Ramadan fasting for athletes
By Fiona Brenninkmeijer, Functional Nutritionist from Optimal Fitness
Ramadan poses challenges for athletes requiring planning of training schedules to fit around fasting, work schedules, sleep and recovery.
There are four key considerations to be factored into an athlete’s regime that is observing Ramadan:
- Nutrition: fueling with nutrient-dense smaller meals, providing slow-release energy.
- Hydration: providing adequate water and electrolyte balance, especially for those training outdoors in the heat.
- Sleep: altered sleep patterns, short naps during the day, and more recovery time.
- Training: ideally training is tapered, or ensuring intense sessions occur after eating post sundown.
In the UAE, fasting will begin around 4.40 am and get earlier throughout the holy month as the days get longer. Research reveals that over 80 per cent or active Muslims are concerned about how to train safely during Ramadan while fasting. A quarter polled said they train less than usual, with 29 per cent saying they felt there wasn’t enough advice on how to exercise safely.
During fasting the body doesn’t have its usual access to glucose, forcing cells to use alternative means for energy production. Gluconeogenesis, a biochemical process in the liver where lactate, amino acids (protein building blocks) and fats are converted to glucose to supply energy. The process of fasting leads to the body conserving energy, basal metabolic rates become more efficient, thereby lowering heart rate and blood pressure.
Abstaining from food for prolonged periods of time allows the digestive system to heal more readily. Furthermore, as more than 70% of the immune system is located in the gut, fasting also reduces the burden on our immune systems, whilst allowing the gut microbiome to reset by increasing symbiotic microorganism diversity, and eliminating sugar dependent and disease-causing pathogens through nutrient starvation.
There are four physiological stages that the body goes through during Ramadan fasting.
Stage 1: cleansing and removal of toxin build up. The first days can result in headaches, dizziness and nausea, along with a coated tongue. A feeling of weakness can occur as glycogen stores are depleted. This first wave of cleansing is usually the worst.
Stage 2: healing of damaged cells and repair. Fats, in the form of transformed fatty acids are broken down to release glycerol, At this stage the body starts to embrace the fast and the digestive system can rest, focusing energies on cleansing and cell repair. Immune system activity also increase.
Stage 3: increased energy and better concentration. Fasting promotes improved healing and the body is able to repair damaged cells more efficiently. Various organs including the liver, kidneys, lungs, skin and colon eliminate toxins more efficiently. However, on the downside, old injuries may become aggravated and muscles may tighten due to toxin irritation, although taking magnesium, orally or via skin application (magnesium oil, balm or spray) may help.
Stage 4: overall increase in energy, improved memory and concentration. During the last 10 days the body has become accustomed to the fasting process and the organs are finishing their healing process. As a consequence the body should have more energy with heightened clarity and emotional balance at this time.
According to the research, experienced elite Muslim athletes are able to maintain their usual training load during this month of fasting without decrements in measures of fitness and with only minor adverse effects.
Nevertheless, most research is conducted on professional athletes who are able to sleep and recover during the fasting day, whereas amateur athletes will still be having to go to work during the day. For professional/elite athletes, Ramadan fasting hasn’t been found to alter body mass or composition, and neuromuscular efficiency and peak muscular performance were unaltered.
Conversely a study on well trained middle-distance runners concluded that Ramadan changes in muscular performance and oxygen kinetics could adversely affect performance during such events.
Ramadan fasting induces a shift to greater reliance on fat oxidation (fat burning) to meet energy requirements with a possible increase in protein (muscle) breakdown.
For athletes coming into competition or needing to train intensely, this shift in fuel availability may not be ideal but for some sports the consequences may not be too bad.
Whilst the body is focusing on healing during Ramadan fasting, what happens when a stressor like exercise is placed on the body without adequate fuel depends on various factors. The total, type and timing of nutrition intake needs to be considered to minimize performance decrements that may be associated with fasting.
For athletes training in the UAE, heat is another major factor during the day. With training across the middle of the day being particularly hot and often humid. Therefore, hydration is a key component and fasting athletes would be wise to avoid training outdoors when fluids cannot be replenished. Adding electrolytes to fluids consumed after sundown and before dawn can help with managing hydration status.
Ideally, prior to Ramadan preparation starts (similar to the preparation before a sporting event).
For example, in the month leading up to Ramadan, increases in tempo and intensity of training to improve fitness, including a marginal increase in resistance training to build muscle, whilst ensuring meals have a marginally increased carbohydrate load. Using a combination of good quality fast and slow releasing carbohydrates, whilst increasing training load, means that the body shifts into working a bit harder, but with an adequate fuel source (energy and hydration).
In the days leading up to Ramadan, intake of slow releasing carbohydrates is increased a little more and then training tapered. When Ramadan starts the body is in good shape physically and you have the confidence that you are in a good physical ‘state’.
During Ramadan it is ideal to reduce or slow down training during the day and include more stretching, muscle elongation and more importantly at a reduced intensity. Any strenuous exercise can occur after the eating window becomes available in the evening. The body adapts over a 30 day period when fuelled at the start and end of the day. Providing additional support with a quality multi-vitamin and mineral, omega oil (e.g.fish or krill oil), ginger and bromelain extracts and gentle liver supporting herbs will support overall health and detoxification during Ramada.
Preparation is the key to addressing Ramadan fasting and make the difference between passing through the month with a bit of tiredness versus complete exhaustion. Timing and portion control is important for sporting performance during Ramadan. There is a temptation to gorge after not eating all day, but bloating is a common issue if eating too quickly. The key is to gradually prepare the digestive system for food starting with something like a date with fluids.
Dates are a traditional food to break the fast and are packed with minerals such as zinc, as well as quick release carbs (sugar). In addition, the body can feel quite cold after not eating all day, so adding turmeric and other heating spices (ginger etc) can help. After this, soups are ideal as well as warm or cold salads. Depending on what intensity training is scheduled, if any, the quantity of food needs to be considered. After training the main meal could be consumed, ideally avoiding foods or cooking methods with lots of oil or fat.
- Pesto eggs and avocado on sourdough rye bread
- Avocado, spinach and oat flour pancakes with poached eggs, smoked salmon or turkey slices.
- Oatmeal (overnight soaked oats) with chia and flaxseeds (plus protein powder), drizzled with organic maple syrup or date syrup and served with fresh berries and Greek yogurt.
- Ginger and lemon tea
- Smoothie with kefir, beetroot, blueberry, protein powder and non-dairy milk.
- Dates followed by
- Coconut kefir, mango, ginger, and cardamon smoothie
- Seafood soup with jalapeno, coriander and lime (including fish and king prawns) topped with sunflower seeds or
- Barley, lentil and carrot soup with cumin and turmeric, topped with pumpkin seeds
- Cannelli beans with cavolo nero or kale in chicken broth, with steamed spinach and thyme leaves, served with black garlic, parsley and butter on sourdough bread or
- Braised lamb with roasted sweet potatoes, butternut squash and green beans or
- Ramen bowls with salmon, cabbage, bean shoots and rice noodles
If resistance training later, follow the evening meal with a smoothie shot (with matcha green tea powder, creatine or amino acid powder and coconut water)
Post training/pre-bedtime (not too close to sleep)
- Hot water with ginger and fennel seeds (to prevent bloating ) or
- Greek yogurt with 10g scoop if protein powder and cocoa powder and cocoa powder (contains magnesium)
Ramadan fasting differs from any other type of fasting as there is a marriage of fasting and spirituality, with spiritual and uplifting aspects; fasting during Ramadan is about devotion with humility and gratitude.