Altitude, Oxygen, and Cain Velasquez

Altitude, Oxygen, and Cain Velasquez

On June 13, Cain Velasquez faced Fabricio Werdum in a five round battle for the heavyweight championship belt of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC).

The champion Velasquez, a 13-2-0 fighter who hasn’t lost since 2011, and considered the best in the heavyweight division, was defeated by Werdum, a 20-5-1 fighter five years his senior.

Werdum won by submitting the champion in a guillotine choke. He had been beating Velasquez throughout most of the match, and it would not have been a split decision or a difficult one if the bout had gone all five rounds. After the first round, Velasquez was tired. In the second round, he dropped his hands. He was not the champion nicknamed “Cardio Cain” that we are accustomed to watching.

Questions arose after the fight ended; why did Velasquez perform so poorly? Has Werdum always been this dominant? Was it because Velasquez hadn’t fought in almost two years? Was it the altitude of Mexico City, and Velasquez’ inability to adjust to it?

The latter was the topic of discussion throughout the mixed martial arts community: how much of an impact does altitude have, and what did they each do to combat it?

Human bodies actually perform best at sea level, or zero elevation/altitude, because the atmospheric pressure is at a comfortable level that saturates hemoglobin. In simple terms; when you inhale, you get enough oxygen.

Atmospheric pressure decreases radically as you climb in altitude. “High” altitude is considered between 5,000 and 11,000 feet, where atmospheric pressure is so low you can be taking in 25% less oxygen per breath, or worse.

This causes a lot of problems in the human body: you start breathing faster, your heart rate increases, you get dehydrated, you have trouble sleeping, etc. Your body is weak as it tries to adjust, producing more red blood cells to adapt to the lack of oxygen.

When a person moves to a city with higher elevation, the body becomes tired and athletic performance drops. The adaptation period is said to take days or weeks, however for athletes, the adjustment period to get back to peak performance is about three weeks.

The altitude of Mexico City is more than 7,000 feet. The elevation of San Jose, CA, where Velasquez trains, is anywhere from zero to 2,000 feet. Werdum moved his training camp to Mexico City more than a month before the match, and he also fought there previously, defeating Mark Hunt in 2014. Velasquez got to Mexico City just two weeks before the fight.

There is no doubt that altitude has a huge effect on athletic performance. Other fighters on the card admitted they felt the difference leading up to the event, and some even got seriously sick after their match.

Both Werdum and Velasquez were affected by altitude, but Werdum had twice as long to adjust to the change.  Velasquez exhausted performance was no doubt a result of his inability to adjust. To disregard altitude as a factor in the outcome would be foolish, however, it cannot be cited as the only reason Werdum won.


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