Written by guest blogger Mayma Chaibi of Simmons University
It’s no doubt that fasting itself is a difficult task. Now imagine being an athlete or exercising while fasting. That is the reality for the many Muslims who fast during the month of Ramadan, a holy month during which Muslims turn to God, whom they call Allah, and build a greater and deeper connection with Him and his teachings. During Ramadan, Muslims are required to fast from sunrise to sunset. They refrain from consuming any food or fluids for a variety of reasons, including physical cleansing as well spiritual detoxification of the body. Fasting is also a way for Muslims to gain a great sense of empathy for those who are less fortunate financially and socially.
The lives of Muslim athletes are temporarily changed during Ramadan. Without question, athletes should fuel their bodies throughout the day for optimal performance. But if they can’t eat or drink anything during daylight hours, how can they possibly stay well fueled and hydrated for training and competitive events? Ironically enough, the lack of food during the day has very little effect on a fasting athlete’s body weight and total energy intake (1). This is only possible, however, if fluid intake and diet are optimized after sunset and before sunrise, and sleeping habits remain consistent throughout the duration of this month. Poor sleeping habits, however, have been shown to result in psychological effects such as increased mental tension or anxiety. (2)
Fasting athletes will experience dehydration and glycogen depletion by the time they break their fast. Therefore, they need to be hyperaware of what they are consuming at the end of the day. Muslims traditionally break their daily Ramadan fast with a large meal that essentially combines what would have been eaten for lunch and dinner. Upon breaking their fast, depleted athletes are advised to consume carbohydrate-rich snacks, such as gels, to optimize glycogen storage for the following day (3). A few hours before sunrise, athletes should consume “slow- releasing” carbs, such as fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables, so they can maximize the benefit of these carbs throughout the day. With that being said, athletes should be consuming foods that provide them with an adequate amount of nutrients (protein and carbs) to replenish all that was lost during the day.
Unfortunately, even using these strategies to maintain optimal performance, some athletes will still struggle. Many fasted athletes will repeatedly experience impaired performance throughout the month. Fortunately, aerobic strength and muscular endurance have not been shown to be heavily affected (4) but athletes may experience a lack of physical strength. This is partially due to increasing fatigue associated with energy depletion throughout the day. It’s normal for athletes to feel slightly weak throughout the duration of the day when they are fasting.
(1) – Shephard R. J. (2012). The impact of Ramadan observance upon athletic performance. Nutrients, 4(6), 491–505. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu4060491
(2) Maughan, R. J., Zerguini, Y., Chalabi, H., & Dvorak, J. (2012). Achieving optimum sports performance during Ramadan: some practical recommendations. Journal of sports sciences, 30 Suppl 1, S109–S117. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2012.696205
(3)- Bjsm. (2022, March 30). Nutrition for the (ramadan) fasted athlete; optimising food and fluids intake for fast breaking time (iftar). BJSM blog – social media’s leading SEM voice. Retrieved April 21, 2022, from https://blogs.bmj.com/bjsm/2022/04/02/nutrition-for-the-ramadan-fasted-athlete-optimising-food-and-fluids-intake-for-fast-breaking-time-iftar/
(3) – Burke, L. M., & King, C. (2012). Ramadan fasting and the goals of sports nutrition around exercise. Journal of sports sciences, 30 Suppl 1, S21–S31. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2012.680484