Posted on May 12, 2019

Each year during Ramadan, professional Muslim athletes from all over the globe face the challenge of fasting during Ramadan while competing in sports competitions.

With the rise in the number of Muslim players participating in various European and international competitions, the questions of whether fasting has an effect on players' performance, and if so, to what extent, become crucial. Players in the Middle East and Islamic countries often benefit from coaches adjusting training schedules to reflect Ramadan timings. In non-Islamic countries, however, coaches can find it difficult to change an entire team’s schedule for a minority of players. For fasting athletes, Ramadan intermittent fasting is a challenge that could impact their performance.

Fasting affects performance...  illusion or reality

According to a recent study conducted by Aziz and colleagues (2018), fasting can negatively affect football players’ performance. The study, conducted in Malaysia, revealed that football players witnessed a significant decline in the distance they ran during matches while they were fasting (most importantly, the impacted distances were ‘’distance covered at high intensity’’ and ‘’distance covered at moderate intensity’’ by the players during the match).

In that regard, experts from Aspetar, Doha’s leading orthopaedic and sports medicine hospital, agree with the authors of this study, who suggested that one of the contributing factors to this decline could be a phenomenon known as the Nocebo effect, or "imaginary/anticipatory fatigue”. In fact, the player feels that fasting negatively will affect his performance, when in reality it may not. Indeed, a study conducted by Aspetar (Farooq and colleagues 2016) has shown that professional football players that were going to play in a very important competition that was held during the month of Ramadan, showed negative beliefs and attitudes towards the fact that they would be competing while fasting. These negative beliefs might indeed contribute to any decline in performance observed during the month of Ramadan by the above mentioned ‘’Nocebo effect’’.

However, not all athlete’s efforts are affected by Ramadan fasting. Indeed, studies have shown that, when elite athletes eat and hydrate well during night hours and ensure they get the optimum quality and quantity of sleep, many physical performance measures are not impacted by Ramadan Fasting. Obviously, there is no ‘’one size fits all’’ solution because Ramadan’s effects vary depending on geographical location, the country's proximity to the equator, and the season, amongst others. For example, professional athletes in Qatar fast for around 15 hours a day. However, athletes living away from the equator, like in European countries, fast for shorter hours during winter and longer hours during summer, reaching up to 20-21 hours in some cases. Such a lengthy deprivation of nutrition and hydration, and such disruption to sleeping patterns, will potentially affect fasting athletes’ performance.

Ramadan / Sunna: health benefits of fasting

Nutrition experts say fasting during the day can help prevent health problems and improve mental health. Therefore, it is recommended to Muslim athletes to keep fasting along the year. By following the ‘’Sunna’’ religious rules, advising Muslims to fast 2 days a week, athletes could keep themselves used to physical training while in fasted state. Not only this is beneficial for health, but it will certainly render training and competing during Ramadan easier. Nevertheless, training in fasted state has to follow practical tips to optimize it and/or render it less challenging.

Nutrition and sleeping cycles

During the holy month of Ramadan, athletes face a significant change in their diet as a result of modifying their eating routine. This may be accompanied by mild digestive disorders. According to Aspetar’s experts, a balanced nutrition enables athletes to optimise their performance while maintaining a balanced sleeping cycle. Athletes have to take into account that falling asleep after a heavy meal like ‘’Suhour’’ (last meal consumed before starting the fasting period) will be problematic. They will then have to consider timing their sleep accordingly. This also applies for falling sleeping after intensive training sessions. Coaches will have to respect not only these principles, but whenever possible, also take into account an athlete’s chronotype. Indeed, ‘’early morning’’ type (persons waking-up early in the morning by nature) will not adapt to Ramadan pattern as ‘’evening’’ type athletes.

Group/Team sports exercises/training

For group exercises, whenever possible, teams comprising a number of Muslim athletes should train at night after ‘’Iftar’’ (first Meal consumed at sunset when breaking the fast). For the teams that are in Muslim minority countries and comprising few Muslim players, most of the sessions will be held in the morning and/or the afternoon, making it difficult for the players to fast and perform at their best. To optimise the management of training and/or competing during the month of Ramadan for Muslim athletes, Aspetar’s experts have developed the tips below:

Tips for maintaining good sports performance during Ramadan

  • Exercise time and intensity may require a slight adjustment i.e. training after sunset is optimal.
  • If the coach wants to prescribe training twice a day, a light training session can be held right before Iftar. Then, three hours after the Iftar meal, the team can conduct intensive training sessions
  • It is preferable to keep light intensity sessions or resistance training sessions (muscle strengthening) as options for pre-iftar timings. High intensity and/or long training sessions should be starting around 3 hours after iftar
  • Coaches should be familiar with the internal biological clock and the implications of changing habits on sports performance when they are planning their training schedule
  • Athletes should avoid long naps at inappropriate times because this can have a major effect on sleeping later at night, which will affect their biological clocks
  • Athletes should consume an appropriate amount of food during ‘’Iftar’’ and ‘’Suhoor ‘’ to ensure maximum use of food for training and competitions
  • Athletes must replenish themselves with adequate fluids and salts (especially sodium) after sunset and before sunrise to prevent dehydration. Drinking should be performed often and in small quantities, because drinking too much at once is counter-productive.
  • Coaching and Medical staffs should closely monitor the athletes training levels, food and fluid consumption, and sleeping habits
  • Coaches and athletes should consider regularly training in fasted conditions (once or twice a week) all year. If this is not possible, coaches should consider pre-Ramadan practice of training or competition simulation in fasted state. This will not only help the athletes cope with these conditions physiologically, but also help them psychologically acclimatise to training while fasting
  • Coaches and sport psychologists should consider that the way they speak about Ramadan fasting can negatively or positively affect their athletes’ beliefs. It is important to work on the athlete’s perception of the topic, and even consider mental training to optimise athletes’ performance during Ramadan
  • In case of training/competing in the heat, athletes should consider pre-cooling strategies and possibly mouth rinsing procedures. The latter has been shown to be effective in dampening the negative effects of fasting on long duration efforts. Nevertheless, athletes should be aware that Aspetar research has shown that mouth rinsing procedures are accompanied by a slight risk of inadvertently swallowing the rinsing liquid.