By Matt Derrick
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Chiefs meet the Los Angeles Chargers Monday night at Estadio Azteca in Mexico City, a stadium with a rich history and an atmosphere that excites Kansas City head coach Andy Reid.
“There’s a buzz that takes place through the whole game, there’s noise, which is great,” Reid said.
But there’s another aspect to the atmosphere of Estadio Azteca that makes it stand apart from other stadiums – it sits at 7,200 feet above sea level in a city with air pollution far exceeding recommendations set by the World Health Organization.
That altitude is nearly 2,000 feet higher than Empower Field at Mile High, the home of the Denver Broncos and the NFL stadium with the highest elevation. There are generally two schools of thoughts on playing at altitude. One is to arrive the day before a game so that the body doesn’t fully feel the effects of altitude. The other is to train at altitude early in an effort to get accustomed to lower oxygenation.
The Chiefs have chosen the former, while the Chargers elected for the latter. For Kansas City, Reid wants to keep this week as close to normal as possible for his club.
“We’re trying to keep it very similar to what we do without change,” Reid said. “We’re lucky it’s here, we’re not going to London. It’s relatively close to where we don’t have to go an extra day or do that type of thing. We can do our normal flight plans and when we get to the hotel, the normal procedure there.”
Indeed, it’s 1,393 air miles from Kansas City to Mexico City. That’s only 30 miles further than from Kansas City to Los Angeles. Mexico City and Kansas City also share the same time zone.
The Chiefs are only making marginal changes in their weekly plan. On Thursday they conducted a practice without helmets and pads to save wear and tear on bodies. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes says the club’s athletic trainers stressed the need to drink plenty of water and get good sleep.
“Obviously you are going to try to stay hydrated and try to get the right amount of rest, but I think that’s stuff you do as the season goes on every single year,” Mahomes said. “As the season goes on, you have to make sure your body is in the best condition because it’s a long season. We’re excited to get to go to a place like that and get to play.”
The Chargers meanwhile have taken the opposite approach. The team arrived Monday in Colorado Springs, Colorado to spend the week training at the Air Force Academy. Head coach Anthony Lynn plans to acclimate his team to altitude gradually.
“Each day, each practice, I’m adding more reps to the drives,” Lynn said. “I’m not trying to blow them out up front. We’re working them in slowly. First day was just strictly conditioning, weight training, then we went into a practice. Tomorrow we’ll increase the reps in each drive. That’s just kind of our approach to it.”
It’s the third-straight year an NFL team has trained there for a game in Mexico City following the New England Patriots in 2017 and the Los Angeles Rams last season. Lynn said he spoke to staff with both clubs on advice for training this week at altitude.
“Air Force has an unbelievable facility up there and they welcome us to come down and spend a week with them and work here in the altitude,” Lynn said. “We’re working out at 7,200 (feet), we’re going to play at 73, and it started with the opportunity for the guys to practice in the altitude they’re going to play in. We did all the studying, sports science and the numbers and everything.”
How can two clubs take such radical approaches for preparing to play a game at altitude and booth claim they’re leaning on the science? For one, the science is all across the board.
Studies suggest it can take two to four weeks to acclimate to an altitude of 7,200 feet. Some research supports the “live high, train low” training regimen, finding athletes can achieve gains in performance by sleeping and resting at high altitude, but train at a lower altitude. Another study showed athletes can gain from training at altitude while living near sea level.
Like anything else in football, it’s a gut call for coaches such as Lynn.
“I know they say it could take up to 13, 14 days to get acclimated, but that’s not all people, that’s some people,” Lynn said. “In my own personal experience, I went from sea level to 74 one game and I felt the difference. Our guys felt good about coming out here and were bonding and having a good time.”
It’s also a gut call for Reid, who sees advantages in sticking to routine.
“We’ve done our research on that obviously, and so we feel the way we handle it is one of the ways of doing it,” Reid said. “Not that the other ways aren’t. We just feel comfortable with this.”
Matt Derrick is the lead beat writer for ChiefsDigest.com and a contributor for Sports Radio 810 WHB. Follow him on Twitter @mattderrick.