Two heavyweights fights provided sometimes-plodding action at this past weekend's UFC 135 event.
But were the conditions – namely Denver's altitude – at least partially to blame for the big men's depleted gas tanks?
In our latest "Ask the Fight Doc" installment, MMAjunkie.com medical consultant and columnist Dr. Johnny Benjamin discusses how the Mile High City affected the fighters' bodies and how heavyweights specifically were at a disadvantage.
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Doc – Please help settle an ongoing debate. Did the altitude in Denver have a negative effect on the fighters? And were heavyweight fighters at more of disadvantage than the lighter-weight guys?
I don't know if I can settle anything, but I'll certainly add my two cents.
The basic question is: Does significant altitude affect athletic performance?
As anyone who has gone skiing in Whistler or Vail (a couple of personal favorites) will attest, those bags sure were a lot easier to handle back home at sea level. The luggage didn't magically gain weight. You simply ran out of gas/oxygen. Simple tasks such as climbing stairs, carrying luggage and walking any significant distance often leaves one struggling to breathe.
People commonly say that the air is thinner at altitude (5,000 feet or higher). Scientifically what they mean is that the partial pressure of oxygen is less at altitude thus it does a poorer job of oxygenating red blood cells, the oxygen carriers in blood. The less oxygen that you carry in your blood, the less efficiently your body burns fuel and the quicker you gas.
At altitude the human body compensates by increasing heart rate and respiratory rate, but unfortunately, this burns more energy, which further compounds the problem for an endurance athlete.
Why do we fan or blow on a flame when we try to start a fire? It is an effort to increase the oxygen supply. More oxygen = more flame.
Remember that the human body is an engine. It needs three basic things to run: oxygen, water and fuel/food, in that order. The bigger the engine, the greater the potential consumption of all three components. Therefore, heavyweight fighters are at a greater disadvantage than the lighter-weight athletes. The big boys need a tremendous amount of oxygen to fire up the engine and move that load. As we all saw at UFC 135 in Denver, obviously oxygen was in short supply.
Let's put it all together.
The altitude in Denver provided less available oxygen in the blood. Heavyweight fighters are doing more work because they have a greater load to carry. The body compensates by increasing heart rate and breathing, which causes the fighter to burn through his "tank" faster and gas.
I won't even begin to bore you with why weight-cutting makes this altitude problem far worse.
Symptoms of altitude sickness (mountain sickness):
Malaise/fatigue (feel "bad" with no energy)