In the relentless pursuit of professional excellence, Muslim athletes have no problems coping, finds Ahmed Rizvi, but they need to eat sensibly and revise their sleeping habits.
Throats parched dry in Ramadan but athletes game for challenge
Amir Mubarak's lips were parched as he talked about the challenges ahead as his new club, Al Ahli, prepares for the professional league season.
Like Muslims worldwide, he has been fasting throughout the day — from dawn to dusk — during this holy month of Ramadan. And at night, he is sweating it out on the football field.
Mubarak, who is also one of best players in the UAE national team, has been hopping from country to club for training.
Returning from international duty, he is back in the mix with Al Ahli, excited to be a part of a new squad at the Sheikh Rashid Stadium and not too concerned that fasting could hinder his training.
"In Arabic culture, we are used to Ramadan," he said. "Maybe for other people, it is a little difficult. But for us, it is OK."
Subait Khater, one of his seniors in the national team and an enforcer in the Al Jazira midfield, holds a similar view.
The league champions have started their training sessions and Khater acknowledges the month of Ramadan, together with the August heat, is a challenge for most athletes.
"But we have been doing this since childhood - fasting and playing," he said. "So for us, we are used to this. We don't have any problems. To the outsider, it might seem a bit difficult and it is difficult, but for us it is a way of life."
Jose Mourinho, of course, held a different opinion and invited the ire of the Muslim community two years ago when he suggested that Sulley Muntari, his midfielder at Inter Milan, should not fast when he is playing matches.
"Perhaps with this heat it's not good for him to be doing this [fasting]," Mourinho said. "Ramadan has not arrived at the ideal moment for a player to play a football match."
That statement invited angry responses from Muslim leaders around the world before the controversy eventually died down. But when the UAE's elite league decided to start in the middle of this holy month of fasting last year, in August when temperatures are hovering in the higher 40°C, CNN promptly despatched a crew for the season-opening Super Cup to document the impact of fasting on professional athletes.
The effects of Ramadan fasting has been the subject of many studies over the past decade and their conclusions have been inconsistent.
A study involving Tunisian rugby players found significant body weight and fat reductions by the fourth week of Ramadan, while a research involving Senegalese 400m sprinters showed a performance decline during the month of fasting compared to the month before.
Another study on young football players found a significant reduction in aerobic capacity, speed, endurance and dribbling, but showed no significant effect on sprint performance or agility.
Manuel Cajuda, the former Sharjah coach, vouched for those findings in an interview with The National last year.
"I fasted for 12 days when I was working in Egypt," he said. "I know how difficult fasting is. To play a sport like football after a day of fasting is even more difficult.
"You lose more water, more minerals, without enough replacements. You do not sleep well because you are training and playing late at night.
"The intake of fluids is reduced by almost 80 per cent and the players lose close to three or four kilos weight during a game. There is not enough time for them to recover those lost fluids.
"So physically, it is very difficult for the players. Any doctor will tell you this."
Mubarak's new teammate, Luis Jimenez of Chile, has never fasted, but he has seen his teammates at Inter, such as Ibrahim Maaroufi and Muntari, observe the rights of Ramadan. "I know a bit about the culture because I was good friends with them [Maaroufi and Muntari] at Inter," Jimenez said.
"So I know about Ramadan, but obviously it is not easy to be here in this period and this heat."
Blood tests have shown fasting reduces muscle and liver glycogen and blood glucose levels. Researches also indicate an increase in irritability as well as headaches, sleep deprivation and general fatigue.
Sensible eating and sleeping strategies, however, can keep these issues away, according to P Sudhakar, the physiotherapist for the national cricket team.
"What I suggest to my players it break their fasts with fruits," he said. "Eating fruits on an empty stomach is really beneficial. In fact, research has shown the best time to eat fruits is on an empty stomach.
"They should avoid all the oily fare that you usually see at an iftar [the time of breaking the fast] and of course all the fizzy drinks."
Many athletes increase their food intake during the nights in Ramadan or opt for additional supplements. Some switch to low fat food, others go for more carbohydrates. Of course, rehydration is also high on their priority list with the regular intake of liquids.
Erwin Centeno, an instructor at Fitness First, suggests light meals and regular high protein shakes throughout the night for those who continue their strenuous workouts at the gym.
"You need to get your food right," he said. "I suggest high protein shakes, at the time of sahur and iftar. Ideally, they should have one every four hours through the night.
"For food, they need to have light meals, consume white meat with vegetables and fruit salads. The meals, of course, needs to be high in protein content."
Attendance at the gym does go down during the month of Ramadan, but Centeno said there were still some, mostly ladies, who work out even during their fast.
"They usually come around 4.30pm, but of course they have very light exercises during this month - aerobics and stretching," he said.
A lot of the people also use the month for what Centeno describes as the "protein clean-up exercises".
Mozghan Ali is one of those who makes her daily appearance at the gym during Ramadan, alternating with a run at Safa Park.
Linda Bitavi, an American Muslim, usually works out five times a week, but she has yet to get to the gym this Ramadan.
"I will probably start in the second week, once I get used to the fasting," she said. "I will also reduce the sessions from five to three and focus mostly on aerobics and personal training."
Outside the air-conditioned gymnasiums, there is no dearth of enthusiasm for sports during the month. Locally, there is a surfeit of tournaments for the amateur enthusiasts and Gopal Jasapara is one of those. He is currently playing in the Danube Ramadan Twenty20 cricket tournament.
"We get a lot more tournaments in this month, all of them in the night, which is great in this weather," said Jasapara, who also runs a cricket academy where fasting Muslims youngsters train alongside others who are not.
"Of course, during the rest of the year we have about three training session a day. During Ramadan, we have just one, starting around 6pm in the evening. All the kids come and they seem to really enjoy it, especially since the schools are closed. They have something to do."
Tarek Itaoui, a Lebanese banking executive, goes to great lengths for his daily fix of sports. A resident of Al Ain, he works in Abu Dhabi and is back at home for iftar.
On most days of the week, he drives to Dubai after breaking his fast for a game of intra-office football. On other nights, he could be visiting the beach for a game of volleyball or playing table tennis with his friends. He could be practising his martial arts or reciting the Holy Quran throughout the night.
"You feel so alive during this month," Itaoui said. "Personally, I have been playing sports during Ramadan from my childhood and it has never been a problem for me, or the people playing alongside me.
"Of course, I get a lot of support from my wife [Giuliana Itaoui] ... without her support it would not be possible."
The German football club FSV Frankfurt believes fasting does harm the performance of players and they issued an official warning to three of their players in 2009 for fasting during Ramadan and failing to tell their manager.
Muslims, however, are used to fasting and playing sports. The international sports calendar does not make space for Ramadan fasting and even the 2012 London Olympics will fall during the middle of this month of fasting.
So developing strategies to cope with this becomes important. Most of them try to prioritise their training load, with focus on intensity instead of quantity.
All the football clubs here will train once a day during this month, starting at almost 10pm. Normally they would have two or more training sessions, usually in the morning and then in the evening, with a bit if gym and cardio work during the afternoons.
Resting also becomes important due to a change in the sleeping cycle. During Ramadan, a Muslim usually gets up early for the predawn sahur meal; many stay awake through the night. Accumulative loss of sleep over several consecutive days can lead to chronic sleep deprivation.
Some researchers believe that this is more critical than either thirst or hunger in affecting the capacity to work during the daytime. To counter this, or as a consequence, some people extend their sleeping hours until mid afternoon.
"Ideally, I would encourage the players to take afternoon naps," Sudhakar said. "But with most of them working, it is not possible. So we suggest they reduce their non-essential physical activities to conserve their energy levels."