Are Muslim sports people at a disadvantage during the month of Ramadan because adhering to the rules of fasting negatively impacts their athletic performance?
A team of Tunisian scientists published a paper addressing addressing this question. They tested eight elite teenage karate athletes on three occasions: one week before Ramadan, at the end of the first week of the holy month and at the end of the last week.
All of the test subjects held at least a black belt 1st Dan and had been training for two hours a day for five days a week for a minimum of three years. They observed the traditional Ramadan fast, abstaining from any food and fluid between sunrise and sunset every day while continuing their normal training schedule for the entire month.
On each chosen day, the athletes were asked to perform a series of elbow flexion exercises, contracting the muscles of their upper right arm at maximum and at 75 percent effort. Immediately afterwards, the researchers measured not only their levels of athletic performance and fatigue, but also their response times to visual stimuli when seated in front of a computer screen.
These tests were conducted to assess the young sportsmen’s fitness as well as the status of their cognitive abilities. Being physically strong and fast at reacting to external factors, like an attacking strike from an opponent, are both crucial attributes of high-performing karate athletes. The test subjects’ physiological characteristics and diets were also monitored for the duration of the study.
The results are very interesting. For one, they indicate that the athletes’ daily consumption of energy and water actually increased during Ramadan despite the restrictions placed on them by the fast. This did not, however, alter either their body mass or their body mass index significantly. They were thus able to maintain their normal energy levels.
The scientists also found that the young karate masters were able to preserve their normal physical performance through the entire holy month. Their reaction times were not significantly affected by the fast and their degree of fatigue was not altered either.
Strategies to maintain performance
Dr Adrian Rotunno of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa warns, however, that the results of studies of this kind vary greatly. “It’s clear that a more stringent study design is required to further understand the effects of Ramadan on exercise,” he explains, adding that “no clear conclusions can be drawn from the current study”.
He says that there is some evidence suggesting that certain strategies may help to maintain performance during a fast. These include appropriate food and fluid intake, sufficient amounts of sleep, adjustments to training time and load, and adequate post exercise rest and recovery.
Rotunno notes that if fasting athletes experience symptoms such as dizziness, abnormal fatigue, weight gain or loss, shortness of breath, poor sleep, headaches and irregularities in their menstrual cycle, they should seek professional medical advice so that a structured coping strategy can be put in place.