Training camp is not just around the corner anymore; a week away, it's well in sight.
This camp could well be the most attended in 49ers history, as once dormant fans are starting to come out of the woodwork to get a glimpse of a resurgent team on a steady rise.
With the recent passing of a new Santa Clara stadium proposal, the team should soon end up practicing just yards away from its eventual game day facility.
Stepping out of the Santa Clara building where I work, I'm greeted by the fumes from a neighboring fiberglass plant and the occasional whiff of the Alviso dump. This depressing man-made malodor recently brought an old, echoing question back into my head: is there a better place for the 49ers to hold training camp?
Before coming to Santa Clara, the 49ers held training camps in Rocklin and Stockton. These out-of-the-way towns came with the benefits of limited distraction, a boot-camp mentality, and a naturally toughening heat in their atmospheres.
It's not likely that the 49ers will move out of the area any time soon, and the coming stadium makes this even more improbable. If they were to move the camp though, I have a place in mind that could benefit them even more.
I know it's far, and the opportunity for distraction seems the same as anywhere else, but hear this one out. The Tahoe region has several benefits that could aid the 49ers in creating the toughest, best conditioned team of athletes in the league.
Winters around the lake are freezing, we're talking about ski country after all. The summers, however, are typically full of warm days to blend with fairly cold nights. Highs in the 80s and lows in the 40s make a suitable climate for some good, hard, outdoor practice. Risk of heatstroke should therefore not be as severe as it would be in the Central Valley.
Occasionally, summer thunderstorms roll through, and a little practice in the elements could help prepare the team for the eventual harsh weather games that come late in almost every football season.
These are the games where snaps, hand-offs, and securing the ball often become the difference between a win or a loss in such sloppy conditioned games. Practicing the long snap, hold, and place kick—not to mention fielding punts on such rainy days—would also prove beneficial over the course of a season.
Sure one can get a similar effect with a simple twist of the sprinkler controls, but nothing prepares a team for rain like real rain.
With a surface elevation of 6,225 feet, the lake is over a mile high. Any possible site for a training camp would, in all probability, be a ways away from the lake itself. Nevertheless, any such facility would provide 49ers players with the benefits of high-altitude training.
What benefits are these? They essentially break down to increased endurance. The decreased oxygen and pressure in the air force the body to make physiological changes.
To compensate for reduction of oxygen in the air, one's kidneys secrete a larger amount of erythropoietin, a hormone causing the body to create more red blood cells. The heart and lungs also adapt in a manner that could be conducive to better second halves.
Training at altitude does not come without a little risk. Intensity may need to be dialed down slightly to decrease risk of injury. With head coach Mike Singletary running the team, this doesn't sound too likely. Still, it's not the worst idea.
The old Bill Walsh philosophy of training smarter, not harder, still rings true. Hybrid training where anaerobic threshold and VO2 max (the maximum capacity of an individual's body to transport and utilize oxygen during incremental exercise) are carried out at a lower altitude, but rest and recovery are conducted at higher altitudes so that the hypoxia (oxygen reduced) stress increases red cell mass.
It might be a fine balance to figure out, but where there's a will, there's a way. Sure there are local options like hypobaric training facilities, where you can reduce the level of O2 in the room, but the simplest way to conduct a little high altitude training would be at high altitude.
Almost all sports teams can benefit to some degree of high altitude training, even if only for a short period and the feeling is primarily psychological. It's one area where the Broncos are said to have a consistent (albeit slight) advantage, year after year.
When most Bay Area dwellers think Tahoe, several things likely come to mind: skiing, hiking, boating, and (of course) gambling.
Sure the tempting clubs and casinos of Stateline, Nevada, as well as other distractions, loom in the shadows. Reno, "The World's Biggest Little City" is just a couple hours away. Heck, the natural beauty of the region might even seem to be a relaxing distraction in its own right. For professional athletes, however, this shouldn't be a big issue.
Remaining professional should be a given for, ahem, professional athletes.
But perhaps it's not a given.
Let's say the temptation is a concern for a team with many young players. I'm not saying the 49ers should find a practice facility directly in South Lake. There are even more isolated locations around the region that offer similar atmospheric conditions. Many small towns around the area would love to host the franchise's training camp.
When it's all said and done, the distractions of the region pale in comparison to the hustle and bustle of the tri-city Bay Area; one can get into a lot more trouble down here.
It's not likely that the 49ers trade big-city living for a summer in the mountains. They're open-to-the-public training camp figures to be a big success. Many fans will enjoy the easily accessible practice facility and the media is going to soak it up like California sunshine.
The weather down here is fair, and grueling practices should forge the 49ers into brutal men of iron. A new stadium is going to make Santa Clara 49ers central, and a crossroads of Bay Area football. Yet, on a smoggy August day, we may still dream about a movement of camp, if not to greener pastures, perhaps to higher ones—and to a breath of fresh air.