Sports Authority Field at the Mile High Stadium has an elevation of 5,280 feet above sea level.
The science behind it is as follows: at higher elevations there is less barometric pressure, and less oxygen is dissolved in the air one breathes. In Denver, there is approximately 17% less oxygen. If you climb up to 8000 feet, the amount of available oxygen is quarter the amount at sea level.
Imagine breathing oxygen through a water hose for four hours. Now imagine trying to catch your breath after sprinting to catch a pass or rushing the ball through a couple of 300-pound lineman. Even worse, imagine getting the wind knocked out of you under these circumstances. That’s enough to make a player want to fake a ribcage fracture just to catch their breath in the locker room.
— Alex Phi (@gSportsAlex) September 18, 2016
After spending a week in the mile high city and doing some moderate hiking, activity that by NFL game standards is hardly considered exercise, I formed my own opinion of the hidden advantage the Broncos possess.
The mile high advantage isn’t a myth, it’s science. Less oxygen reaches the body at higher elevations. It’s harder to breath, muscles get fatigued quicker, players tire out faster, and the brain doesn’t work at optimum efficiency. Athletically, players won’t be able to perform at the explosive pace they may be accustomed to. After an hour of not getting enough oxygen, the brain won’t be able to operate with the usual clarity required to call plays.
To avoid altitude sickness, one must give their body a few days to acclimatise to the new elevation before pursuing any athletic activity. In the typical NFL season, teams don’t have the time to spend a few days in a new city before an away game.
— Patrick Smyth (@psmyth12) September 18, 2016
The Broncos, on the other hand, have to train at this altitude year round and are able to handle it better than every other team out there. Take my home team, the Miami Dolphins, for example. Miami is barely above sea level, so a quick trip to Denver is enough to throw the entire team slightly out of whack.
The high altitude can also exacerbate certain health conditions. Most notable is the former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Clark, whose sickle cell condition took a turn for the worse when he was playing against Denver in October 2007. Clark developed a great amount of pain in his left side and became extremely ill, in the end losing his spleen and gall bladder. He was not able to play for the rest of the football season.
This is an extreme example in the altitude advantage conversation. Not to say that your favorite NFL player’s organs are going to explode if they play too hard in Denver, but there still is an impact on their aerobic output and endurance.
Didn’t notice the altitude in Denver until I got winded going up 10 steps on a walking tour. ⛰
— Jillian Sederholm (@JillianSed) September 18, 2016
Montee Ball, drafted by the Broncos in 2013, said “I’m telling you, it’s not a myth. It really isn’t. Speaking of when I first got here and was running around, it was very difficult the first two weeks to catch my breath. For now, us as Broncos players, we love the altitude because it’s an advantage for us.”
Former linebacker Shaun Phillips played in Denver as a San Diego Charger accounted for the Bronco advantage from the other perspective.
“It’s definitely an advantage, but I just always felt that if somebody else is doing it, then I can deal with it,” Phillips said.
“That’s always been my attitude here. But to this day, I still suck air a little bit. It’s pretty tough.”
Phillips would later play for the Broncos and said that he noticed the difference practicing at the high altitude on a daily basis almost immediately.
Danny Trevathan, a linebacker drafted by the Broncos in 2012 noted: “If you’re not used to it, it sneaks up on you. You think you’re fine, but then once you get to running around, you feel that extra clap in your lungs.”
All the credit goes to Denver D showing up that 2nd half the altitude being that factor Carolina showed fatigue
— Mark N (@marknewton39) September 9, 2016
Denver might have the best home-field advantage, and the stats back it up. Most NFL teams start to slow down and give up to the Denver defense around the third quarter. Whether or not this is because of the Super Bowl-worthy defense or the altitude isn’t clear, but whatever it is, it’s working for Denver.