If you were given the opportunity to finish work two hours early and partake in lavish meals each evening with family and friends for an entire month you’d probably take it, right?
However, what if during that month you had to fast each day from sunrise to sunset (going without food, water and caffeine) and give back to the community as well?
Some of us might approach the offer with a bit more caution.
For Muslims, this yearly event is known as Ramadan, and starts during the full moon during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar which begun this week, on April 13th 2021.
It certainly can’t be easy to have children, a career and a fitness routine in place during a month where you are not allowed to eat or drink from sunset to sunrise. So, as this will be my first time in Dubai during Ramadan, a country where over 60% of the population is Muslim, I was eager to learn how Muslims within the CrossFit community adjust to, and even embrace, this holy month.
Working Out During Ramadan
For starters, day to day life slows down considerably. Traffic thins, the city becomes less hectic and evenings are spent with family and friends. To forego food, water, coffee and other earthly comforts means taking time to become more in-tune with your spirituality, family and community.
It is a month of giving back and deep contemplation, but life is not meant to stop. It’s still, in many respects, business as usual. According to Areej Mansour Dajani, a member of InnerFight Dubai “it’s about making adjustments.”
She continues to train, work and take care of her two children with a few tweaks that going without food and water for 12 hours a day requires, and these changes are especially important in the gym.
During Ramadan, many Muslim gym goers such as Areej approach their training sessions in two distinct ways. They will train before they begin their day of fasting or immediately after.
When Ahmed Abdelkhalek began CrossFit six years ago, he opted to train in the morning. He would wake up before beginning his fast to drink and eat, usually opting for water alongside oats with banana and honey and then workout.
However, Ahmed realized this would jump-start his metabolism and cause him to feel even more hungry and thirsty during the day. He has since changed his routine to an evening training session.
Now, once the sun has set Ahmed partakes in what is known as Iftar, which literally translates to “break fast.” This consists of a light snack such as a banana with some dates and yogurt to allow the body time to restart the digestive process after a long day of fasting. Ahmed then partakes in evening prayers, does a light strength session at 7:30PM followed by a substantial meal with family.
Training before or after a day of fasting both have their set-backs, but most athletes I have spoken to find it best to train in the evening. They will either schedule a workout so that they finish as soon as the sun sets, knowing their first meal of the day is straight after, or opt to break fast with a light meal and then train.
Making Small Adjustments to Fitness and Lifestyle During Ramadan
Tarek Bazrbachi, who started CrossFit less than a year ago, asked his friends for advice in regards to training during Ramadan. Apart from their point-blank advice to “just do it,” Tarek will follow suit and train with them before Iftar, allowing him to spend the rest of the evening with family and friends.
For Niera Osama- a 22- year-old with less family commitments, she will return home after work for a nap, then do a light cardio session before the sun sets. She then breaks her fast with dates, soup and salad followed by evening prayers. On some days Niera will train again around 9PM with friends, focusing on light strength work followed by her largest meal of the evening.
The Complexity of Training During Ramadan
No matter when someone decides to train during the month of Ramadan, it will be much more difficult to say the least. Fatigue, hunger and thirst will be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. That’s why training with friends in a class setting becomes even more important; it reminds you that you’re in this together, doing it for a greater good.
Most CrossFitters partaking in Ramadan continue to train, but they will dial things down.
For Areej and Ahmed, this means going from 5-6 days of training to 3-4, and working at a decreased intensity to avoid putting too much stress on the body.
According to Areej, “it’s about leaving your ego at the door. You’re not worrying about the amount of weight you’re using or how quickly you can finish a workout. It’s just about moving and keeping healthy.”
Further, you might think that fasting and training would be a recipe for getting into better shape, but that’s not the focus or what the month is about. Scaling back your workouts and having a large meal late in the evening makes staying fit much more effortful.
Focusing on Nutrition as well as Sport
Liam Holmes, the owner of pHNutrition says: “It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking (and feeling) that as soon as evening rolls around you can dig into dinner and eat as much as possible. But research suggests that calorie load isn’t decreased during Ramadan, for some it actually increases.”
With family time being a primary focus, spending time with loved ones over the dinner table becomes the norm, and nobody leaves hungry. Traditional meals may include dates, lentil soup, salads, samosas, chicken with rice, stuffed grape leaves and finally, desserts; all of which are all served late in the evening.
However, in having partaken in Ramadan every year since childhood, many people know how to balance their indulgent evening meals with healthier ones.
Consuming easy to digest carbs, lean protein and low fibre foods for Iftar and keeping hydrated with both liquid and water dense foods such as cucumbers and tomatoes are all ways to reduce inflammation, digestive issues and dehydration.
Preparing for Ramadan Ahead of Time
So, how do those partaking in Ramadan prepare ahead of time? One unanimous way is by cutting down on caffeine, a huge staple within Muslim culture. Knowing full well their beloved cups of coffee will go from a few a day to none, many begin to cut back.
This way, they can decrease their chances of caffeine withdrawals and avoid becoming more dehydrated.
However, coffee is fair game once the sun sets, and many coffee aficionados will wake up before the sun rises to down an espresso or two. Further, some may begin to practice intermittent fasting in the weeks leading up to Ramadan to prepare themselves both physically and mentally.
To many, the month of Ramadan is akin to Christmas. You’ll find decorations within many homes and presents are always given out at the end of Ramadan and on the first day of Eid. These “Eidiyah” are typically presents given to children by family members.
And while children aren’t expected to take part in Ramadan until their parents believe they are ready, many start to look at the month in earnest, even practicing with their own “birdy fast,” from 4-7PM. And alongside presents exchanged within the family, Ramadan also places emphasis on giving back to the community.
Giving a Zakat, or donation to a charity, serving food to those in need and inviting others for dinner who do not have family nearby are all ways of contributing.
So, if you see someone in the gym during the month of Ramadan, make sure to give them a fist pump for all their efforts and feel free to say “Ramadan Kareem,” meaning “have a generous Ramadan” or “Ramadan Mubarak,” which translates to “Happy Ramadan.”
Is this your first year doing Ramadan while also CrossFitting or want to learn how to adapt your training and nutrition during the month?
pHNutrition has some great advice on how to train, eat and supplement your training here.