Steelers coach isn't worried about Denver altitude, but science disagrees

Ben Schmitt
| Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Ben Roethlisberger's shoulder; Antonio Brown's concussion; DeAngelo Williams' foot — they're all mile-high factors in the Pittsburgh Steelers' AFC divisional playoff game Sunday in Denver.

That's before figuring in altitude elements, a well-known home-field advantage in the Broncos' stable. The city sits about 5,200 feet above sea level, or some 4,000 feet higher than Pittsburgh's altitude.

“You're a mile high. That is just the science of it,” said Frank Velasquez, a former Pittsburgh Pirates strength and conditioning coordinator who is director of sports performance at Allegheny Health Network. “There's less oxygen up there, and our muscles require oxygen to function. The muscles will fatigue quicker and burn a little more — that's the physiology of the situation.”

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin brushed aside any sea level talk during a news conference Tuesday.

“I don't care about altitude,” he said.

Still, the science is real.

The lower oxygen levels at higher altitudes can create strain on the lungs and body.

Athletes competing at higher altitudes take in less oxygen per breath, and they have to allow time for their bodies to adapt.

At sea level, the air is more dense than at high altitude. The higher one climbs, the air becomes less compressed and therefore is thinner.

“The key for a visiting team is to get your rest, stay hydrated and have your nutritional calories in you before kickoff,” Velasquez said. “The availability of oxygen tanks on the sidelines is also very helpful.” Oxygen tanks are generally available at all NFL games, according to the NFL Physicians Society.

Athletes with medical conditions can face complications far more serious than muscle fatigue when exerting themselves at high altitudes.

Four years ago, former Steelers safety Ryan Clark, now retired, did not dress in a playoff game against Denver because of a sickle cell trait that made him vulnerable to organ damage.

Sickle cell trait is a genetic abnormality which can affect red blood cells. Clark was playing in Denver in October 2007 when he felt severe pain in his left side. His organs became deprived of oxygen, and doctors had to remove his spleen and gallbladder. He regained his health and career the following season, but Tomlin never allowed him to play in Denver again.

“The situation with Ryan Clark was an eye-opener,” former Steelers cornerback Bryant McFadden told the Tribune-Review. “Ryan and I usually sat next to each other on the plane, and I still remember flying home without him. The team wasn't sure what was going on. It really was a scary moment.”

Aside from Clark's medical situation, McFadden, who was a rookie when the Steelers won a playoff game in Denver in 2006 to advance to Super Bowl XL, said he never noticed much of a difference at the Broncos' stadium.

“I kept hearing about the altitude before that playoff game my rookie year,” he said. “I made sure I got out on the field early to get some pregame warm-ups in because I really didn't know what to expect. I ran around and sprinted, and I realized that I felt fine.”

McFadden understood why Tomlin discounted altitude as an issue.

“I think the more people emphasize it, the more you start to worry about it, and now you're focusing on things rather than execution of a game plan,” he said. “A lot of people overemphasize the altitude. I don't think it's a big deal.”

Dr. Robert Heyer, president of the NFL Physicians Society and team physician for the playoff-bound Carolina Panthers, agreed with McFadden's assessment.

“It seems like different teams deal with Denver in slightly different manners,” he said. “Some teams try to arrive earlier with the idea of getting more acclimated.”

Heyer said he believes Denver's altitude shouldn't hamper well-conditioned athletes.

“I know it's always a topic of conversation,” he said. “But I think for players that are in excellent physical condition, 5,000 feet above sea level is not that significant.”

Disadvantages of playing in Denver come in more subtle forms, according to Heyer. Because there is less oxygen at higher levels, nighttime breathing may be heavier, affecting sleep quality, he said.

“Sleep is an issue from my perspective in terms of not being optimal for the players,” said Heyer.

The dry climate also affects hydration.

“Players tend to lose more water through breathing, and there's a greater tendency to experience water depletion,” he said. “That can certainly affect performance.”

Despite the perceived steep odds facing the Steelers, Velasquez thinks the team can work through it.

“Heck yeah, they can pull it off,” he said, adding, “As long as Ben and Antonio Brown are out there.”

McFadden agreed.

“I'm going with the Steelers, 24-13,” he said.

Ben Schmitt is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7991 or Staff writer Mark Kaboly contributed to this report.

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