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Fast Pace–Does Observing Ramadan Affect Athletic Performance?

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Two significant religious events (although one has yet to officially be declared one) commenced over the past weekend–in addition to the second round of the World Cup starting, Ramadan, the Islamic holy month observed by fasting, also began. This is the first time the two have coincided since 1986, though other major sporting events have occurred during the holy month since then, including 2012 London Olympics. Throughout the month, many Muslim athletes may refrain from consuming food and liquids from sunrise to sunset. Researchers have explored Ramadan’s role in athletic performance with mixed findings.

Expectedly, some studies have indicated that Ramadan can have an adverse effect on athletic abilities, including significant declines in speed, agility, dribbling speed and endurance, along with higher rates of non-contact and training overuse injuries.

Suleiman Nyambui of Tanzania, won a silver medal in the 5000 meters at the 1980 Summer Olympics while fasting for Ramadan.

However, not all of the effects of Ramadan appear to be negative. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising either, considering many professional athletes have previous experience competing throughout the holy month. Bacary Sagna, a Muslim player participating in the World Cup, said that many of the players who fast are able to function and are used to it from their time in the European leagues.

There are some studies that suggest fasting during Ramadan may have minimal to no effect on an athlete’s performance. A study of young national level Judo athletes found they were able to maintain normal training loads during Ramadan fasting and that it had little effect on their aerobic performance. In some instances, performance may even improve. Another study of Tunisian soccer players determined that when training load was maintained, sprint performance was better during Ramadan in comparison with before Ramadan. It has also been found that athletes may employ physical and emotional coping mechanisms to deal with the situation.

Prior to this year’s World Cup, FIFA commissioned multiple studies that examined the effects of fasting and indicated it could be done safely. “We have made extensive studies of players during Ramadan, and the conclusion was that if Ramadan is followed appropriately, there will be no reduction in the physical performances of players,” FIFA Chief Medical Officer Jiri Dvorak said during a media briefing. “We have done extensive studies and nothing worries us.”

Other studies have had similar findings–a report published in Journal of Sports Sciences found, “The available evidence indicates that high-level athletes can maintain performance during Ramadan if physical training, food and fluid intake, and sleep are appropriate and well controlled.”

Mesut Özil has opted not to fast during this year's World Cup.

Not all athletes will choose to fast during sporting events. Although it’s one of the five pillars of Islam and usually mandatory, there are exemptions for individuals including those who are, pregnant, ill, or elderly. The second chapter of the Koran states: “And whosoever of you is present, let him fast the month, and whosoever of you is sick or on a journey, a number of other days.” Restrictions for Ramadan are also included for those going to war or traveling. Viewing a stadium, field or any other competition site as a battlefield is probably too loose of an interpretation but in many instances the provision for travel has been used by athletes to either postpone their fasts or to donate to charity in lieu of fasting.

Although it’s ultimately an individual decision as to how to observe the holiday, imams and other influential Islamic leaders frequently offer their opinions, sometimes without a consensus. For this year’s World Cup, the head of Algeria’s association of religious scholars, Mohammed Mekerkab, opposed the players fasting exemption. “It is not allowed for an Algerian player to avoid fasting just for a game – they must fast because God is with those who fast and young people can fast and play at the same time,” he says.  But Algeria’s government-appointed High Islamic Council supported those who would rather postpone their fast saying, “Those playing can abstain from fasting.”

Not everyone is interested in discussing the Ramadan aspect of the World Cup. At a news conference on Sunday, the team’s coach, Vahid Halilhodzic, was irked by questions about how the players would observe the holiday. He prefered to focus on another religion instead–Halilhodzic said, “You should talk about football and nothing else.”



Image Credits: RIA Novosti archive, image #585168 / Valeriy Shustov, via Wikimedia Commons, Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom (Mesut Özil  Uploaded by Dudek1337), via Wikimedia Commons

Layla Eplett About the Author: Layla Eplett writes about the anthropology of food. She has a Masters in Social Anthropology of Development from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies and loves getting a taste of all kinds of culture--gastronomic, traditional, and sometimes accidentally, bacterial. Find her at Fare Trade. Follow on Twitter @LaylaEplett.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 2 Comments

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  1. 1. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:08 am 07/7/2014

    Does fasting during Ramadan contribute to lower levels of obesity or heart disease in Muslim population?

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  2. 2. hkraznodar 5:55 pm 07/11/2014

    Since the average life expectancy is lower there and the normal diet is also different it is hard to say. More modern Islamic countries have longer average life spans but still don’t eat as much toxic garbage as the traditional Western diet. The study would have to be conducted among modern Muslims living in the west and integrated into our dietary habits that still observe Ramadan. I’m not aware of such a study.

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