I recently received an e-mail where an individual asked for advice on how to best go about working out during Ramadan. In this article I’ll do my best to answer that question.
For those of you who aren’t aware, Ramadan is a special month in the Islamic calendar when all adult Muslims must fast from sunrise to sunset – no food or drink allowed at all. All eating and drinking is done during the night. The specific date of Ramadan can differ and as Muslims live all around the world, the number of hours one must fast will also differ due to different time zones and day-night cycles. In some cases, the fasting period can be quite long and thus the feeding window very short. This can create many difficulties.
In the e-mail, the person mentioned that he was living in the UK and this year the daylight hours will take up around 19 hours of the day, leaving only 5 hours for eating and drinking, some of which must also be spent on prayer and ceremony, and in many cases traditional activities with friends and family.
The difficulty of trying to follow any exercise schedule and working out during Ramadan is quite clear.
One of the biggest issues is of-course the effects of dehydration which are practically unavoidable during the long daylight hours. Dehydration causes fatigue and discomfort, in many cases head-aches are common and so is lack of strength. Exercising while dehydrated will be difficult and is likely to increase the risk of injury while offering less overall benefit for muscle/strength growth and retention.
I don’t think it is possible to suggest any one type of solution that would fit all individuals. Because of that, I’m going to offer some ideas – possible ways to set up your exercise and nutrition plans for Ramadan. Personal experimentation will be required in order to discover the most suitable approach.
* Do not try to push yourself too much during Ramadan. It’s a spiritual event and physical improvement should not be the highlight. Because of the limitations put on your body, noticeable physical improvement will be very difficult to achieve, so it is best to aim for maintenance of your current abilities.
* The shorter the feeding window, the more you should concentrate on consuming calorie dense foods and beverages. If you only have a few hours to eat and drink, trying to consume a lot of vegetables or grains that are high in fiber will most likely cause considerable bloating and discomfort. Because fasting will constrict the stomach, you may not be able to consume the necessary calories and nutrients to offset the loss of energy from fasting. Strength and muscle loss may be amplified if you end up starving yourself.
That’s why it is more logical to consume foods that contain a lot of nutrients and calories but don’t fill you up too much. This is a very good time to try protein shakes and weight gainers, or calorie dense drinks (liquids digest quickly and with minimal bloat) and even indulge yourself with tasty foods more than usual. Don’t be afraid to have ice-cream or enjoy a peanut butter rich snack for example. Try to consume a minimum of 1.5 grams of protein per KG of bodyweight or about 0.7 grams per LB. Also, be sure to consume ample amounts of carbohydrates to provide enough energy for the fasting hours. (specific carbohydrate numbers are subjective, so experiment with different amounts)
Exercise schedule suggestions:
1) Weight training/body weight exercising during the feeding window – Ideal
Working out during Ramadan feeding window would be the best choice. Ideally, this should be done after Iftar, once you have consumed some food and liquids and allowed them to digest a little. Being able to re-hydrate yourself while working out will go a long way towards a more effective session. Even better, being able to then eat and drink again afterwards will no doubt feel great and it will provide the greatest benefits to muscle/strength retention and growth, while minimizing recovery time.
However, it is clear that in the case of especially long daylight hours and the lack of 24h open Gyms, it may be difficult to find the time or opportunity for proper training during the feeding window. If no Gym is available, body-weight exercises can be performed just about anywhere and can be quite sufficient for the casual lifter to retain muscle mass and strength.
Another helpful suggestion would be to shorten the work-out and aim for maximum efficiency and intensity instead. However, it may be difficult to keep up the weights or total load in a short, intense session. Because of that, it would be beneficial to increase the number of days you work-out to compensate for reduced exercise time per session. If you are used to working out 3x a week for 1.5 hours per session, try to exercise 6x a week, with 30 minutes each session. If you previously only trained each muscle group once a week, try to train it at-least twice a week.
The idea is, to get roughly the same amount of total time under load for your muscles, regardless of how the specific schedule ends up being like. In general – If you can’t work out very long per session, work out more often and with more intensity. If you can’t work out often, work harder when you do get an opportunity. It’s kinda like basic math here – though for natural athletes, I would suggest working out more often with lighter weights and greater intensity, rather than harder with heavier weights and low intensity.
Working out during the feeding window is the most flexible in terms of the style of training. As long as you have the time, your body should be up for nearly any type of training as the nutrients and liquids will keep your energy up and recovery quick.
2) Weight training/body weight exercising before sunset – very difficult and exhausting, but will likely allow you to most enjoy the daily fast and feeding period
Working out near the end of the fast will be very difficult and risky. You will be dehydrated, weak and likely unfocused. Injury risk will increase and training in a fasted state will also most likely increase recovery time. The less successful workout will furthermore limit any improvement rates and muscle and strength retention.
However, on the positive side, this approach will allow you to fully commit to the feeding window and the various Religious practices involved. You will also possibly have a more enjoyable fast the next day, as the feeding window will allow uninterrupted nutrient and liquid replenishment, quite literally “filling you up” for the fast.
I would only recommend working out with lighter weights. Try to use perfect form and maximum muscle utilization. Again, it may be more realistic to do shorter workouts, as a long workout session may be too difficult to achieve due to dehydration and low energy levels. Body weight exercises and working with machines in the gym is probably a better idea than trying to use heavy free weights.
3) Weight training/body weight exercising after sunrise – an enjoyable feeding window, possibly a quite enjoyable and effective work-out, but more discomfort during the fast
Working out shortly after Suhoor will probably feel quite nice as the food and drink consumed during the feeding window will have been digesting for a while and priming your body for any physical activity. Even though you cannot drink during the work-out, the liquid supplies are most likely high enough to avoid dehydration during the work-out. Also, the protein and carbohydrates consumed during the feeding window will allow greater recovery and muscle and strength growth/retention, as the full digestion of the food will probably take hours, releasing nutrients into the bloodstream all through-out the training period.
However, once the work-out is over, the rest of the day may be a struggle. Without being able to consume more liquids and nutrients, you may experience noticeable dehydration, hunger and fatigue later in the day.
On a positive note, the feeding window will again, most likely be enjoyable as full time can be allotted to eating/drinking and religious activities. Though alcohol consumption is likely to be unfavorable.
So, these are the three choices I suggest considering when working out during Ramadan. I did not add a “work out in the middle of the day” option, because I think that would be the worst choice under any logic. Though, if no other choice is suitable, it’s better than no exercise at all. But it should be a light work-out as you will already be somewhat dehydrated and weak, with no food or drink in reasonable sight. Recovery time would be impaired, injury risk will be higher and the positive effects of the work-out lower. But, better than nothing I suppose.
Specific food choices during the feeding window?
I would leave that up to personal preference in the most part. Don’t avoid any macronutrients, eat a varied diet and don’t be afraid to indulge yourself with calorie dense foods to make sure you consume enough calories and nutrients.
Specific Training suggestions?
This is a very subjective topic as-well. It depends what goals an individual has, what types of training they prefer and what is their current experience level and capabilities.
For general muscle mass and strength training I would recommend a minimum of 2 sessions per week for each muscle group, with a preference for exercising using free weights. The basic lifts: deadlifts, bench presses, overhead presses and squats should form the foundation of any training plan. The exception being the “working out before sunset” option, in that case, body weight exercising or exercising with light free weights and machines is probably more suitable to minimize injury risk and optimize the workout effectiveness.
For most gym-goers I recommend the following lifting program: http://www.weightrainer.net/training/beginners.html
That program consists of 3 work-outs a week, however it would be a very simple adjustment to cut a work-out in half and have a shorter session 6x a week IF you are pressed for time due to the time limitations of Ramadan.
For bodyweight exercising there are many different programs out there depending on the amount of space and additional equipment you have. For example a very basic work-out would look something like this, taken from Schwarzenegger.com:
- Bodyweight squats – 8-10 reps
- Push-ups (or knee-push ups) – 5-8 reps
- Plank – hold for 15 seconds
- Jumping Jacks – 15 reps
- Bodyweight Reverse Lunges – 6 reps per leg
- Lying Hip Raise (double or single leg) – 10 reps
Beginners: Perform exercises 1-6 in order, resting 30 seconds between each. This is one circuit. Perform a total of 4 circuits, resting 90 seconds between each. This workout should take you approximately 15 minutes.
As you can see, there are many ways to approach working out during Ramadan. I’m sure many of you would like more specific guidelines, but I’m a firm believer in personal preference and subjective approaches. No one approach will work for everyone and most often a lot of experimentation is needed to find out the most suitable method for the individual.
I hope this article has given you some ideas to try out and got your thoughts moving in the right direction. Don’t hesitate to ask and comment on the article!