Posted on May 22, 2019

Muslim children in most countries at the age of nine and above begin to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan by fasting from dawn to sunset, a practice that is usually encouraged by their families and peers.

But for professional young athletes, fasting can be challenging given their busy school and training schedules as well as participation in competitions. This naturally raises questions such as: what are the effects of fasting on young athletes? What are the precautions that they should bear in mind? And what is the optimal approach to training that coaches should adopt in order to maximise performance?

Researchers from Aspetar, the orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital in Qatar, had special interest in studying the effects of fasting on athletic performance. Indeed, the topic has been covered extensively by researchers worldwide. However, when it comes to research on youngsters and fasting, there are few research papers that address the effects of fasting on young athletes’ performance. The first in this domain was published by Aspetar’s researcher, Abdulaziz Farooq.

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In his research, based on 18 young children aged 9 to 15 observing Ramadan, a peer reviewed paper was produced in 2015, Farooq highlighted that there is little evidence to suggest that fasting negatively impacts physical health. However, he points out that fasting can actually improve young athletes’ memory and planning skills as evidenced by research, whilst concentration and attention levels decrease towards the end of the day. Farooq explains: “Children are different from adults, given their body is still growing and so they need more nutrients. They are required to go to school in the morning and attend classes as well as training sessions, where they have to maintain higher levels of concentration.”

One of the most important findings of Aspetar’s researchers is that hydration and sleep are crucial in maintaining high performance levels for adults and this applies to young athletes and children. “Habitual sleeping duration and hydration are crucial. While sleeping helps you recover both mentally and physically, hydration and healthy nutrition are equally important to boost energy”, Farooq said.

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The researcher outlined his recommendations for young athletes who are fasting, as well as some considerations for their families and coaches to bear in mind with regards to exercise:

  • Whilst at school or during training sessions, coaches should focus on skill development rather than endurance. Athletes should be aware that their energy capacity while fasting can be reduced by 60-70%, and so it is better to focus on low-intensity activities.
  • Ideally, to optimize performance, young athletes need to learn what, when and how to eat and drink before, during and after activity. During competitions, professional young athletes should eat a preparation meal and regularly intake water to perform at their best. A recovery meal post exercise is also vital to maintain muscle mass and expect quicker recovery. Therefore, the recommended time for young athletes to train is following iftar (after the break of fast). However, Farooq does not recommend young athletes to practice exercise during the fasting period, but active play and physical activity is encouraged. Some Athletes who choose to exercise while fasting should be aware that their energy capacity is reduced, and therefore the length of time that they can exercise will be limited.
  • Sleep patterns are greatly affected during Ramadan specially among children. As per recommendations, 8-10 hours of night time sleep is a must for children. This helps children to be more alert during the day when at school and can reduce risk of injury during games. Bedtime could begin right after night prayers.
  • Naps shouldn’t last more than 30 minutes as napping for longer periods can affect the duration of sleep at night.
  • A well-balanced diet should contain proportionate amounts of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) that are essential to provide enough energy for growth and activity - Iftar and Suhoor meals are commonly rich in carbohydrates and fats, but they lack micronutrients.
  • In Aspetar’s research finding “there was a reduction in iron indices of preteens after one month of fasting”. Parents, coaches and nutritionists should pay attention to this. Regular intake of iron-rich foods like eggs, green leafy vegetables, fortified whole grains and lean meat is recommended.
  • Aspetar researchers have also highlighted poor Oral health in young athletes in Middle-East. High sugary intake in Ramadan coupled with lack of oral hygiene could lead to tooth decay and periodontal diseases.