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Gaining altitude

For Patriots, Denver's thin air seen as nonfactor

Earlier this season, the Patriots fell to the Broncos, 28-20, at Invesco Field at Mile High.
Earlier this season, the Patriots fell to the Broncos, 28-20, at Invesco Field at Mile High. (Globe Staff Photo / John Bohn)

Breathe easy, Patriots fans: Specialists in sports medicine said that when the defending Super Bowl champions charge onto the field tomorrow night in Denver, the thin air of the mile-high city should pose no threat to the players' performance or their prospects for beating the Broncos.

For one thing, the Patriots are in great shape.

''These guys, they're not going to have a problem with it," said Dr. Timothy Young, a retired Olympic rower who's now a specialist at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston.

And, for another, the sport they're engaged in doesn't rely on oxygen-rich air nearly as much as some other activities do.

''They're not running a marathon," Young said. ''They're playing football."

That's a crucial distinction.

It is true that there's more oxygen in the air at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough than at Invesco Field at Mile High, where suites sit exactly 5,280 feet, or 1 mile, above sea level. The amount of oxygen available for breathing drops by 17 percent from sea level to 1 mile up.

Blame gravity's loosening grip for that. The higher you go, the lower the atmospheric pressure drops, allowing oxygen molecules to drift farther apart, which makes less of the gas available for each breath, said Robert Mazzeo, a specialist in exercise physiology at the University of Colorado.

But that difference in oxygen levels matters a lot more to athletes engaged in intensely aerobic sports such as running and bicycling than it does to football players. In long-distance sports, reduced oxygen levels can strain the heart and lungs as they work harder and harder to get enough oxygen to energy-starved muscles.

Football is what exercise specialists call an anaerobic activity. Power is what's needed, and that comes from the glucose and other substances stashed in the body.

''In football, you have a burst of energy for 10 to 30 seconds, and then you have a break," said Dr. Arnie Scheller, a sports medicine specialist at New England Baptist Hospital and, for nearly two decades, team physician for the Boston Celtics. ''If you didn't have the recovery time, then the Denver team would definitely be at an advantage."

Even though 5,000 feet sounds pretty high for those accustomed to living in a place where altitude above sea level is measured in 10- or 20-feet increments, the truth is, people have to get quite a bit higher before worrying about serious health consequences.

''At 5,000 feet there's no question you can get a little short-winded. But these are tough guys and focused guys, so I think the likelihood of it making a difference is not that great," said Dr. Arthur Day, director of the Neurological Sports Injury Center at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

The Patriots should remember to bring along plenty of water, though. That's especially important when playing at higher altitudes.

''The air is drier there," said Dr. William O. Roberts, past president of the American College of Sports Medicine. ''So you lose water faster just from the dryness of the air."

To combat dehydration, doctors also recommend that players avoid caffeine.

There will be oxygen available on the sidelines tomorrow, but that's true at every game played in the NFL.

The divisional playoff game will mark the second time this season the Patriots have faced the Broncos in Denver. On Oct. 16, the Patriots lost 28-20 at Mile High.

Bill Belichick, the excuse-averse head coach of New England, has faced questions over the years about the consequences of playing in Denver. In October, asked whether the lighter air might impair the performance of team members who hadn't played there before, Belichick said, ''I think it will be the same thickness on our side of the field as on theirs."

And before a 2003 Denver game, he said: ''We've gone out there and won when we played well. We've gone out there and lost when we haven't played well. . . . I don't think the air beat us. I don't think the air won for us, either. It's Denver that I'm worried about. I'm not really worried about the clouds and the air and how much hydrogen there is and all of that. I'm worried about Denver."

But maybe there's one worry the coach and quarterback Tom Brady should have about playing in Denver, said Dr. Mark Pearlmutter, chief of emergency medicine at Caritas St. Elizabeth's Medical Center in Brighton.

Because the air is thinner, there's less resistance, so the football could travel farther with the same amount of arm thrust than it would in Foxborough.

''So rather than health concerns," Pearlmutter said, ''it's probably more of a concern of Tom Brady tossing long."

Jerome Solomon of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Stephen Smith can be reached at stsmith@globe.com.

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