Ramadan takes place during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar — the month when God, according to Islamic belief, revealed the Qur’an and when Muslims observe the practice of fasting. To fast, they abstain from food, drink, smoking, and intimate relations from sunrise until sundown; this summer that time span can last over 18 hours. At sunset, family and friends gather to break their fasts, replenishing their spiritual selves.
There are exceptions for those who are sick, elderly, pregnant, nursing, or traveling. But for many amateur and professional athletes, who can’t take time off from training or competition for the full 30 days, participating in the ritual can prove tricky.
So how do those in the world of sports stay observant? This isn’t a new question, but there’s still a lot of misinformation out there on the subject. BuzzFeed News interviewed 15 Muslim athletes to learn why they fast, how their bodies handle thirst and exhaustion — and how they navigate the intensity of this important month.
Husain Abdullah is a former safety for the Kansas City Chiefs and Minnesota Vikings. Since retiring, he’s become an author and public speaker. He’s proudly demonstrated his faith on the field (Abdullah famously received a penalty for a celebratory post-touchdown prostration) and relied on it to get him through Ramadan, during which he would fast and train. Hard. Like, NFL hard. And, of course, he also tweaked his day-to-day lifestyle. “While I was playing in the NFL I had to adjust my diet, workouts, and sleep schedule. It took a lot of preparation but Allah guided me through,” he told BuzzFeed News. During Ramadan, Abdullah stays away from greasy, fatty, and heavily seasoned foods. He also cuts out sweets, desserts, caffeine, sodas, and juices high in sugar. In fact, his fluid intake is centered around performance, recovery, and staying as hydrated as possible. He drinks alkaline water and coconut water for hydration, and pickle juice, Gatorade, and Pedialyte to keep his electrolytes balanced.
Abdullah’s strategies and faith came through. During his third year in the NFL, Abdullah fasted through training camp, participating in two practices a day. He outplayed two other competitors to win the starting safety position for the Minnesota Vikings — all while he was fasting.
The month of Ramadan is triathlete Khadijah Diggs’ favorite time of the year. She says it is a reminder that being an athlete is a gift. Her favorite distance, and the one she used to qualify for Team USA, is the 70.3, which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride, and a 13-mile run. During Ramadan she switches over to sprint triathlons, which, while shorter, are still hardcore (consisting of a half-mile swim, a 12-mile bike race, and 3.1-mile run). NBD but Diggs won first place in the Sweetwater Super Sprint in 2016. WHILE FASTING.
Diggs, who’s 48, says that the focus on fasting and prayer during Ramadan actually aids her training by helping her reflect on both her opportunities and responsibilities as an athlete.
As an endurance athlete who competes in events that require hours of exertion, Diggs’ main challenge during Ramadan is to maintain as much muscle mass as possible even while fasting. To do this, Diggs maintains her weight training schedule and preps her meals to make sure she’s getting the calories and protein she needs to fuel her training and recovery. She eats a hearty breakfast including eggs and pancakes with protein powder or toast with cheese and avocado. She also likes leftover Chinese food. (Who doesn’t?)
In 2017, Amaiya Zafar became the first woman in the United States to be granted the right to fight while wearing a hijab. She was 16 years old at the time.
During Ramadan, Zafar’s schedule stays more or less the same, but she’s aware that she must pace herself to avoid getting sick. Her favorite post-iftar foods are dates.
This year, Zafar will have compete during Ramadan. “That will be a huge test of my endurance, mental strength, and dedication,” she says.
Kulsoom Abdullah is a data scientist and an Olympic weight lifter who was the first woman to lift at the US championships while covered. Totally badass. Abdullah says that her two biggest challenges during Ramadan are 1) not drinking water and 2) explaining to people who are unfamiliar with Ramadan that she’s not drinking water (a hilarious and frustrating experience).
Despite the no-water situation, she set a personal record for her deadlift while fasting — and learned a lot about her own physical and mental toughness: “It is not necessarily the PR on the deadlift that I think is a great accomplishment. I am reminded that I have the stamina to get through tough challenges and situations — that I can do a lot more than I think I can.”
Tarek Elrich is a defender for Adelaide United Football Club. He has been fasting and playing soccer since he was in grade school. (One of his favorite soccer memories is from the first grade when he played and scored while fasting.) As a professional player, he gets up early so he can hydrate and eat plenty of dates. Elrich says Ramadan is “peaceful” and brings a deep sense of gratitude. His team supports his choices and his practice of faith. Though he’s recovering from a torn ligament and is undergoing intensive physiotherapy, Elrich still trains five days a week. He thinks it’s important to “get closer to God.”
Amani Ammoura is a Jordanian cyclist who has worked with organizations to amplify awareness of Muslim women in sports. Although she isn’t competing this month, she continues to train during Ramadan, riding along the rolling and rugged hills and roads outside Amman. Ammoura says that during Ramadan her main goal is to maintain her fitness rather than to push herself. She trains two hours before iftar so that she can be done by sunset and immediately compensate for the amount of water she lost not only during training, but from fasting for 16 to17 hours during the hot summer. Her second option is to train two hours after iftar. In this case, she eats her primary meal after the workout and opts for something light for iftar. She chooses dates, soups, and fresh salads in lieu of heavier foods. Ammoura says suhoor is crucial and she never skips it.
Manal Rostom is an aspiring mountaineer who is vying to be the first Egyptian woman to complete all seven summits. Rostom says the first challenge is surviving the morning without coffee. Totally understandable. She lives in the UAE and the high temperatures obviously make her thirsty. She is a fitness instructor and teaches up to three classes a day — but only after iftar. She schedules her own training an hour before iftar or a 5,000-meter run after Tarawih prayers later at night. Rostom loves eating dates and raw nuts. Occasionally, she will have homemade knafeh but prefers to stick to healthier options. Rostom sees Ramadan as a month to push through with a positive mental attitude. She says that colleagues praise her efforts to teach and work out during Ramadan, but she remains grounded. “[They] don’t get how easy it becomes once you reset your mind to literally just do it. You will survive. Fasting trains you to become a better human being.”
Hajra Khan is the captain of Pakistan women’s team and the first Pakistani female player to play professional soccer abroad. Khan wakes up early to get nutrients into her system during Ramadan, and believes proper hydration is key. After training on the pitch, when others drink water immediately, she needs to “hang on awhile longer” before she can refuel. Match days can be more difficult, but Khan says she has developed personal coping strategies over time to avoid letting physical exhaustion become detrimental to her game. When it comes to her faith, fasting “only makes it stronger,” she says. Khan has either been at training camp or touring for the last three years — away from family during Ramadan and Eid. In 2015, while training in Germany with top professional soccer teams, Khan observed fasts that lasted nearly 20 hours. “The Germans were curious,” she says. “They saw me praying in the dressing room and were inquisitive. They wanted to know and learn more about this practice and Islam, and I was happy to share.”
Adil Anwar is a powerhouse boxer who chooses not to fight while observing Ramadan. He thinks going into a fight while even slightly depleted can be dangerous. Instead, Anwar uses the month to both spiritually and physically detox, and says he is “usually in the best shape a few weeks after Ramadan … if I don’t overeat on Eid, that is.” We feel that struggle. Anwar’s favorite foods are dates, with which he breaks his fast. He loves the tiny dried fruit and stocks his home with boxes of them.
Masooma Alizada is a 20-year-old Afghan cyclist, currently training with her sister Zahra in France, where they are known as “les petites reines de Kaboul” (the small Queens of Kabul). Previously, Alizada had been part of Afghanistan’s Women’s National Cycling Team. She observes Ramadan and continues to compete and train throughout the month. She has one race this month in the south of France called the Albigeoise. Normally, Alizada trains after suhoor for two hours. She stays away from carbonated beverages and sugary drinks but loves eating bolani, a traditional Afghan bread. Alizada says that she enjoys Ramadan and maintains that “it is not a month of not eating and drinking. Ramadan is the month to abstain from sins and bad actions.”
In 2016, Rahaf Khatib was Women’s Running magazine’s first hijabi cover girl, inspiring legions of people to lace up. This mother of three chooses to fast during Ramadan, but she doesn’t race and while she continues to train rigorously, she decreases her milage. If she does run outdoors, she sticks to a slower pace. Khatib swims while fasting, following low-intensity and low-impact workouts. At iftar, Khatib drinks coconut water to rehydrate, and at suhoor, she prepares protein smoothies, along with multigrain bread smeared with either Greek yogurt mixed with chia seeds or almond butter. But during Ramadan, Khatib’s priority isn’t food — it’s her spirituality, deep devotion, and practice of worship. Exercise helps with this, she says: “I find myself to be more spiritual and focused in my prayers when my run is completed for the day. It rejuvenates, refreshes, and energizes me for the long night ahead.”
Nadia Nadim is a professional soccer player in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) with the top-ranked team Portland Thorns FC, and also plays for Denmark’s national women’s team. But she doesn’t just kill it on the pitch — Nadim is also a medical student. She fasts on training days but not on match days. “I know my body can’t handle it,” she says, because hydration and nutrition dictate her performance. The toughest part of fasting, she says, is the two hours before the fast breaks when time seems to move so slowly.
Ramadan, the time “family comes together,” makes Nadim feel “closer to God.” She enjoys eating with family and community, and savors her favorite iftar food, pakoras (deep-fried potatoes in whole wheat flour batter).
Indira Kaljo is a former Division 1 NCAA basketball player, currently working as an educator, coach, and mentor. The 29-year-old powerhouse runs a nonprofit that empowers young Muslim girls through sports. Kaljo spearheaded a campaign to get FIBA to rescind its hijab ban — which they did. She no longer plays competitively but tells BuzzFeed News that as an active baller, she fasted and trained while competing, although her coaches permitted her to take more breaks during practice and didn’t make her run the sprint drills. Still, the lack of water was hard. “The biggest challenge was waiting through the water breaks. Those minutes were very difficult. The second [most difficult] thing was the late nights and then having to practice daily feeling exhausted.” The most powerful thing that helped her get through the month? “Prayer. I used prayer.”
Stephanie Kurlow is a 15-year-old dancer who trains 25 hours a week and keeps the same rigorous schedule during Ramadan. She takes short breaks between classes and tries not to push her limits too hard. “Waking up early before Fajr [sunrise] to eat is crucial for me. The food I eat in the morning is the food that will keep me energized throughout the day so I try my best to create a large healthy breakfast.” She credits chia seeds in her pre-dawn meal for keeping her full throughout the day. Kurlow feels strongly that Ramadan is about connecting with friends and family and sharing good food.
Hussein Hashi is a long-distance runner who has been running and fasting since he was young. During Ramadan, Hashi reduces his weekly mileage and commits to running before iftar so he is able to put fluids and protein back into his system. He says that this system works for him because “mentally, [it’s] easy to shoot for.” Hashi attends extra prayers at night during Ramadan and uses the time to reflect on his previous year. Hashi thinks back to one specific year at training camp when his team (many of who were not Muslims) decided to fast with him. “It was nice to see that kind of solidarity among fellow teammates,” he says. “It was also a positive experience for them. … They still continue that tradition.” The Islamic year is based on a lunar calendar, which means that the months begin 12 days earlier every year. Because his race dates are also set well in advance, Hashi is able to prepare for fasting and training simultaneously. But Hashi isn’t all work and no play. He loves dates and samosas.
Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist who focuses on Muslim women, and the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. Her work has been featured and discussed in various media outlets. When she isn't watching soccer, she drinks coffee as tool of resistance. Shireen is currently working on her first book. She lives in Toronto with her family and two amazing cats, Sitara and Zeytoun.
Contact Shireen Ahmed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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