The Redskins and Denver Broncos will play Sunday’s game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High just about 5,280 feet above sea level.
It is the price of doing business in the Mile High City and just one added home-field advantage for the 6-1 Broncos, who are used to the affects of altitude. For visitors dropping in for little more than 24 hours, it can be an issue.
“Oh, we just made that up a long time ago, there’s nothing to it,” Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, the longtime coach in Denver, cracked earlier this week. “No, there is something to it, there’s no question. If you ever go outside the area and you come back and you haven’t been working out and you try to work out there and you haven’t been working in that environment, it does take you a while to get used to it.”
There’s a reason why Olympic athletes, among others, train at altitude. Their bodies quickly adapt and become more efficient at using less oxygen. The Broncos, NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and NBA’s Denver Nuggets take full advantage. MLB’s Colorado Rockies tend to have better offenses given the thin air and the way the ball carries at Coors Field – though their pitching staffs have long paid the price for that.
“I’ve heard there’s something going on up there,” said Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, who led Baylor to a 35-21 win at Colorado on Oct. 16, 2010. “I mean, I’ve been there. You know, you’ve just got to get used to it. Any time you travel, man, it’s a different place away from home. You’ve got to be prepared for the elements.”
There are ways to combat playing at altitude for visiting teams. One of the key elements: Don’t let it get into your head. Yes, players will be a little more winded, especially in the second half of games. But giving in to that causes more problems.
“Growing up there, when I go back I really don’t notice,” said Washington safety Reed Doughty, a Colorado native. “But I know that it can play mind games on people. I think the biggest thing is to stay hydrated. Where it’s the middle of the season, we’re in good shape. So I think more than anything just make sure to stay hydrated from the altitude.”
Added Redskins offensive lineman Tyler Polumbus, who grew up in the Denver suburbs, played at the University of Colorado and also spent three years with the Broncos: “I’m probably not the right guy to ask, because I grew up there, and so I don’t feel it as much as a lot of guys do because I spent my whole offseason there. That’s all I’ve known my whole life. [But] you certainly see guys come in and they get gassed, so it’s a factor, for sure.”
Dealing with it starts days before the game. You can’t just down a jug of water on Friday night and expect to be good to go on Sunday. Take care of yourself during the week and you mitigate the altitude. There’s not much more players can do.
“I didn’t know what to expect when I played there because we wasn’t warned,” Washington wide receiver Santana Moss said. “But I remember being in a game just playing football, not really worrying about the altitude until after I got out of the game and people was like ‘Man, I was so tired.’”
Moss’ words carry weight. On Oct. 9 2005, Moss caught eight passes in a game at Denver with 116 receiving yards. Washington lost 21-19, but altitude had nothing to do with it. Moss wouldn’t let it affect him.
“Yeah, I was tired that game, but it was just more because we was out there doing a lot and we had a great game, I had a great game,” Moss said. “So now that you actually look back at it, you think about it. But when you’re out there playing football that stuff don’t go through your mind. You’re not worrying about being winded or not or whatever. You prepare, now that we know, you prepare this week and then you go out there and play ball.”