Wednesday, October 17, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Mike Tomlin takes his team a mile high to Denver for Sunday night's game and the Steelers coach says he knows nothing about what that kind of altitude can do to the performance of visiting football players.
"That is probably a bad question for a football coach to answer," Tomlin said yesterday in his weekly news conference. "I missed that day in school.
"I'm sure it is a factor, but everybody that goes in there has to deal with [it]. It can't be a deciding factor and by no means can it be an excuse for the quality of our play."
The Steelers through the years have learned more about playing in high altitude the more they've played in Denver, and an expert exercise physiologist said one thing they're doing correctly is not arriving in the Mile High city too early.
But Jack Daniels, who heads the U.S. distance running program at the Center for High Altitude Training at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Ariz., had some other advice for the Steelers and was baffled at the "blood flow" machine that Tomlin said will be used on the sideline Sunday night.
A generation or so ago, the general belief by NFL teams was to arrive in Denver early to get accustomed to the high altitude. The Cleveland Browns even practiced several days in the high altitude of Albuquerque, N.M., before they played -- and lost -- the AFC championship game in Denver in the 1987 season.
That was probably the worst thing the Browns could have done, said Daniels, who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Wisconsin. He said the Steelers' scheduled arrival about 26 hours before the 8:15 p.m. kickoff in Denver is the best way to do it.
"They're better off getting there the day before than a couple of days, which is about the worst thing you can do," Daniels said. "We've always had the best luck within 24 hours of arrival."
No matter when they arrive, the Steelers will be at a disadvantage to the Broncos, who are used to living and training in the high altitude. Recovery time between exercise -- or, in the case of football, between plays -- may be their biggest problem. It takes longer to recover in high altitude, especially for those not used to it.
So, Daniels has a suggestion for the Steelers:
"The no-huddle is probably not too cool because you're not getting the recovery time between plays. ... And Denver will probably want to keep as short a time for recovery as possible to wear you down."
The Steelers plan to have extra oxygen tanks and masks on the sideline in Denver along with the mysterious "blood flow" machine.
Daniels said the oxygen tanks are a good idea but not necessarily because they contain oxygen.
"Usually what happens, when you watch football players, they come to the sideline and grab the oxygen. They typically take nice, slow, deep breaths, which is good. If they didn't have their face in a mask with oxygen, if they took those same deep breaths, they'd probably do as well."
But players normally tend to pant, so the masks help, but they'd be just as well off taking the atmosphere in deep breaths as oxygen, he said.
Daniels was bemused by the Steelers' other plan to combat the effects of high altitude on their players.
"We're going to have a piece of machinery that we think generates blood flow throughout the body on the sideline," Tomlin said.
Daniels is unaware of any such machinery or how it would work.
"I don't know what he's talking about," Daniels said. " ... It generates blood flow? To do that, your heart has to beat harder or faster -- that's the only way you can transport more blood because the heart does all the work. I don't know of any machine that will stimulate your heart faster or stronger.
"And when you're recovering from exercise, your heart beats fast anyway, so the blood flow is good. When it slows down, it doesn't need to pump any faster because it's doing the work.
"The point is: When you do recover, you're fine. It's not you're wiped out when you're up here. It's just the recovery time between bouts of work."
So, expect the Steelers to substitute more liberally Sunday night. They also should drink more fluids, Daniels advised.
"Other than that, there's not much you can do. You're just as fast. You don't lose any speed at all. What you lose is endurance, and football's not an endurance game, but recovery time is."
The high altitude is not impossible to overcome when dealing with the Broncos in Denver. The Steelers did it famously when they beat the Broncos there, 34-17, to win the 2005 AFC championship. And the Broncos have lost two of three games played at their Invesco Field at Mile High this season, including a 41-3 pounding by San Diego Oct. 7.
Tomlin said he has never coached a game in Denver.
"If you are a competitor, you like to compete and go into tough situations and environments, against tough and competent people," he said. "That is what we face this weekend."