winning percentage at any venue, which is why some writers have dubbed Mile High Stadium as Brady’s personal “House of Horrors.”
Retired NBA center Chris Andersen has provided perhaps the most colorful description of Denver’s altitude advantage, once telling Grizzlies.com playing at the Pepsi Center “was like (having) two midgets pulling on my lungs and they wouldn’t let go.” He’s far from the only basketball player to feel that way—shortly after Andray Blatche visited Denver as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, he told the New York Daily News, “I thought my lungs were going to explode…I thought I ran about 10 miles.” Former NBA player and coach Byron Scott said he was “dying” and felt like he “needed (an) oxygen mask” when he played his first game in Denver.
But why don’t Denver players themselves suck wind during these same games? After all, they’re breathing the same air. It’s all about adaptation.
The human body can adapt to high altitude on a hormonal level, but it takes several days to weeks of 24/7 exposure. As the body adapts, the kidneys produce higher amounts of a hormone called erythropoietin. Higher level of erythropoietin leads to increased red blood cell production. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the muscles, and the more red blood cells you have, the more oxygen can be delivered. Once the increase of red blood cells plateaus and stops, you’re fully adapted to the altitude. Staying hydrated during acclimatization can help the body adjust more efficiently. Additionally, acclimatization to high altitude can produce a greater number of microscopic blood vessels and enhance the body’s ability to process lactic acid.
According to Lumen Learning, the time it takes to fully acclimate to a higher altitude can be found by multiplying the altitude in kilometers by 11.4 days. Using this formula, it would take approximately 18 days for the body to fully acclimate to Denver’s thin air. Upon returning to lower altitudes, the body’s higher red blood cell count will persist for about two weeks following acclimatization. It’s for this reason that the United States Olympic Committee maintains a training center in Colorado Springs, Colorado (which is located about an hour south of Denver, but sits roughly 755 higher).
Denver players have a biological advantage during home games, and some of their teams’ biggest successes have come by exploiting that edge. The Broncos made the Super Bowl in 2013 by employing a blistering no-huddle offense which ran an average of 72.1 plays per game. Since 2003, just one team has averaged more plays per game. Combined with the altitude, the approach exhausted opposing defenses and helped the Broncos set a new record for points in a season. The 2012-2013 Denver Nuggets went 57-25 (the franchise’s best record since joining the NBA in 1977) by employing a blazing uptempo style which saw them average the most made field goals (40.7) and points (106.1) per game by any team that season. They recorded an astonishing home record of 38-3.
Even LeBron James, one of the world’s fittest athletes, is not immune to this element. “This is a tough (place) to play in,” James told NBA.com in 2013. “This altitude is nothing to play with.”
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