“Living High, Training Low” and its implications for the NFL – A Proposal for Altitude Training Interventions in American Football” – Part 3

 

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Today, the New England Patriots play the Oakland Raiders. This game is important for many reasons. First, this is a matchup between two American Football Conference Power houses. As such, there are playoff implications for both teams. A win for the Patriots (with a record of 7 win and 2 losses) provides them a greater edge toward a top seed in the playoffs. On the contrary, a win for the (4 and 5) Oakland Raiders is needed to improve their chances for a playoff berth this season.

This game is also important because of the setting.  NFL athletes will be competing  in Mexico City. There are monumental growth and financial implications for the NFL as it reaches for a greater market pull in the country of Mexico.  As the NFL continues to take steps to grow the highly marketable and lucrative sport of American football to foreign audiences we will continue to see the exposure of NFL athletes to relatively new environments.

It is for this reason, however, that today’s game has a whole different meaning for Sports scientists, Coaches and NFL athletes or those interested in the boundaries of athletic performance. People from various parts of the the world will witness a matchup between elite football athletes in a high-altitude environment.  Mexico City’s elevation sits at 7,382 feet above sea level. That’s about 1.3 miles higher elevation than Foxboro, Massachusetts ( The home and training facility of the New England Patriots) and about 1.4 miles higher than Alameda, California ( The home and training facility of the Oakland, Raiders).  These changes in altitude environment have big league ramifications  for the potential competition performance of big name teams in America’s biggest league.

Elevation

Mexico City’s elevation sits at 7,382 feet above sea level. That’s about 1.3 miles higher elevation than Foxboro, Massachusetts and about 1.4 miles higher than Alameda, California. 

Sport competitions in Mexico City is of great interest to many who study sport science. Mexico City is recorded to be  2240 meters above sea level. This elevation is recognized by the scientific community as moderate altitude and has many implications to competitive athletes. In fact, the scientific discovery of potential physiological adaptations due to variations in altitude environments and their influence to competition and  training in elite athletes was popularized after the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Dr. McLean notes that results from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics suggested that competing at altitude made competition more difficult for certain athletes.  In fact, the differences in performance at altitude led many researchers to investigate the cause of these changes, as well as strategies to overcome the limitations associated with this environment (McLean, 2014).

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The 1968 Olympics in Mexico City would immediately lead to an explosion of research in the field of altitude training (also known as hypoxic training). In 1967, researchers first noted that Vo2 Max ( an indicator of endurance potential) reduced 1% for every 100 meter ascended above 1500 meters (Buskirk et al., 1967). In 1971, researchers from the University of California demonstrated that highly trained endurance athletes appear to be handicapped “ to an unusual extent” at altitude compared to lesser trained individuals (Dill & Adams, 1971). Years later scientist would discover various protocols that provide a boost to factors of performance as a result of the manipulation of altitude.  So what does this mean for the Patriots and Raiders competing today in Mexico City? One notable implication centers on aerobic potential. Scientific research suggests that both the athletes for the Patriots and Raiders will see a 7% drop in their endurance potential as a result of exposure to the moderate altitude environment of Mexico City (Buskirk et al., 1967).

Many will argue that the endurance demands of the largely anaerobic centered sport of Football is dissimilar to that of elite endurance activities. And thus, the litany of research findings on endurance limitations associated with altitude elevations such as that of Mexico City may be limited in application to the sport of American Football.  However these limitations, do not explain the potential impact of elevation to team and/or anaerobic sports and certainly do not limit the lengths at which teams and/or organizations will go to  prepare for competitions that take place at elevation.

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Practice Field at Colorado Springs, Colorado is approximately 1800 meters above sea level

Consider, the fact that the New England Patriots have been practicing all week at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado (which has an altitude elevation of  1,840 meters) in preparation for their matchup in Mexico City. Interestingly,  Mexico City is still four football fields higher in altitude or an elevation of 400 meters above Colorado Springs.

 

In a sport where, athletes only play for an average of 11 minutes a game for a maximum of 20 Games throughout the year, preparation is of the highest importance for ultimate success.   Thus, it should come as no surprise that teams are largely taking the setting of this matchup seriously.  In this blog post or  Part 3  of  “Living High and “Training Low” and implications for the NFL – A Proposal for Altitude Training Interventions in American Football”  we will learn of the various factors that can potentially impact play between NFL teams in Mexico City and learn of various strategies that can help athletes prepare for these conditions. This game can potentially serve as foundation for various altitude intervention techniques which can help improve performance potential of athletes in the NFL.  Our continued understanding of altitude training can provide the construct for a proposed resource that can enable athletes to benefit from elevation environments such as Mexico City. In the end, we may begin to view this Mexico city NFL matchup as much more than, a game with playoff repercussions or  a marketing and financial opportunity for the NFL but also as evidence for a resource to improve performance potential and opportunities for team sport athletes such as those in the NFL.

marshawn-us            As you sit down to watch this game between the Raiders and Patriots, it’s important to realize that this isn’t just any other NFL Football game.  You could center on any of the normal NFL story lines, like Marshawn Lynch’s beastly performance after a return from retirement or Tom Brady’s incredible evasiveness from factors that would warrant retirement. Instead, you should consider the competition environment of  these two dueling teams. Consider the fact that sprint athletes are estimated to be 1.7% faster at moderate elevation than they would otherwise have been if they ran at sea level (Ward-Smith, 1984). After the Mexico City Olympics researchers determined that sprinter times in the 100 meter, 200 meter and 400 meter events at the Mexico Olympics were approximately 1.7% lower than they would otherwise have been if the races had been run at sea level (Ward-Smith, 1984). This change in performance was attributed to the lower air resistance associated with higher elevation (Ward-Smith, 1984).  This lowered air resistance occurs from the fact that air density reduces by about 10% for every 1000 meter increase in altitude.

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Sprint athletes are estimated to be 1.7% faster at moderate elevation than they would otherwise have been if they ran at sea level (Ward-Smith, 1984).

The ascent in elevation to a location such as Mexico City produces relative changes in air density and resistance which results in various changes to both physical performance and player behavior such as sprint movement characteristics and velocity (Girard et al., 2013). It should be noted however, that this potential improvement in sprint performance potential can be offset by the increased metabolic challenges associated with arterial oxygen availability at altitude elevation. The ability for NFL  players to repeat high sprint speeds, common to the sport, is likely to be diminished  by the reduction in arterial oxygen saturation (oxygen consumption) associated with altitude elevation. This limitation in exercise performance can also rise as intensity increases (Clark et al., 2007).  In other words, the thin air common to the elevation of Mexico City is likely to provide lower air resistance allowing players to potentially reach higher speeds. However the reduced oxygen consumption associated with the thin air will likely limit speed and performance potential as a result of  the elevation-causing deficiencies to cardiorespiratory system and muscle function.

“The thin air common to the elevation of Mexico City is likely to provide lower air resistance allowing players to potentially reach higher speeds.”

Nonetheless,  If we play close attention to the speed analysis of this NFL game measured by zebra sports speed data we may notice higher absolute speeds within this match up in Mexico city. Pay close attention to the reported speeds of New England players (Jonathan Jones, Brandon Cooks, Matthew Slater, and Phillip Dorsett)  and Oakland Players (Jalen Richard, TJ Carrie, Amari Cooper, Cordarelle Patterson), who in addition to their roles on offense or defense also have high velocity roles on special teams such as punt and kick off where players are more likely to reach top speeds for a relatively longer duration in open space.

In addition to the speed of players, the altitude of Mexico City is likely to affect the flight time and characteristics of the football.  Researchers note that the decrease in air density associated with increasing altitude also results in changes in the drag and lift forces acting on flying objects such as a football (Girard et al, 2013). In other words, the thin air associated with the altitude elevation of Mexico City is likely to result in increased flight time of the football.  Assuming the footballs are properly inflated, pay close attention to it’s flight characteristics during punts, kickoffs and even deep downfield throws.  These characteristics may even play into the potential strategical use of kickers. Elevation changes and the increased flight potential of the football may result in Oakland Raiders Kicker Giorgio Tavecchio or New England Patriots Kicker Stephen Gostkowski hitting far longer kicks than they are normally accustomed to. The same can be said for punters.

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Marquette King who is on par to break an NFL Punting record.  King is is currently averaging 52.6 yards per punt with a net average of 47.5 yards per punt.  Elevation of Mexico City should help him in this pursuit.

As such, we should keep an eye out for Patriots Punter Ryan Allen and/or Raiders Punter Marquette King who is on par to break an NFL Punting record.  King is is currently averaging 52.6 yards per punt with a net average of 47.5 yards per punt.  Should he maintain this pace for the rest of the season, it will be the greatest season both in gross punt average and net average in NFL history (Damiean, 2017).

With all these events taking place also keep in mind of the individual variations of responses to altitude elevation exposure in athletes. Athletes have reported a wide range of negative responses when acutely exposed to moderate altitude elevations. These responses include higher physiological stress as well as negative impacts to sport specific decision making and perception of well-being (Girard et al., 2013). In addition, athletes have also reported exacerbated fatigue levels as a result of moderate altitude exposure (Bartholomew et al, 1999).

These potential responses to altitude elevation begs the question. What is the best way to prepare for a NFL game in Mexico City? After all, there’s a lot at stake for just 11 minutes of football play – especially if your team is looking to improve or searching for a spot in the playoffs.  Authors largely agree that suitable strategies to maximize physiological acclimatization should last 3–7 days for low altitude environments (500–2000 m), 1–2 weeks, for moderate altitude (2000–3000 m) and at least 2 weeks if possible for high altitude (>3000 m) (Girard et al., 2013). Thus, It seems that the New England Patriots are justified for spending 8 Days in elevation in preparation for their Mexico City Match up against the Oakland Raiders.

In fact, this approach to performance is not only a great way to improve preparation for competition at altitude but can result in a new and effective means of eliciting physiological benefits associated with aerobic performance before and/or during an NFL in season. This past training camp I investigated training camps across the NFL looking for teams that employed the use of altitude training as a method of preparation for their In season competition. In particular, I looked for sea level dwelling teams that used Training Camp locations situated at moderate altitude for the purposes of eliciting a physiological performance benefit for their athletes.  I was surprised to find that there were no teams that used training camp as a means of manipulation of altitude for potential physiological benefit. This discovery did not stop me from wondering about the potential for such a resource in the NFL. Similar to the limited manner in which the Patriots used the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Teams from all over the NFL could provide their athletes a beneficial physiological adaptation that results from living at high altitude by spending up to four weeks at a location of moderate altitude.  Researchers largely agree that three to four weeks is the minimum amount of time to elicit the red blood cell changes that occur in response to “living high” or at altitudes greater than 2000 meters above sea level.  However as we learned in “Living High and “Training Low” and implications for the NFL – A Proposal for Altitude Training Interventions in American Football” – Part 2  duration at moderate altitude is just one part of the equation for athletes looking to gain an edge in performance. The ability to train low or at sea level is also of great importance.

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I was surprised to find that there were no teams that used training camp as a means of manipulation of altitude for potential physiological benefit. While Denver Colorado provides their athletes the opportunity to train at an altitude of 1609 meters or low altitude there is no manipulation of altitude to allow for athletes to train at sea level.  In addition, research has suggested that an elevation of 2000 meters is needed to elicit the blood response associated with improve aerobic performance.

Thus, a location within the US that enables a team to logistically live high  or to hold various football operations such as meetings, study, dining  along with room and board at moderate elevation (2000 to 3000 meters) with easy and relative quick transport to practice and training facilities at sea level (0 – 1000 meters) would produce the most favorable conditions for eliciting the  hematological physiological adaptations  that allows endurance athletes to gain a performance edge in endurance sports as well as the non – hematological adaptations that can help boost performances in repeat sprint sports.

The goal of providing both forms of altitude intervention however is no easy task. It would require transportation that could quickly transport a large group of athletes a distance of 1.4 miles in elevation relatively quickly, safely, daily and consistently throughout the course of a 4-week camp. The creation of such a resource represents the next step for team sports looking to gain an edge in performance in a natural manner.  However, such an approach can also be attained through the formation of a normoxic normobaric practice chamber at moderate altitude.

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Potential Design for a Normoxic Normobaric Chamber at Moderate Altititude as a method of Facilitating “Live High, Train Low” for Teams at Altitude.

Envision a training camp practice bubble outfitted with technology to provide the arterial oxygen level and barometric pressure of a sea level environment.  Such a technological resource would enable teams living at altitude to gain the benefit of  “Living High and Training Low” resulting in the physiological adaptation while living at high altitude and protecting their ability to reach their maximum potential levels of cardiovascular intensity in a sea level environment.

In preparation for this Mexico City competition the Patriots organization took a trip out to Boulder Colorado. This highly successful organization is often known for working to the ultimate the boundaries in effort to win. Evidently, they found it useful to take a trip out to an environment that is recognize as a higher level of altitude than Foxboro Massachusetts. While there is limited evidence that a week (at least three weeks are needed for physiological benefit) spent in higher altitude conditions can elicit the needed adaptations for high altitude play, there are other advantages to surrounding oneself to a competition environment prior to competition. As mentioned earlier, factors such as flight time on ball, speed changes the farther up you travel up altitude. Getting accustomed to these factors can provide a benefit to teams prior to being exposed to these conditions.

In addition, while I respect the monotonous routine that comes with the NFL In season schedule, I also have a respect for the power of Team travel trips. Team trips away from monotony can sometimes serve as a “needed break  and if the conditions are right (cold weather teams traveling to warm locations) can provide both staff members and players a sense of relief from the daily doldrums of a season. More importantly, these trips can help to provide a sense of bond that individuals can sometime evade during a season.  It is for these reasons, that I believe an altitude training camp can also be used for teams during the in season for an extensive period for the objective of improving both physical and mental performance.

Today’s game in Mexico City is one which provides a break from the common settings of American football. It also represents a departure from common methods of preparation for athlete performance.  As you watch today’s game take interest in the challenges as well as the potential benefits that the settings of this matchup can elicit. Take interest in creating a beneficial resource for team sports athletes in the form of an Altitude Training Camp.

 

References:

Buskirk, E., Kollias J., Akers, R., Prokop, E., and Reategui, E. (1967) Maximal performance at altitude and on return from altitude in conditioned runners. Journal of Applied Physiology. 23: 259-266.

Clark, S.A., Bourdon, P.C., Schmidt, W., Singh, B., Cable, G., Onus, K.J., Woolford, S.M., Stanef, T., Gore, C.J., and Aughey, R.J. (2007). The effect of acute simulated moderate altitude on power, performance and pacing strategies in well-trained cyclists. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 102: 45-55.

Dill, B., Adams, W. C. (1971). Maximal oxygen uptake at sea level and at 3,090-m altitude in high school champion runners. Journal of Applied Physiology. 30(6), 854-859.

Girard, O., Amann, M., Aughey, R., Billaut, F., Bishop, D. J., Bourdon, P., . . . Schumacher, Y. O. (2013). Position statement—altitude training for improving team-sport players’ performance: current knowledge and unresolved issues. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47(1), I8-I16.

Hamlin M.J., Hinckson, R.A., Wood, M.R., Hopkins, W.G. (2008). Simulated rugby performance at 1550m altitude following adaptation to intermittent normobaric hypoxia. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport. 11, 593–99.

Damien, Levi. “Marquette King on pace to break NFL record that has stood for 77 years.” Silver And Black Pride.https://www.silverandblackpride.com/2017/10/6/16439606/raiders-punter-marquette-king-on-pace-to-break-nfl-record-that-has-stood-for-77-years.

Horzera, S., Fuchsa, C., Gastingera, R., et al. (2010). Simulation of spinning soccer ball trajectories influenced by altitude. Procedia Engineering ;2:2461–6.

Kawahara, M. (2017). Raiders, Patriots take different approaches to preparing for Mexico City altitude. Retrieved November 18, 2017, from http://www.sfgate.com/raiders/article/Raiders-Patriots-take-different-approaches-to-12364306.php

Levine, B.D., Stray-Gundersen, J., Mehta, R.D. (2008). Effect of altitude on football performance. Scandinavian Journal of  Medical Science in Sports;18:76–84.

McLean, B. D. (2014). The efficacy of hypoxic training techniques in Australian footballers (Doctoral thesis, Australian Catholic University). Retrieved from http://researchbank.acu.edu.au/theses/566

Ward-Smith, A. (1984). Air resistance and its influence on the biomechanics and energetics of sprinting at sea level and at altitude. Journal of Biomechanics17(5), 339-347.

Bartholomew, C. J., Jensen, W., Petros, T. V., Ferraro, F. R., Fire, K. M., Biberdorf, D., . . . Blumkin, D. (1999). The Effect of Moderate Levels of Simulated Altitude on Sustained Cognitive Performance. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 9(4), 351-359.

23467262_10105572160467560_654197207509059858_o.jpgDan Liburd is entering his ninth season as a NFL Strength and Conditioning Coach. Liburd has experience in designing, implementing and supervising strength and conditioning programs for various athletic populations. Liburd also has experience in designing and overseeing team nutrition and dietary programs. Liburd is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist who earned his Bachelor degree in Exercise Science from Boston University. He has a Master of Science degree from Canisius College in Health and Human Performance and is currently working on his Ph.D. in Health and Human Performance at Concordia University Chicago. Liburd has worked with several professional teams such as the Buffalo Bills and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Liburd has also held various positions in Collegiate Strength and Conditioning programs. He has worked with the Boston University Terriers, Springfield College Pride, American College Yellow Jackets and held positions at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning as well as Peak Performance Physical Therapy. For more articles please check out http://www.doyou-live.com 

 

Top 10 Notable Points from this Article:

  • There are potential training tools in the form of Altitude Training which can help to elicit positive adaptations for Team Sport Athletes.

    The Big Idea: A normoxic normobaric practice chamber at moderate altitude can provide football athletes the training environment to train “low” or at sea level (during training or practice) while “living high” at a moderate altitude environment. 

  • Mexico City’s elevation of  2240 meters above sea level is considered to be Moderate Altitude:

    Mexico City’s elevation sits at 7,382 feet above sea level. That’s about 1.3 miles higher elevation than Foxboro, Massachusetts and about 1.4 miles higher than Alameda, California.

  • Altitude Elevations results in a decrease in your VO2 max

    Researchers note that VO2 Max ( an indicator of endurance potential) reduces 1% for every 100 meter ascended above 1500 meters (Buskirk et al., 1967)

    Patriots and Raiders will see an estimated 7% drop in their endurance potential as a result of exposure to the 2000 meter above sea level or moderate altitude environment of Mexico City (Buskirk et al., 1967).

  • The greater aerobic shape you’re in the more altitude effects you.

    highly trained endurance athletes appear to be handicapped “ to an unusual extent” at altitude compared to lesser trained individuals (Dill & Adams, 1971). 

  • Notable steps were taken by Patriots in preparation – But is it enough to make a difference?

    Interestingly,  Mexico City is still four football fields higher in altitude or an elevation of 400 meters above Colorado Springs. Are adaptations formed below 2000 meter enough to produce a acclimatization for elevations above 2000 meters.  

  • Athletes are absolutely faster at moderate elevation

    Sprint athletes are estimated to be 1.7% faster at moderate elevation than they would otherwise have been if they ran at sea level (Ward-Smith, 1984).

  • Air Density Changes as we increase in Altitude

    Change in Sprint performance is attributed to the lower air resistance associated with higher elevation(Ward-Smith, 1984).  This lowered air resistance occurs from the fact that air density reduces by about 10% for every 1000 meter increase in altitude.

  • Thinner Air of Mexico will likely reduce sprint times

    The reduced oxygen consumption associated with the thin air will likely limit speed and performance potential as a result of  the elevation-causing deficiencies to cardiorespiratory system and muscle function (Girard et al, 2013).

  • Expect to see higher flight times

    Altitude of Mexico City is likely to affect the flight time and characteristics of the football.  Researchers note that the decrease in air density associated with increasing altitude also results in changes in the drag and lift forces acting on flying objects such as a football (Girard et al, 2013)

  • Moderate Altitude has been shown to negatively affect Athletes

    Athletes have reported a wide range of negative responses when acutely exposed to moderate altitude elevations. These responses include higher physiological stress as well as negative impacts to sport specific decision making and perception of well-being (Girard et al, 2013).  

 

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