Ramadan myths busted - how fasting doesn't rule out participation in sports and physical activity (2023)

Nutrition is a necessary but often challenging part of life for any athlete (casual, amateur, or pro). For Muslim athletes, however, it adds an extra level of commitment to the demands of training and competition.

During this holy month, athletes who fast forRamadanare required by their faith to abstain from all fluid and food intake during the hours of dawn to sunset – these are marked by the pre-dawn meal, suhoor, and the evening meal, iftar. It goes without saying, then, that exercise performance can easily be affected during this period if strategies aren’t implemented to reduce the effects of fasting to maintain athletic performance. The key point is that these are modifications,notrestrictions for participating in sports and physical activity.

Despite the deep spiritual significance ofRamadanfor Muslims, many of the studies around it tend to focus on rhetoric that fasting in Ramadan is harmful to health (despite any conclusive data to this point), rather than focusing on a nutritional, logistical and inclusive approach to incorporate positive adjustments and considerations for Muslim athletes to thrive. Myths and misconceptions surrounding participation in sports and physical activities during Ramadan can be impacted by a lack of awareness, misinformation, or evenIslamophobia. At Inclusive Employers, we know the importance of reconciling and celebrating the key elements of a person’s faith for them to flourish.

Is it safe to do sports and exercise during Ramadan?

Over the past decade, many of sport’s biggest competitions have occurred during the fasting month. These include the Olympics in 2012, parts of the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, and the European Championships in 2016. Despite this, some players could still reach the top of their sport.

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Is it safe to do so, however? For those not familiar with fasting for Ramadan, it may seem a startling prospect.

Studies have demonstrated that fasting during Ramadan can be associated with beneficial effects on the lipid profile of healthy individuals, particularly causing reductions in low-density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol) levels.

Additionally, intermittent fasting has been associated with positive changes in hormonal responses, oxidative stress, and inflammation.

How does the body provide energy during fasting?

In healthy individuals, fasting causes the release of glucose from the body’s glycogen stores or makes glucose from carbohydrates or other macronutrients such as proteins and fat. Glycogen stores in the liver can often provide enough glucose for the brain and muscles for approximately 12 hours. Once glycogen stores are depleted, stored fats are broken down to generate ketones, which can then be used as energy by the body, allowing glucose to be preserved for the brain.

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In the UK, Muslims often fast for more than 12 hours a day, so they will likely have used all their glycogen stores by late afternoon, and be using fat as a source of energy from then onwards.

Point of exemption: it should be noted that for people with health conditions, there are exemptions for fasting. For example, for people with diabetes, fasting can be linked with disruptions to normal glucose metabolism, possibly causing low or high blood glucose levels. Those with diabetes or specific health conditions should seek medical advice before fasting during Ramadan.

Is it safe to do sports and exercise during Ramadan?

Studies have often been conducted on athletes fasting during Ramadan to better understand intermittent fasting and its effects on performance. These studies have looked at different types of exercise, such as high-intensity, endurance, and resistance exercise.

Generally, studies have found that fasting in Ramadan shows little to no impact on any of the different types of exercise on athletic performance.

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Interestingly, this suggests that athletes can maintain their performance abilities for the different types of exercise during Ramadan, which hopefully means that non-elite athletes or individuals doing sports and exercise during Ramadan will also be safe to exercise.

For energy and fluid rehydration, any losses in the day can be corrected in the evening after iftar. Therefore, with good nutritional and hydrational strategies, during the two meals and over the non-fasting period, individuals can participate in sports and exercise whilst fasting in Ramadan with little impact on physical performance.

What can be done about mitigating/ reducing potential risks during fasting?

  • Continue your normal exercise or training, but move more high-intensity exercise sessions to nearer to iftar time (if able) which may help allow rehydration and nutrition intake soon after exercise. Speak to coaches/teams and see if there can be any adjustments made to training times.
  • It is best to start any new exercise or sports during Ramadan with advice from a healthcare professional.
  • Avoid exercising in hot temperatures or at the hottest times of the day (if able) to reduce increased sweating and reduce the risk of dehydration.
  • Avoid using the sauna or steam rooms if using the gym, as this may increase the risk of dehydration.
  • Try to rest after training. If possible, have small naps during the day to minimise the risk of fatigue, sleep disruption, or deprivation.

Top tips for nutrition for sports and exercise during Ramadan

For both meals

  • Ensure you drink plenty of fluids, between two and three litres equally split between suhoor, iftar, and over the non-fasting period. Avoid too many caffeinated drinks, as these may cause you to lose fluid and salts.
  • Try to ensure you have good amounts of slow-releasing carbohydrates. Or include high-fibre foods that release energy slowly.
  • Include protein foods to ensure you get enough protein over the day.
  • Include some fruit and vegetables with the meal.

At suhoor

  • Eat as close as possible to sunrise and think about what sports and exercise you are planning to do that day:
    • If planning higher intensity or longer duration activities, try to ensure you have reasonable amounts of slow-releasing carbohydrates.
    • If you are planning a less intense activity, still include carbs as above, but try to focus on water as the primary fluid option and try not to consume drinks high in carbohydrates, such as fruit juices or sugary drinks.
  • Do include some salt in the food whilst cooking but try not to add salt to foods at the table as too much salt can increase thirst during the day.
  • Try not to miss suhoor as this can lead to decreased energy in the day and lead to glycogen depletion sooner.

At iftar

  • Breaking the fast with dates and water (as is traditional in Ramadan) or milk is excellent for replacing glycogen stores.
  • Start with wholesome foods such as soups, salads, and fruits.
  • Do include some salt in the food whilst cooking, and if you’ve had significant sweat losses during the day, you may need to include some extra at the table.

After iftar

  • Keep drinking water to rehydrate gradually over this time. If taking part in evening prayers, drink after completing them to ensure good rehydration.
  • You may want to have another meal or high-carbohydrate snack during this time to ensure you are getting enough macronutrients for recovery of any activity during the day.
  • If eating opportunities are limited, drinks with high energy/nutrient density can be helpful to meet high-energy requirements.

Beyond the surface: A note for leaders

Whilst it can be easy to reduce the modifications to nutrition and training schedules, it’s important not to forget the core element of fasting for Ramadan: spirituality. This will look different for different people, but some useful tips are:

  • Provide areas for prayer, rest and reflection
  • check-in with those fasting around support and any specific needs
  • Provide reasonable adjustments and modifications, so fasting Muslims don’t need to choose between faith and physical activity
  • Raise awareness of Ramadan through ourRamadan resources

Inclusive Sport offers a range of training opportunities to support inclusive practice. Getin touchto learnhow our Inclusive Sport team can support you.

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