Does altitude make the difference for Denver?

Our own Puck Swami asked the question about the Pioneers’ recent success and concluded that coaching played a critical role in Denver’s success along with recruiting the right players to build a winning culture.

After some thought, what role does Denver’s altitude play in Denver’s success?

It’s hard to argue that superior coaching and skilled players are critical to athletic success – but does Denver have an altitude edge, especially at home? After all, Rodney Billups pledged to ‘play fast’ to take advantage of Denver’s altitude. Jim Montgomery likes to play “200 feet of relentless Pioneer hockey.” And, some premier lacrosse programs have refused to visit the Mile High City based at least partially on DU’s Mile High advantage.

But is the perception a reality?

According to, there are some distinct advantages to high altitude training: “The body naturally produces a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO) which stimulates the production of red blood cells which carry oxygen to the muscles. Up to a point, the more blood cells you have, the more oxygen you can deliver to your muscles. There are also a number of other changes that happen during acclimatization which may help athletic performance, including an increase in the number of small blood vessels, an increase in buffering capacity (ability to manage the build up of waste acid) and changes in the microscopic structure and function of the muscles themselves.”

Altitude & Athletic Performance
Getty Images. Acclimatization at higher altitudes increases your red blood cell count.

But, too much altitude is not necessarily a good thing. At very high altitudes (>5000 meters/16,404 ft), weight loss is unavoidable because your body actually consumes your muscles in order to provide energy. There is even a risk that the body’s immune system will become weakened, leading to an increased risk of infections, and there may be adverse changes in the chemical make-up of the muscles. Additionally, the body cannot exercise as intensely at altitude.

At 5,000 feet above sea level, Denver’s altitude, your VO2 max should be close to what it is at sea level. Going up from there, your VO2 max drops 3 percent with each 1,000 feet of higher altitude. Acclimatization — allowing your body time to adjust to a higher altitude — will help, but you will not be able to perform cardio exercise at the same pace that you could at lower altitudes.

Denver may actually reside in the altitude ‘sweet spot’ that allows athletes to train to the max without experiencing the deleterious effects of extreme altitude. The performance benefits should be especially apparent during Denver home games while training at altitude is also said to provide performance benefits at lower elevations.

Add to this Denver Athletics’ recent emphasis on strength and conditioning hires and proximity to Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center, DU staff and athletes have unique access to some of the best expertise, training methods, and theory in sports conditioning. Denver’s Sports Performance Department, led by Director Matt Shaw, is commonly cited by athletes and peers as a reason for the Pioneers success. The same goes for Sports Medicine, led by Julie Campbell. These departments, combined with Denver’s unique altitude, may positively influence the growth and development of superior athletes.

As such, we looked at DU soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and hockey.

We took the last five home games during the past regular season for these four sports. We looked at scoring in the second half of the final five games during the regular season in home games. For hockey, we looked at the third period or overtime. Also, by using the final five games of the regular season, both DU and opponents should be in fairly similar cardiovascular shape with much of the season behind them.

So what did we find?

  • In lacrosse, DU outscored their opponents 37-23 in Denver during their final 5 regular season contests. They outscored their opponents in four of the games and tied (6-6) an opponent during the second half of one game.
  • In hockey, DU swept away Omaha 5-0 in the third period of three games and tied (0-0) one game in the second. They also outscored Colorado College 1-0 in overtime.
  • In soccer, the Pioneers trounced their opponents in the second half 8-1 in Denver and won the second half scoring battle in four of the five contests and tied (1-1) in the second half of one game.
  • Denver Basketball was outscored by their opponents in Denver 177-168 during their final five regular season games during the second half. However, they had the scoring advantage in two games and won another game by four points in overtime. So, on balance, they won the second half scoring battle three out of five games in the second half, even though they faded down the stretch of the season after a fast start.

It could easily be argued that superior coaching and better athletes are the reason for Denver’s extraordinary recent success. Also, most ‘home teams’ have an advantage at home, regardless of location. Why hasn’t Denver always dominated other teams in Denver if altitude was ‘the determining factor’?

Still, this past season out of 20 halves/periods/overtime, Denver racked up the second half advantage in 15 contests (2 in OT) with just 3 ties and only 2 losses. This may be an unfair analysis because DU teams included a national champion (hockey) and two final four teams (lacrosse & hockey). Still, you have to wonder if altitude plays a significant role, combined with the Denver Strength and Conditioning Program, to allow the Pioneers to dominate the second half of games – especially at altitude.