Competing in Colorado: Does Altitude Matter?

Updated: February 9, 2015

Playing hockey in Colorado is different. It’s very competitive, and there are many quality programs to get involved with from an early age. We have a storied NHL franchise in the Avalanche and an incredible college team at University of Denver. Colorado has a thriving economy, which allows families the luxury of being able to afford rink fees and expensive equipment. Hockey is it’s own brand of toughness, and there are few truly dedicated hockey towns in America that can compare to those in the Rocky Mountains. Above all, I speculate that our young athletes have another aspect of their development that is unlike anywhere else. The city of Denver is famously 5,280 feet above sea level. Some areas of the front range stand at over 10,000ft such as leadville and Monarch.  The state of Colorado has a mean elevation of 6,800ft which is the highest in America. As the air thins, you get less oxygen in your system which in turn strengthens some parts of the respiratory system.This affects everyone who has not lived above sea level, including those involved in athletics.


I’ve always likened the characteristics of our Colorado kids to those of Superman. The source of his strength came from Krypton. His body was used to that planet’s much stronger gravitational pull. So when he landed on earth it was like swinging a baseball bat after taking the weighted donuts off; it felt like nothing. As a result of the change in gravitational pull, he could fly, he could run through any wall, and he could shoot lasers from his eyes. Doesn’t it all sound familiar? OK maybe not, but the concept is the same. These kids are training in an environment that fosters a higher rate of muscle metabolism and oxygen intake.  The process goes like this: with less oxygen readily available the body begins fighting back to create more, leading to an increase in erythropoietin (EPO) levels.  EPO is a hormone produced by the kidney that promotes the growth of red blood cells.  This task is almost like natural blood doping.  Our red blood cells are the main transporter of oxygen to the body’s muscle tissues.  This in turn increases your VO2 max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in.  This is the basic makeup of athletic endurance, getting oxygen to the muscles so they can reenergize.  Therefore, in reference to hockey, a higher VO2 max allows you to power skate back on defense without feeling as much fatigue as your competition.


The altitude is always a factor when sports teams travel to compete in Denver, but what happens when athletes go from the high altitude conditions to compete at sea-level? A 1998 study in the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport followed some olympic level bicyclists and found that they did not exhibit an increase in red blood cell count or improved performance. In a 1992 edition of International Journal of Sports Medicine published the article “A practical approach to altitude training: where to live and train for optimal performance enhancement.”  This study argues that altitude training is a great choice if getting prepared to play at altitude, but does little if anything in regards to competing at sea-level.  Another study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine follows the same narrative; training at altitude helps you get better at altitude, but there is no evidence of improved performance at sea-level. However, a later study from the International Journal of Sports Medicine found there are positive results to be had from altitude training.  The author took elite biathlon athletes for three weeks in at altitude and found an increase in red blood cell count.  Their blood volume went back to normal after sixteen days at sea level.  You will find no shortage of athletic coaches that believe in the concept.  Many will travel their teams great distances to train at high altitude before a big event.


One 1997 study in the Journal of Applied Physiology positions training at high elevation as a sort of hindrance. Consider that we are all creatures of habit and we practice the way we play.  The fact is we physically cannot achieve our best results at high elevations, our muscles get tired at a faster rate and we slow down. By working out in a less than ideal situation we may be setting ourselves up physically and mentally for less than ideal results.  The aforementioned 1992 article in the Journal of Sports Medicine argues that there may be an answer that gives you the best of both worlds. The journal proposes athletes should live at high elevation receiving the increase in VO2 max, but travel down to sea-level to push themselves further and not fall into a sort of deconditioning from lack of intensity.  This may indeed be the perfect scenario, but it’s not a realistic lifestyle even for most professional athletes.


From a scientific standpoint it appears the results from altitude training are somewhat negligible. Regardless of the effects of thin air, we should embrace the many benefits of living in Colorado where players have access to helpful coaches, updated facilities, and elite training resources. Hockey can be a sport as tough and rigid as our Rocky Mountains. When played correctly it can be as seamless and flowing as the rivers in between. When push comes to shove you will feel it whether you’re at 10,000ft or at sea level. The question really is; how hard will you push back?


– Aaron Moss, Staff Writer at Player Development Insider 


Aaron Moss Head Shot 3About Aaron: Aaron graduated from York College of Pennsylvania with a degree in Sport Management.  Out of college he cut his teeth in the world of minor league baseball. He began his career as an unpaid intern for the Camden Riversharks often strapping on the mascot suit and entertaining as Finley the shark or Blooper the fish.  He eventually ran the season tickets department and later managed the club’s corporate partnerships.  He recently started to create more freedom in the world of pickup sports.  Aaron believes that sports are the best thing for young people to get involved with.  It’s the hobby that will develop your brain, your body, your spirit, and friendships that will last a lifetime.


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