City of Brass

City of Brass


The athlete in Ramadan: working out, training and diet

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

This is a guest post by Kulsoom Abdullah.

Ramadan 1432/2011 is here. It makes me reflect to last year, which has similar themes to years before that which is I workout and train during Ramadan. Many think I am insane, though as the years have gone by, that number has gone down. Part of the reason is that more people know about Ramadan, and also more people are fasting for non-religious reasons. The more popular and accepted into the secular mainstream, the more people do not feel sorry for me. Some of the fasts that are popular for non-religious reasons, are intermittent fasting, and fasting while working out, and one called the warrior diet. They do drink water, and in the warrior diet, some supplement or whey powder before their workout. One of those is called intermittent fasting (which I will include links to at the end of this article). So the part about not drinking any water does still make them do a double take. It is definitely a challenge, especially when the weather is hot (especially in Atlanta aka HOTlanta).

There is a masjid walking distance to me, so it is not difficult for me to attend iftar and/or the taraweh prayers. I usually do not attend the iftar, unless I take my own food. Diet is important to me, and what I try to eat does not go with the usual yummy iftar fare. I don’t attend or take my own food, because so many people go, they need to have plates already portioned with all the food items, and I don’t like to waste food. I can still meet people I do not see other times of the year by going after iftar and for taraweh.

Ramadan is coming at a time I need some peace and reflection. It has been pretty hectic for me the past month. See the news articles for more information, but it had to do with weightlifting competitions and the way I dress.

I like food and sometimes I think I do over do it. I try to remind myself of this hadith:

On the authority of Al-Miqdam ibn Madiy-Karib who said: I heard the Messenger of Allah saying, “No human ever filled a vessel worse than the stomach. Sufficient for any son of Adam are some morsels to keep his back straight. But if it must be, then one third for his food, one third for his drink and one third for his breath.”

(more Hadith on Ramadan)

Ramadan helps me to reset my food intake and remind me that I am blessed that I do have it. Most of the time, we think we need to eat more than we really do. It also gives me extra time in the day because I do not spend time preparing or making meals that I would normally for day time eating and drinking.

This year I hope in spite of being busy and training, I will at least give more time than I usually do to reviving my faith. I had some recent reminders of fasting. Before going to the USA Weightlifting national championships, I had to cut some weight (my blog post about nationals). About one week before, I had to restrict daily calories and the day before my competition, I cut water weight by sitting in a tub of hot water with salt (no sauna or sauna suits were available). I felt that familiar thirsty feeling I do during Ramadan, except it was hot. It reminded me that I have the luxury of being in a home, car, and buildings with A/C.

Working out is not as bad as one may think. It is possible to make gains, if not, at least maintain without losing muscle. Another advantage is you can lose fat if that is one of your goals.

Short-term fasting has no effect on average cortisol levels and this is an area that has been extensively studied in the context of Ramadan fasting [2]. Cortisol typically follows a diurnal variation, which means that its levels peak in the morning at around 8 a.m. and decline in the evenings. What changes during Ramadan is simply the cortisol rhythm, average levels across 24 hours remain unchanged [3]. In one Ramadan study on rugby players [4], subjects lost fat and retained muscle very well. And they did despite training in a dehydrated state, without pre-workout or post-workout protein intake, and with a lower protein intake overall nonetheless. Body mass decreased significantly and progressively over the 4-week period; fat was lost, but lean tissue was conserved [2]. In conclusion, the belief that fasting increases cortisol, which then might cause all kinds of mischief such as muscle loss, has no scientific basis whatsoever. [1].

I do not personally do much aerobic activity but the article [1] does give reference to relevant research [5] saying that during Ramadan there is a small negative impact on performance (e.g. 60 minutes of running [6]) and that mainly has to do with dehydration. There is even less impact when it comes to weight training (anaerobic) [7].

I sometimes have to rest a little more in between lifting sets, but with weightlifting, I don’t do that many reps in a row. I try to make a more conscious effort of sitting in front of a fan during the rests I take in between sets. After the first few days, I become acclimated. One of the great things about fasting is it allows your body to focus energy on healing other parts of the system. This includes repairing muscle fibers which in turn does make you stronger. Of course, you can always just take extra rest days if you want. But because I am addicted to weightlifting and I compete, I still try to maintain some routine.

I will give some guidelines I use for diet and weightlifting. Brent Wenson, a trainer at my gym, Crossfit Atlanta, has given me advice on this.

I workout in the evenings, and this year, it is going to be before iftar time or sunset (as it was last year). I go home and for iftar, I eat dates and drink water. After Maghrib prayers, I will have a protein powder shake that contains BCAA’s (most decent ones do, I use Jarrow formula unflavored).

Muscle glycogen needs to be replenished since one will not have a full day of eating. How much will depend on activity, like long endurance, to short metabolic conditioning, to weightlifting. Post workout your muscle cell receptors are more open and can more easily refill. One of the wisdom of eating dates is it’s a healthy way of getting your carb needs very quickly. Then the protein shake gives you the protein and BCAA you need after a workout and helps avoid any muscle catabolism. If you have to workout earlier in the day, that should be OK too but I find it easier the closer to iftar time. Some prefer to workout after iftar but I do not like to have a full stomach when I workout, and these days, sunset and prayers are pretty late, so I do not choose to workout after iftar. You can experiment and see what works for you.

My stomach usually gets full pretty quickly for iftar, so I do not try to eat a lot of food at once. I give my digestion system some time to get used to having food intake. From iftar to the time I sleep, especially right before sleeping, I will make sure to have protein and fat. The whole time from iftar to when I sleep, I continue to drink water. It is hard for me to gulp a large quantity at once, so I try to continually drink smaller portions. Closer to sleep, I try to drink less so that my sleep will not be negatively impacted. Additionally, I will keep a small water bottle on my nightstand so I have the option of drinking water if I wake up.

For the suhoor, pre dawn meal, I will have mainly protein and fat (very little carbs, except some vegetables. Protein and fat keep you satiated. Your body will use fat as the energy source, as opposed to carbs which are quick to digest. Carbs also make you feel hungry and crave more food. It is hard to eat before sunrise, but the fat is more calorie dense and quicker to eat, so one does not have to eat as much. Again, I will try to drink as much water as I can while awake for suhoor.

It is true that many people actually gain weight during Ramadan, which mostly has to do with the type and quantity of food people consume for iftar and dinner. But it is not because the late timing of the meal is the culprit [1]. The strongest argument against this is the numerous studies available on body composition and health after and during Ramadan fasting. This meal pattern of regular nightly feasts has a neutral or positive effect on body fat percentage and other health parameters [8]. People who engage in late night eating, such as snacking in front of the TV, are likely to weigh more than others. It’s not the fact that they are eating later in the day that causes weight gain, it’s their lifestyle [1].

If you want to read further or get some different opinions with regards to diet, I have included some links below. I hope this will help you get the most out of your Ramadan. Please make dua for those who are having a hard Ramadan this year.

References in my essay:

[1] Berkhan, Martin. (2010, Novemeber 4) Top Ten Fasting Myths Debunked. [Online] Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.leangains.com/2010/10/top-ten-fasting-myths-debunked.html

[2] Roky R, Houti I, Moussamih S, Qotbi S, Aadil N. (September 24, 2004) Physiological and chronobiological changes during Ramadan intermittent fasting. In Ann Nutr Metab. 2004;48(4):296-303. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15452402

[3] Ben Salem L, Bchir S, Bouguerra R, Ben Slama C. (9-11/2003) Cortisol rhythm during the month of Ramadan. In East Mediterr Health J. 2003 Sep-Nov;9(5-6):1093-8. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16450542

[4] Bouhlel E, Denguezli M, Zaouali M, Tabka Z, Shephard RJ. (December 2008) Ramadan fastings effect on plasma leptin, adiponectin concentrations, and body composition in trained young men. In Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2008 Dec;18(6):617-27. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19164831

[5] Chaouachi A, Leiper JB, Souissi N, Coutts AJ, Chamari K. (December 2009) Effects of Ramadan intermittent fasting on sports performance and training: a review. In Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Dec;4(4):419-34. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20029094

[6] Aziz AR, Wahid MF, Png W, Jesuvadian CV. (June 2010) Effects of Ramadan fasting on 60 min of endurance running performance in moderately trained men. In Br J Sports Med. 2010 Jun;44(7):516-21. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20519256

[7] Chaouachi A, Coutts AJ, Chamari K, Wong del P, Chaouachi M, Chtara M, Roky R, Amri M. (December 2009) Effect of Ramadan intermittent fasting on aerobic and anaerobic performance and perception of fatigue in male elite judo athletes. In J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Dec;23(9):2702-9. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19910805

[8] Al-Hourani HM, Atoum MF. (October 2007) Body composition, nutrient intake and physical activity patterns in young women during Ramadan. In Singapore Med J. 2007 Oct;48(10):906-10. Retrieved August 2, 2011 from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17909674

Other links specific to Ramadan and working out (I don’t follow these theories on diet but not all diets are for everyone, so I am including them)

Some general guides on health benefits of intermittent fasting:

Kulsoom Abdullah Ph.D. is an Pakistani-American computer engineer, who has been Olympic Weightlifting for three years and Crossfitting for two years. Kulsoom started competing in Olympic Weightlifting competitions in March 2010 and obtained the Crossfit Level I certification. She completed an undergraduate degree in Computer Engineering at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Kulsoom then finished her PhD in Electrical/Computer Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She launched her website, LiftingCovered.com, to document her experiences weightlifting in an effort to compete at U.S. national competitions. She has attended her first national competition in Iowa in July 2011. At present, Kulsoom is conducting post-doctoral research at her alma mater, Georgia Tech. More information about her research can be found at her personal website, Kulsoom.net. Go Yellow Jackets!



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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sameer

    Salaam brother,
    Hope this message finds you well. I came across your article while researching for Ramadan diet for athletes. I’m a Mountaineer, Alpine/Ice and Rock climber and live here in the mountains of Cascades in Pacific Northwest.
    My training includes slow long distance running (sldr)in the mountains sometimes with weights with elevation loss and gain of 1000m. Ramadan are really long here with suhoor at 230 and Iftar at 930.
    My body has very little fat due to SLDR and mixing of anaerobic exercises including Yoga, my body loses more weight in Ramadan. I would love to discuss more regarding this with you.

    Jazakallahumkhairan

  • Zubayr Bhyat

    Not sure why nobody has commented. Great article, it’s three years late, I know. I have aquestion. I train after taraweeh and sleep 7 hours. This time is perfect because of the time I leave work and have iftaar. Is there a modification I need to do on this?

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