As a New England sports fan, the thought of going to the Mile High City of Denver for any sports event, such as this wonderful World Series, creates some questions about the effects of altitude. What can sports teams and fans expect to encounter in Denver and how does an altitude of 5,280 feet affect a human body that is accustomed to sea level elevation? For the answers to these questions, read on.
Altitude most directly affects our respiration, which is the mechanism by which we inhale oxygen from the air and exhale the carbon dioxide that our body has produced. The inhaled oxygen is transported via red blood cells through our circulatory system to each cell in the body. There, the oxygen is used to create energy in a series of complex chemical reactions producing carbon dioxide.
Although the overall concentration of oxygen in the air is 21% no matter where you are on the planet, the density of the air molecules is less, the higher you go. In other words, the air is thinner, and there is about 20% less oxygen in a breath taken at 5,280 feet as compared to a breath taken at sea level.
While the effects of altitude are generally mild until you get above 8,000 feet, they are still noticeable, especially if you don’t exercise regularly. Most often, people may experience general fatigue their first couple days at altitude. They may notice that their breathing rate is faster as their body tries to make up for the lower oxygen concentration. Occasionally, a person may experience headaches and dizziness when working out hard before allowing the body to adapt to the elevation. It does take several months before the body has produced enough extra red blood cells to make up for the lower air density, but some adaptation does start to occur immediately.
Staying well-hydrated, which is always a good idea, is especially important to do at altitude because, in part, it helps the cells do their work, keeps the joints moving easily and enables the brain to function on all cylinders. Drinking plain water is best.
For sports teams, having oxygen as well as plenty of water on the sidelines or in the dugout is a common practice. Teams expending a lot of energy in running, as in football and basketball, are more affected than teams playing baseball, for example.
Careful coaches apply the best up-to-date advice to minimize the impact of altitude on the players, as the sports season rolls on. And for fans making the trip, take it easy the first few days before exhausting yourselves cheering for your teams.