How Does High Altitude Impact UFC/MMA Fighters?

In the high-stakes world of the UFC and MMA, fighters seek every advantage to triumph in the octagon. One often overlooked yet critical factor is the impact of altitude on performance. 

In this article, we delve into how reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations affect fighters’ physical and cognitive abilities, how training and preparation changes for high-altitude fights, and UFC title bouts where altitude was highly impactful to fighter performances.

How Does High Altitude Impact UFC/MMA Fighters’ Performance?

High Altitude significantly impacts UFC/MMA fighters’ performance due to the reduced oxygen levels at higher elevations.

Here’s how:

1. Decreased Oxygen Availability: At higher altitudes, the air is thinner, meaning there’s less oxygen available. This can lead to quicker fatigue, reduced stamina, and less efficient energy production in muscles.

2. Cardiovascular Strain: Fighters face increased heart rates and faster breathing as their bodies work harder to obtain oxygen. This added strain can affect endurance during the fight and when trying to recover between rounds, a key component in 5-round fights (title fights and main events).

3. Reduced Power and Speed: Oxygen deprivation means muscles can’t work at full capacity, resulting in a decrease in power and speed. Fighters might struggle to maintain their usual pace and find their movements less explosive, impacting their striking and grappling abilities.

4. Impaired Cognitive Function: High altitude can affect mental clarity, decision-making, and reaction times. In a sport where split-second decisions are crucial, this can be a significant disadvantage as a fighter’s ability to respond effectively during a bout is impacted.

In summary, altitude poses unique challenges for UFC/MMA fighters, affecting their physical and cognitive abilities, and their overall performance.

Proper preparation and acclimatization are crucial for those competing at high elevations to maintain peak performance.

How Do UFC/MMA Fighters Train and Prepare for High-Altitude Fights?

Preparing for high-altitude fights in UFC/MMA involves a multifaceted approach, focusing on physical acclimatization, conditioning, nutrition, mental preparation, technical adjustments, and recovery strategies.

Here’s how fighters gear up for high-altitude fights:

1. Acclimatization Training

Fighters often relocate their training camps to high-altitude locations several weeks or even months before the event. Most often to the event location.

This gradual exposure helps their bodies adapt to lower oxygen levels, improving their ability to perform under these conditions. 

For those unable to train in actual high-altitude locations, some use altitude simulation equipment such as hypoxic tents or masks. Some fights use both location and equipment.

Hypoxic tents create an environment with reduced oxygen levels, simulating high-altitude conditions. Similarly, hypoxic masks can be worn during training to restrict oxygen intake, mimicking the effects of training at elevation. 

Having previously fought in high-altitude locations like Calgary and Las Vegas, Dustin Poirier understood the challenges posed by altitude before his BMF title fight against Justin Gaethje at UFC 291.

For his fight preparation, he used an altitude tent surrounding his bed to simulate 5,000 feet altitude for the last two weeks of camp, ensuring 8 hours of sleep in this environment. 

Additionally, he spent eight nights sleeping at an elevation of 1,100 feet above Salt Lake City, one week before the fight, to further acclimatize to the conditions he would face.

These tools are designed to stimulate the body’s adaptive responses to low oxygen, similar to what would occur naturally at high altitudes.

2. Physical Conditioning Adjustments

Specialized training programs are implemented to boost cardiovascular endurance and lung capacity. 

These programs often incorporate altitude-specific HIIT sessions focusing on short bursts of intense activity followed by brief recovery periods, simulating the quick energy expenditure and recovery needed at high altitudes.

Endurance exercises might include prolonged cardiovascular activities like running or cycling at a steady pace, often on inclined surfaces to mimic the strain of high-altitude exertion. 

Additionally, some fighters use resistance training with reduced oxygen flow, either through training masks or in controlled environments, to strengthen their respiratory muscles and improve their body’s efficiency in utilizing oxygen.

3. Diet and Hydration

Nutrition plays a critical role in high-altitude preparation. Fighters focus on a diet rich in iron and nutrients to aid in oxygen transport and energy production.

Foods high in iron include:

  • Meats
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Spinach (and other dark leafy green vegetables)
  • Quinoa

Hydration is also emphasized, as the risk of dehydration is higher at altitude. Adequate fluid intake is crucial for optimal physical performance and recovery. Most fighters will drink at least 4 liters of water per day.

4. Mental Preparation

UFC/MMA fighters employ several mental conditioning strategies to build resilience, manage stress, and maintain focus under the unique pressures of high-altitude competition:

  • Working with Sports Psychologists: Many fighters consult sports psychologists who use techniques like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to help them manage anxiety and reframe negative thoughts about challenging conditions.
  • Mindfulness and Meditation: These practices are key for maintaining mental clarity and focus. Mindfulness exercises help fighters stay present in the moment, reducing stress and improving reaction times.
  • Visualization Techniques: Fighters often engage in visualization exercises, mentally rehearsing their strategies and visualizing themselves succeeding in the high-altitude environment. This not only prepares them for the physical aspects of the fight but also builds confidence and mental fortitude.
  • Stress Management Practices: Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery are used to manage stress levels. These practices help fighters remain calm and composed, which is crucial for decision-making and endurance in the ring.

By focusing on these mental preparation strategies, fighters aim to ensure that they’re psychologically equipped to handle the rigors and challenges of competing at high altitudes.

5. Breathing Techniques for High-Altitude Adaptation

Breathing exercises play a dual role in preparing fighters for high-altitude conditions. 

They not only enhance physical endurance by strengthening the respiratory system but also contribute significantly to mental focus and stress reduction.

  • Box Breathing: This involves a four-part cycle – inhaling, holding, exhaling, and holding – each for a count of four. It helps control breathing rhythm, essential in high-altitude conditions where oxygen is scarce.
  • Diaphragmatic Breathing: Focused on deep breathing to strengthen the diaphragm, this technique enhances lung capacity and efficiency, crucial for adapting to reduced oxygen levels at high altitudes.
  • Altitude Simulation Breathing: Performed with a high-altitude training mask, this method simulates reduced oxygen intake, conditioning the body and lungs to the demands of high-altitude environments.

6. Technical Adaptations

Some fighters adjust their fighting techniques to conserve energy and maintain efficiency.

This can include pacing themselves differently, focusing on more strategic movements and footwork, and adapting their combat style to the demanding environment.

Most often, fighters will perform fewer kicks and spinning techniques, and engage in fewer grappling exchanges as these are especially taxing on their cardiovascular endurance.

7. Recovery Protocols

Enhanced recovery methods are crucial. This includes post-training recovery techniques like cold water immersion, massage, and adequate sleep.

These practices help in quicker muscle recovery, reduce fatigue, and prepare the body for the next training session.


Through these comprehensive training and preparation strategies, UFC/MMA fighters aim to minimize the adverse effects of high altitude and maintain their competitive edge in these challenging conditions.

Highest-Altitude UFC Event Locations

1. Mexico City, Mexico

>Altitude: Over 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level

>UFC Venues: Arena Ciudad de México and Arena CDMX

Notable for hosting UFC 188, where the high altitude notably affected several fighters’ performances.

During this event, fighters like Cain Velasquez, known for his exceptional cardio, visibly struggled with the altitude, highlighting the significant impact of Mexico City’s elevation on even the most well-conditioned athletes.

2. Rio Rancho, New Mexico, USA

>Altitude: 1,610 meters (5,282 feet) above sea level.

>UFC Venue: Santa Ana Star Center

Hosted a UFC Fight Night in February 2020, where the altitude was observed to impact fighters’ performances.

This event saw a higher-than-usual number of fights going to decision (7 decisions and 2 disqualifications in 13 fights), suggesting that the altitude may have affected the fighters’ ability to maintain their usual pace and power throughout the bouts.

3. Denver, Colorado, USA

>Altitude: Approximately 1,600 meters (5,280 feet) above sea level. 

>UFC Venue: Pepsi Center

Denver, often referred to as the ‘Mile High City’ due to its elevation, is known for hosting various UFC events. 

The high altitude at the Pepsi Center presents unique challenges for fighters, similar to those experienced in other high-altitude locations, affecting their cardiovascular endurance and overall performance.

4. Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

>Altitude: Approximately 1,290 meters (4,230 feet) above sea level. 

>UFC Venues: Vivint Arena and Delta Center

Salt Lake City, Utah, is the most recognizable UFC event location in terms of high altitude affecting UFC fighters.

It’s not the highest altitude location, but in recent times it hosted 2 high-profile events, UFC 291: Poirier vs. Gaethje 2 and UFC 278: Usman vs. Edwards 2.

These events brought attention to the challenges posed by the city’s altitude, with some fighters noting the impact on their cardio and endurance during the fights.

5. Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

>Altitude: Approximately 610 meters (2,000 feet) above sea level. 

>UFC Venues: UFC Apex and T-Mobile Arena

Compared to high-altitude venues, Las Vegas, with an elevation of about 610 meters (2,000 feet), presents a significantly different environment for UFC fighters. 

While this elevation is higher than sea-level locations like Florida or New York, it’s typically not high enough to cause the pronounced cardiovascular and respiratory effects associated with higher altitudes.

However, it’s worth noting that for athletes who live and train at sea level, even the modest elevation of Las Vegas could potentially have a slight impact on performance, albeit much less significant than in cities like Denver or Mexico City.

The difference might be more noticeable in terms of recovery and endurance, but it’s generally not considered a major factor in fight preparation or performance.

For the UFC fighters who may struggle with the altitude in Las Vegas, they can visit the UFC Performance Insitute next to the UFC Apex, and use its hypoxic chamber.

The hypoxic chamber can simulate elevation up to 22,000 feet, which can reduce an athlete’s oxygen by 50%. This prepares them for any event location and the most grueling fights.

UFC Title Fights Impacted By Altitude

Here are 2 UFC title fights where the impact of altitude was visible throughout.

1. Leon Edwards vs. Kamaru Usman II (UFC 278)

It was revealed that Leon Edwards only spent 2 weeks in Utah before UFC 278, which certainly impacted his performance.

Leon Edwards was dominated in this fight, despite winning by knocking out Kamaru Usman in the 5th round with only 1 minute remaining.

Edwards was visibly less explosive, energetic, and powerful. His takedown defense quickly vanished after the first round, where Kamara Usman was able to get takedowns at will.

Edwards also struggled to get up once taken down. He was essentially in a defensive frame for the majority of the fight.

Even on the feet when striking, he lacked output, contrasting sharply with his usual performance.

In contrast, Kamaru Usman seemed less affected by the altitude, maintaining a consistent performance throughout the fight. 

However, despite outstriking Edwards 189 to 64, and completing 5 takedowns compared to 1, Usman was unable to finish the fight. Ultimately, his lack of killer instinct, possibly caused by the altitude, led to his knockout loss.

What made the altitude noticeably impactful on Edwards’ performance in this fight was their third fight at UFC 286 in London. 

At UFC 286, Edwards’ cardiovascular endurance was visibly much improved, and he won via unanimous decision, winning 3 rounds to 2 in the eyes of the judges. 

This comparison between the fights at different altitudes underscores how significant the impact of altitude can be on a fighter’s performance.

2. Cain Velasquez vs Fabricio Werdum (UFC 188)

Cain Velasquez, known for his legendary cardiovascular endurance and striking output, faced a significant challenge at UFC 188 due to the high altitude (7,200 feet) of Mexico City.

From the start, Cain applied his characteristic heavy forward pressure and volume striking, avoiding ground exchanges with Werdum, a renowned submission specialist.

Werdum effectively used clinches against the fence and landed powerful leg and front kicks to Cain’s body in the early rounds. 

Despite Cain’s efforts at dirty boxing in the clinch and pocket, the altitude, combined with a 602-day layoff since his last fight, visibly affected him.

Cain, who trains in San Jose, California, at sea level, appeared less equipped to handle the high altitude compared to Werdum, who had prior experience fighting in Mexico City. 

Werdum’s decision to arrive in Mexico City six weeks ahead of the fight gave him a significant advantage in acclimatizing to the conditions.

The fight culminated in Werdum securing a guillotine choke in the third round, capitalizing on Cain’s diminished energy and endurance when going for a takedown. 

With this win, Werdum moved to 4-0 in 5-round fights, showing him to be an intelligent fighter who prepares well before fights.

This fight underscored the critical importance of adequate acclimatization, especially for athletes accustomed to training at sea level.

The contrast in preparation between the two fighters highlighted how financial resources and strategic planning can play a crucial role in high-altitude competitions. 

Werdum’s extended acclimatization period in Mexico City was a key factor in his victory, demonstrating the profound impact of altitude on fighter performance.

The Bottom Line

In conclusion, altitude plays a significant and often decisive role in UFC/MMA fights. As we’ve seen, the physiological challenges posed by high altitudes – from decreased oxygen availability to cardiovascular strain – can dramatically alter a fighter’s performance. 

The real-world examples of fights like Edwards vs. Usman II and Velasquez vs. Werdum underscore the importance of acclimatization and preparation. 

Fighters who adapt their training, diet, and mental strategies to these unique conditions often gain a critical edge. 

This exploration into the impact of altitude in UFC/MMA not only highlights the sport’s complexities but also the remarkable adaptability and resilience of its athletes. 

As the sport continues to evolve, understanding and preparing for such environmental factors will remain a key component of competitive success.

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