For many Muslims who observe the practice of fasting during the month of the Ramadan, the period is a time for mindful contemplation and detox. Muslims abstain from food and water between sunrise to sundown. While some people lose weight during this period, some put on the pounds from excessive late night binge.
Exercise keeps the body healthy and the mind sharp. During the fasting month, it is safe to exercise so long as you do it responsibly and listen to your body. UFIT expert nutritionist and avid sportsperson Patsy Soh gives her advice on what you should be eating if you want to maintain your training intensity during the fasting month.
Separately, we speak to Dean Ahmad – COO of UFIT and experienced fitness professional with a 10-year track record, and Nada Khalid – Physiotherapist by day and professional Muay Thai fighter by night, to find how how they adjust their training program during this period.
EATING RIGHT DURING THE RAMADAN
What are the general nutritional considerations during the fasting month?
PATSY Dehydration and over consumption of calories from fried and sugary foods are the top concerns during this period. Dehydration affects our training performance, so it's important to get adequate fluids throughout the night till bed time. Start with drinking 2 cups water at the break-fast meal, then a cup every hour till you go to bed. That's approximately 6 cups, and another 2 cups at the pre-dawn meal. Caffeinated drinks such as coffee and tea are diuretics (dehydrating) so don't count that towards your fluid intake. Filling up your stomach with too much water too quickly may cause you to throw up, or multiple visits to the toilet.
The common misconceptions about fasting and nutrition?
PATSY The most common misconception is the idea that just because one has not eaten anything for whole day, they have the license to binge at buffets, especially on high fat (e.g. fried chicken, pakoras, french fries, mutton briyani) and high sugar drinks and desserts (e.g. bandung, churros, kueh kueh, cupcakes, waffles). Due to the reduction in physical activity in the day, overloading of sugary drinks, desserts, and carbs at the break-fast meal would lead to "food coma". Instead of having processed sugary food at break fast, have 2 to 3 dates, 1 to 2 slices of fresh fruits, or a handful of berries and grapes.
For people who exercise and want to maintain their fitness levels, what should they take note of in their nutrition this month?
PATSY If you work out lightly to moderately: ensure adequate fluids during and after work outs. Take an electrolyte drink if you are exercising outdoors.
If you work out Intensively (e.g. athletes training for competitions): Each athlete has their own competition diet plan, so just try and stick to that as best as you can. People who do a lot of cardio need more complex carbs, while people who strength train will need more protein. So they might need to add protein powder to their smoothies during this time.
Is it better to plan workouts around or close to meal times?
PATSY I think it's up to the individual person. Logically, I would suggest do a workout after breaking fast with some light snack - 2 dates, 2 cups of water or 1 cup water and a healthy smoothie. Do your workout and then eat a healthy dinner of 30 percent protein (e.g. beef, fish, chicken, lentils, eggs), 50 percent veggies, and 20 percent complex carbs (e.g. mix of brown & white rice, quinoa, rolled oats, chapati) within 30 to 45 minutes after training.
Any specific foods to eat more or less of during this month to maximise training gains?
Patsy This is no different from when you are not fasting – stay away from sugar-laden drinks and high fat foods. Overconsumption of sugar results in spikes in the blood sugar level, leave you with more sugar cravings and mess up your metabolism. Go for complex or wholegrain carbs at the pre-dawn meal. They take longer to digest, and hence help to sustain your energy levels longer throughout the day.
Other relevant nutrition tips for the Ramadan month
- Go ahead to indulge in your favourite Ramadan dishes, but limit it to smaller bite-size portions that you can savour.
- Have fruits and veggies at both pre-dawn meal (in a smoothie) and break-fast meal (fill 50 percent of the plate with non starchy veggies) to prevent constipation and keep you feeling full longer.
- Keep food choices to a minimum to avoid overeating. Start your break-fast meal with fresh fruits, before a light dinner of 1 type of good quality protein, 2 types of non-starchy veggies, and 1 complex carb.
- Dessert can be small piece of dark chocolate, a cup of creamy Greek yogurt with a sprinkle of nuts and seeds, or a small serve of frozen yogurt or gelato.
- Limit deep-fried food to once a week. Choose grilled, baked or air-fried items.
Does your training routine change during the fasting month? Do you adjust your exercises and training times?
DEAN I plan my year’s training program to coincide my de-load week with the Ramadan. I switch to calisthenics (body weight) training during this period, and use it as a time to detox, rest, and recover. I usually train after breaking fast at around 8pm, three times a week.
NADA As Muay Thai is cardio demanding and I can lose about a kilo of water at each training just by perspiring, I prefer to train after a light meal after breaking fast, so that I can constantly rehydrate. I also focus more on techniques and accuracy rather than power. I tend to do less long runs or prolonged cardio so as not to deplete my glycogen stores or dehydrate myself.
To ensure that I don’t lose too much strength over the month, I make sure to make time for strength training. I lift heavy, but keep to low reps with adequate recovery time in between sets. On strength training days, I plan my workouts in the evening just before breaking fast. That way, I can replenish my glycogen stores and protein for recovery immediately after training.
What do you eat more or less of in this month?
DEAN I only manage a snack and one meal after breaking fast. What I have a lot of are water, and about 5 dates as a snack. My meal would consist of a mix of protein, carbs, and fats. This will be my only meal in the 24-hour period!
NADA In the morning pre-dawn meal, I have more low GI foods to sustain my energy level through the day. These include whole grain cereal and dates – it’s hard to stuff yourself with food at 5am! In the evening after breaking fast, I’ll have carbs to replenish my glycogen stores, and a good dose of protein especially if I’ve done a weights session right before. And plenty of fiber to keep my gut going through the month!
Training advice for others who are fasting in the Ramadan?
DEAN Pace yourself – try to program your year’s training to take in account the Ramadan period. Focus on more mobility work with basic lifts. Drink lots of water in the night, and don’t gorge on food during the night as it defeats the purpose of fasting! Also, doing intermittent fasting the month before Ramadan helps the body to transition to a full fast easier.
NADA Spend some time to plan your schedule for the week ahead – when to train and what to eat. Listen to your body. Some days won’t go as planned (can’t lift as heavy, gassing out, feeling lethargic etc). IT’S OKAY! Cut yourself some slack (drop the weight, take a little more recovery time). Health is more important especially when we’re mostly low on glycogen stores and dehydrated by the evening. Most of us wake up early (4-5am) to have a pre-dawn meal, so ensure you’re getting adequate amounts of sleep through the night because it’s when your body’s natural healing and recovery processes are most active.
How do you feel physically this month? How do you motivate yourself?
DEAN The first 3-5 days will be hard, but after awhile your body will get used to fasting. It is a good detox for the body for the 30 days. The whole idea of Ramadan is not the fasting from food, it is also a time for Muslims to detox their minds as well, which means we are to abstain from speaking ill and to control our emotions and temper.
The motivation comes from knowing that while I am doing this just for a month, there are people and children living in poverty who goes through this everyday of their lives without a choice. Ramadan teaches me to be thankful and count my blessings, and to help the needy wherever possible.
NADA I usually feel the fatigue especially in the first week when the body’s adapting to the lack of food and water in the day. That’s why having a training and nutrition plan is important. Ramadan itself is a big motivating factor for me. I see it as a challenge – a test of discipline. It pushes me to be more disciplined with my training and nutrition plans. I find that I’m actually sharper, and more focused and purposeful at trainings during the Ramadan!