Exercise and Nutrition During Ramadan
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Brief Article Overview
- Ramadan is an Islamic practice observed by Muslims across the world which consists of 30 days of fasting (sunrise to sunset), prayer (five times a day), reflection and community.
- Nutrition and training will have to be adapted during this month to meet the rules and stipulations of the practice.
- Optimal training times will be after the first meal (Iftar) or after the last meal (Suhoor), at 9pm or 5am respectively.
- General Health – In terms of eating and training for general health, here’s how we would approach the 30 days of Ramadan;
- Have a plan
- Prioritise hydration.
- Maximise sleep.
- Avoid binge eating
- Eat high-quality foods
- Maintain protein levels
- Choose complex carbohydrates over sugars
- Adjust training volume and intensity
- Weight Loss – Ramadan is a great opportunity to lose those extra few kilos or get super lean, here are some things to focus on when doing so;
- Eat slowly
- Eat lean, whole foods
- Keep resistance training
- Reduce volume and intensity of cardio
- Muscle Gain – In terms of muscle mass, most will enter a maintenance phase and not lose the muscle they’ve worked hard to gain. However, it’s not impossible to gain mass during Ramadan, here’s how;
- Hit calorie and protein targets
- Prioritise resistance training
- Reduce food volume
Let’s start with a brief overview of Ramadan so that we understand the rules and stipulations that those who follow this religious practice must follow (if you are already familiar with this, feel free to skip ahead).
- Ramadan is observed by Muslims across the globe and falls on the 9th month of the Islamic Calendar.
- It consists of 30 days of fasting, prayer, reflection and community.
- Fasting starts at sunrise and ends at sunset.
- It is practised by all adult Muslims who are healthy enough to do so.
- During the fast (sawm), Muslims abstain from all forms of eating and drinking (including water).
Times and Dates
Fasting times will vary from country to country, so to simplify things we will be guiding those who live in the UK using GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), although general guidelines will be appropriate for most people.
Start Date: 13th April (Sunrise: 6:07am | Sunset: 7:54pm | Day length: 13h 45min).
End Date: 12th May (Sunrise: 5:13am | Sunset: 8:41pm | Day length: 15h 31min).
Since the UK is quite far north of the equator, the days are long (and get even longer) during the month of Ramadan. This makes it particularly difficult for Muslims living in the UK who are trying to maintain normal activity levels and body composition.
The Order of the Day (The 5 Prayers)
Ramadan provides a structure that we must use to provide training and nutrition advice, the good thing is that we have a framework to build upon.
The days and nights of Ramadan consist of 5 prayers known as Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha.
There are two main meals consumed between dawn and sundown; Iftar and Suhoor.
Iftar (8-9pm) is the first meal at sundown, breaking the fast and occurs around the prayer of Maghrib.
Suhoor (4-5am) is the last meal before dawn after the prayer of Fajr. There is also an opportunity to eat between the prayers of Isha and Fajr (10pm-3am).
We would ideally perform exercise around mealtimes so that you are either adequately fueled and hydrated or have the ability to refuel and rehydrate from your sessions. Here are three practical options in this regard;
- 9-10pm – The most optimal training time would be after the meal of Iftar (breaking your fast). This will ensure you’re adequately fueled and hydrated before your session and will be able to eat afterwards to optimise recovery.
- 5-6am – The second option would be after Suhoor at dawn. You’ll be fueled and hydrated for the session, but won’t be able to rehydrate or refuel afterwards.
- 7-8pm – The third option would be just before you break your fast (iftar). Because you are at the end of your fast we wouldn’t recommend high-intensity training here. 20-60min of light cardio (<140bpm) such as walking (or incline on a treadmill) and cycling (or on a spin bike) could be an option.
Training during the day may be a more convenient option, however the lack of sleep, water and food may cause you to feel light-headed, dizzy or nauseous, so play it by ear and stop if you’re feeling unwell.
Taking 20-30min naps throughout the day is a really great way to catch up on the sleep you may have missed during the night. Here are some good options for nap times;
- 4-5am – Straight after Suhoor, before the start of the day.
- Noon – Before or after Asr at lunchtime.
- 5-6pm – After you get home from work, before the prayer of Maghrib.
Here’s a visual representation of the training, sleeping and eating options available to you;
Nutrition and Exercise Recommendations
We will provide 3 sets of guidelines for 3 common goals when it comes to nutrition and training strategies during Ramadan; 1) General health, 2) Weight loss and 3) Muscle retention. Everyone should take the general health guidelines into account and the other two will depend on your training goals. We hope this provides the most well-rounded guidance possible.
1. Have a Plan
Planning and organising your meals and training becomes even more important when practising Ramadan, as there is a lot less time available and every hour counts! Set aside your training time and prioritise it highly. Make sure the house is stocked with healthy food and preparing your meals/snacks in the day time (you can always bulk cook for multiple nights). Front-loading this effort will pay off massively in the long run.
2. Hydration First
One of the most difficult parts of Ramadan is the restriction of water during the day. Dehydration can be dangerous (especially in the heat and when exercising), so prioritise water intake during the night. You may even want to try some low sugar hydration tablets that endurance athletes use, to ensure your electrolyte levels don’t drop too low. Avoiding diuretics (such as caffeine and alcohol) and reducing your salt intake will prevent you from becoming dehydrated.
3. Maximise Sleep
Ramadan comes with inevitable sleep disruption, but there are things we can do to maximise the amount of sleep we get. Regular naps during the day (as previously mentioned).
Pre-preparing your meals ensures that you don’t spend unnecessary time cooking when you could be sleeping!
Caffeine, alcohol and sugar can disrupt your ability to fall asleep, so try your best to avoid these if possible.
4. Avoid The Fast-Breaking Binge
You’ve spent 14 hours without food or drink, your brain is screaming for calories so the natural tendency would be to eat all the hyper-palatable, calorie-rich, sugary and fatty foods. “I’ve fasted all day, I can eat anything I want and as much as I want, right?”. Not only is it a major theme of Ramadan to practice restraint and discipline, but binge eating isn’t great for your digestive system, mood, hormone levels and blood sugar regulation. Also, repeating binge-eating behaviour patterns can be difficult to break and may continue long after Ramadan is over. You have the whole night to refuel so start small and drink plenty of water.
5. Don’t Sacrifice Food Quality
Just because you’re fasting, shouldn’t mean that food quality goes out the window. The same rules for healthy nutrition apply; eat mostly whole foods (80% of diet), including plenty of fruits and vegetables, and limit processed foods (20% of diet). This will keep you feeling fuller for longer, provide longer-lasting energy, increase micronutrient levels and aid your digestive system.
6. Maintain Protein Levels
It’s really important to keep your protein levels high, especially if you’re still active and training during Ramadan. Carbohydrates (muscle glycogen) and fats (adipose tissues) are more easily converted into stored energy for future use, but proteins turn over at higher rates and it’s important to keep your net protein balance away from negative.
Maintaining muscle mass and improving recovery from exercise requires adequate protein levels (1-2g/kg body weight for most people).
7. Complex Carbohydrates over Sugars
Complex carbohydrates (which make up starchy foods like oats, rice, potatoes, butternut squash, beans and pulses) supply your body and brain with steady energy, which is slowly released throughout the day. Sugars, on the other hand, provide you with a large energy spike, which drops rapidly leaving you feeling lethargic and hungry for most of the day.
8. Adjust Training Intensity and Volume
Realistically, it’s going to be difficult to maintain or develop your normal levels of exercise output during Ramadan. Both intensity and volume will need to be attenuated. This is a time in which your training will have to be stripped back to its bare bones. Prioritise the most important training methods which will help you conserve your energy, whilst achieving your goals.
Training whilst depleted of fuel is a form of progressive overload in itself, so other training variables don’t need to be changed to achieve big gains. If dosed correctly, exercise can boost your energy levels, as well as keep you fit, strong and healthy. When you finish Ramadan, you may feel fitter and stronger than ever before as a result, with potential for PR’s on the horizon when you’re fully rested, hydrated and fuelled.
It’s common for people to lose weight during Ramadan, as it’s quite difficult to over-eat during such a short time window (especially if you retain food quality and avoid processed foods). This could be a great opportunity to lose those extra kilos and get lean! Remember, the same rules apply when it comes to weight loss at any other time. Here are some unique rules to add when it comes to Ramadan;
1. Eat Slowly
Developing on our previous advice, to avoid falling into a binge eating pattern, try your best to slow down. We understand the temptation to eat quickly (especially when breaking the fast), but be kind to your digestive system and eat mindfully with intention and attention. Chew thoroughly, enjoy the flavours and textures, immerse yourself in the experience. You’ll find you don’t need to eat that much to attain satisfaction and your food choices may even improve.
2. Eat Lean, Whole Foods
Vegetables and lean meats should make up the bulk (about 80%) of your diet. Choosing lean chicken instead of fatty lamb is a good example of a recommended food swap if you’re looking to reduce calories. Soup, stews and salads with plenty of pulses and vegetables, low-fat yoghurt, oats and fruits are all great choices in this regard.
3. Resistance Training
Maintaining lean mass (muscle, bone and ligaments) is really important during a weight loss phase. The two biggest drivers for this is 1) keeping protein levels adequate and 2) resistance training. Your level of experience and the amount of muscle mass you start with will determine your training program details, but it’s unlikely that you’ll be going for PR’s, so train just hard enough to maintain what you have (this can be done relatively easily).
4. Cardio Training
If your diet is on point and you’re fasting for 15h a day, it’s unlikely that you’ll need to do excessive amounts of cardio to burn extra calories (especially if you’re dehydrated). It’s important, however, to keep your cardiovascular system ticking over, so think about going on regular walks or short jogs to raise the heart rate slightly (100-140bpm) without depleting your energy reserves too much. Remember to stop if you’re feeling dizzy or lightheaded.
It will be fairly difficult (but not impossible) to gain muscle during Ramadan. If your goals previous to Ramadan were gaining muscle mass and developing performance, think about entering a “maintenance phase”, ensuring you hold onto your gains during this period. Also, keep an eye on your stress and recovery levels to stop from entering an overtrained state.
If you’re really motivated to gain mass, then here’s what we would suggest.
1. Hit Your Calorie and Protein Targets
This is probably the most difficult part of muscle gain during Ramadan, eating enough of the right things. We prioritise two nutrition variables; 1) Calories and 2) Protein targets. A calorie surplus (eating more than you burn) is critical for muscle growth and amino acids (from protein) are the blocks from which muscle is built. Protein shakes, yoghurts, meats, nuts and eggs are all relatively high in calories and protein so these will be your go-to’s during Ramadan.
2. Prioritise Lifting
Your resistance training should be hard enough to create an adequate stress response, but seeing as your sleep and nutrition will be compromised your lifting sessions may feel more difficult than usual.
It’s probably best to work on a session RPE basis. For example, a session should feel like an 8/10 instead of objectively lifting at 80% for your max. This allows for your program to be flexible with your current state of recovery and energy levels.
It’s important to make the most of your rest times (set a minimum rest time of 90sec between sets for example), to mitigate fatigue too quickly and experiencing a decline in quality reps.
3. Reduce Food Volume
One simple way to ensure that you hit your calorie targets a bit easier is by reducing your food volume (size and weight). Essentially you want to increase the “calorie density” of your food. Blending food into liquid form (in a protein shake for example) and eating foods higher in fats and sugars (such as dried fruits, dates and nuts) are two good options. Setting a fibre limit may also help (as fibre doesn’t provide calorie). Keep eating your vegetables and protein, but top these meals up with more calorie-dense foods.
Supplement your diet with extra protein by using a good protein powder. You could add a scoop to your oats at Suhoor, or make a delicious protein shake. Creatine is the most well researched and scientifically backed supplements when it comes to muscle and strength gain. Taking 5g a day should be sufficient.
There are many great physiological and psychological benefits to be gained from periods of restriction and discipline, which is probably why many religions have retained practices like Ramadan for centuries. However, it can be difficult to keep on track when it comes to your health and fitness goals during such times. Mastering the basics, understanding the fundamentals and implementing a well-thought-out strategy will be invaluable when it comes to your day-to-day routine throughout the 30 days of Ramadan. Once you’ve organised your eating, sleeping and training plan, you can then fully devote yourself to your prayers, reflection, faith and family, without sacrificing your health and wellbeing.
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Disclosure: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are currently experiencing physical or mental health issues, please seek professional advice from a fully qualified Nutritionist, GP or Physiotherapist.