Practising Crossfit while fasting Ramadan
I am a martial artist and a crossfit practitioner.
As a day job, I am a Self defense Instructor, teaching different systems and methods allowing people to prevent and to face violence. Our academy conducts corporate workshops, private and group classes daily. It goes without saying that I have a very active life, teaching or conducting seminars daily, demonstrating techniques and counter-measures during each class or workshop. I spend more than half of my working time standing up, and moving. And Ramadan does not affect significantly our operations.
I am also -and forever- a student, training regularly in Brazilian jiu jitsu, Krav Maga and and western boxing. And I do Crossfit 3 to 4 times a week. Crossfit is by far the most intense of my training (except boxing/Bjj sparring session).
Finally, I am muslim. And I fast during the month of ramadan as does a majority of my fellow co-relegionaires.
I have been personally fasting during ramadan and training at the same time since a decade now. And here is my advises to continue training during the fasting month.
This is not a scientific article but rather a share of my personal experience. And I hope it can help and inspire some of my fellow muslim athletes, as they inspire me everyday.
I.RAMADAN AND CROSSFIT
Ramadan has started. For many muslims, it is observed as a month of piety to commemorate the revelation of the Quran (the islamic holy book) to the prophet Muhammad, according to the islamic beliefs. It involves notably long fasting period, where Muslims refrain from eating or drinking from dawn to sunset, for a month’s time.
It may be sometimes difficult for the fasting person to be fully operational in his daily commitment (work, etc..) , due to thirst, low level of energy, lack of sleep, since one is supposed to wake up before dawn for a pre-fasting meal-called Suhoor-, without mentioning the addition of worship acts as the nights prayers and others. Ramadan has been always a fantastic time of the year where muslims all over the world take great decisions and commitments about their lives, and celebrate the end of the fasting day with great meals, acts of worship and precious family time, feeding their body, their heart and their soul.
It is important here to notice that water consumption is not allowed during the fasting period of Ramadan (from dawn to sunset), unlike the trendy “intermittent fasting” ( an eating pattern that cycles between periods of fasting and eating, where liquid as water are is allowed during the fasting period to avoid dehydration and to facilitate the cleansing process), done regularly by thousands of people around the world, including top level athletes in different disciplines.
Practicing some physical activities during this fasting period may become a real challenge. Without surprise, lots of people fasting Ramadan decide usually to suspend their regular fitness training for a month.
What about Crossfit then? Crossfit workouts (called WoD, which stands for “workout of the day"), "composed by varied functional movements executed with high intensity, involving gymnastic, olympic powerlifting and aerobic movements”, are famously very demanding, and may become extremely challenging while your energy reserves are low, and without being able to drink during, before, or after the workout.
Do we, Crossfitters, have to suspend our training for a month's time, knowing the consequences of such a choice: isolating ourselves from our box and its community, not being able to perform or train, getting more stressed and having less energy day after day due to the lack of training, without even talking about the painful comeback after a month without training?
Absolutely not! We can totally get our dose of workout with some necessary adjustments and some concessions on our PR("personal records") curve!
II. HOW TO EAT
There is no secret: no matter the amount of food you eat and no matter how many litters of liquid you will drink, you will definitely feel hungry and thirsty usually after midday, during the fasting time. While it is usually easier to deal with the hunger, the thirst is the main issue here. It is especially true in the tropical country where I live in: Malaysia, where the average temperature is around 30 degree celsius and 90 percent of humidity.
1. Do Not skip Suhoor!
Traditionally, muslims woke up before dawn to get an early breakfast (pre-fasting meal), called "Suhoor" which will give them enough energy and liquid to sustain during the day, until sunset.
Spiritually it has many blessings and rewards and some magic moments too: walking up before the birds, with the beloved ones, having an early breakfast before proceeding to the morning prayers in family. After all, who won’t be excited to have an excuse to get a peanut butter toast at 5am? Some don’t. Lots of people skip this pre-meal! (not being hungry, preferring one or two hours of extra sleep than a meal before heading back to work, etc…). If you want to train during Ramadan, you need to get as much energy as you can, during the eating period (from sunset to dawn), and having some good food at Suhoor is a necessity. Getting some fruits, some good fat (nuts), some carbs ( bread, cereals, oat), and at least one litter of water will definitely make a difference. You won't be less hungry but you will be able to sustain, to be more operational during the active period in the fasting time. It is even more important as a Crossfitter.
Do you want to have enough energy to workout during Ramadan? Then do not skip Suhoor!
2. Do Not Over-eat!
From fasting to Food Coma…That is the drama of Ramadan!
You just spend a full day fasting, with more than 14 hours without any food or liquid intake. It is getting dark, sunset is arriving, it is finally time to break your fast: the body and the brain are craving everything - even things that you would have never things you will crave. After a full day of fasting, the first date ( traditionally, muslims break their fast by eating few dates before anything else) seems the most delicious fruit of your life…and then, the beast is launched: you stuff yourself with a tremendous amount of meals and food. If you are in a restaurant, you realise you over-ordered, but you will keep eating anyway, far beyond the satiety point.
Ramadan is the month of reform and of moderation. It is a good time for starting new good habits, including our relation to food. It is supposed to make us realise how good are the simple things of life, helping us to control ourselves, and to grow as a better human being. However lots of people completely hide theses aspects, and, during the dinner time, we see an explosion of buffets, special meals, and mix of different meaty dishes, deserts and post-meal foods. Without even bringing here the topic of the crazy amount of waste of the “ramadan buffet and dinners”, lots of people overeat at the time they break fast, and very surprisingly, gain weight during Ramadan!
From fasting the day to food coma the night…this is very far from the objectives of the holy month. Overeating in the night after a day of fasting may entail headache, indigestion, stomach upset, heartburn, bloating, belching, nausea, and low energy levels. It will also prevent you to sleep correctly and even to wake up for the Suhoor. Subsequently, this wont be of any help for you to train during the day too.
One way to deal with this issue is to eat slowly and stay focus.
Eat slowly, enjoy the special ramadan food with moderation, and cherish those time with family but stay focus: we eat for breaking the fast and having enough energy for sustaining the next day. As an athlete, you may have specific nutrition habits: keep them in your sight and if you can’t fulfil all of them, you can at least avoid to completely ruin them. Moderation and pleasure! Do not get into a food coma!
3. Rehydrate yourself.
Once your break your fast, your first focus should be to rehydrate yourself. No matter your activity level during the day, you are most probably dehydrated at the time of breaking fast. Drink plain water before starting your meal and avoid extra calories under the form of liquid ( soda, commercial juice, etc…). After your meal, keep drinking regularly some sips of water to rehydrate the body. As explained to us by our crossfit coach, Jim Putnam from Crossfit Lah: “ Everyone should have about 30-40ml of water per KG of body mass per day (your window to consume is just shorter while fasting). So if you're 100kg that's 3-4L per day or if you're 50kg that's 1.5-2L per day. I'm about 80kg so that's 2.4-3.2L per day though I'm sure I do more as I sweat a lot! For the most part, don't go over 1.5L per hour. “
4. What to eat
As mentioned, beside the necessity to get hydrated,
For Suhoor: Fruits, nuts ( think peanut butter toast for example), carbs as bread, oats or cereal, some good source of fiber (Oatmeal, blueberry, etc..) and some good protein (eggs, etc..) are excellent option for the Suhoor (Pre-fasting meal) to help you sustain enough energy for the day and even for adding a Crossfit workout during your fasting time. Once you wake up, start immediately with a glass of water. It is a smooth way to “start the machine” before getting a consistent breakfast. Finish you breakfast with more water.
At dinner time(Iftar): after starting by immediate intake of water, get a meal with enough carbs, ideally some easily digested carbs and some good quality proteins and fibres. Vary your food. Dispatch your eating rounds into few meals intake within few hours, if your schedule allows it, get a more consistent meal a bit later in the evening. Good fat as in the one present in salmon or avocado for instance, provide good ratio of satiety. If you feel like having those special sweets only available during ramadan, get them as soon as you can, to avoid a sugar spike before sleeping. Eat enough but not too much. Leave some space for water and for Suhoor. Avoid processed food. Pleasure and moderation!
Coach Jim Putnam remind us that after a workout, if it is time to break fast already, opting for some shake solutions can be a good options since “ they're easy to ingest and the nutrients don't need much breakdown to be processed”, before getting a more consistent meal later.
III.WHEN TO TRAIN
This is probably the most crucial question.
To choose when to train while fasting, It is interesting to understand how our body work and how it transforms the food we give him to energy. In a very simplified way, our body builds its energy reserve through two states: one called “Anabolic” and the other called “Catabolic" .
The Anabolic state is the state where the body is building up, getting strength and mass. For instance, a bodybuilder will try to constantly remain in the Anabolic state, providing regular resources (meal/food) to his body to bring enough nutrition to it and to be able to progress. The energy reserve is built through external resources as our food intake.
In the Catabolic state, our body will dig into its stock (reserves), trying to transform fat and cell to provide us some fuel. Remaining during a long period in a catabolic state (without food intake) will entail a different effect: from low level of directly available energy to muscle mass loss, impacting subsequently on the overall performances of the athlete. This is super simplified, but it will help us to understand the next point.
Reducing the amount of calories and nutriment while fasting, including proteins and carbs (necessary for our anabolic phase) will lead the body to use its own energy by burning the muscles itself to compensate for the lack of external source: It is the catabolic state.
1.Train just before breaking fast (Iftar).
During Ramadan, since we stop eating and drinking from dawn to dusk, we will need to choose carefully when do we train in order to reduce as much as possible the length of the catabolic state. We will then ideally train in the end of the afternoon, just before breaking the fast: so, after finishing your workout, when your muscle are used and the body dehydrated, you can immediately drink and eat, bringing the necessary energy to your body to recover, by providing complex carbohydrates, amino-acides and proteins to your body to allow muscle reconstruction and recovery as fast as possible.
If you really can’t train just before the time to break fast, you can still decide exceptionally for this month to train in the evening, after a light supper . That involves a bit of organisation, and the necessity to control the amount of food you get while breaking your fast. A smart way will be to divide your evening meal in two rounds: one round 1 or 2 hour before your workout, and a second round after your workout.
2.Avoid training in the morning
If you decide to train the morning, you will remain in a catabolic state the whole day, which will strongly influence your performance and your energy level during the day. Dehydration will create other bad side effects the whole day long.
IV. HOW TO TRAIN
1. Adjust your effort
After a long day at work, you take all your courage and decide to head to your Crossfit box. You did the most difficult step: deciding to train while fasting. Once in the box, surrounded by your fellow friends and excited by the workout, you won’t really think about hunger and thirst.
In our case, living in a tropical country, having a job involving a high level of activity or even some stress, lead us usually to an advanced dehydrated state even before we reach your box.
We have to be frank and honest with ourselves: we won’t be in the best state to start a 45 Min Cardio-Kick-ass WOD . It will be even totally counter-productive. During this fasting month/period, we may need to adapt a bit the intensity of trainings, included the type of effort we usually give during our WODs. Some coaches advises muslim athletes who fast during ramadan to mainly focus on strength, flexibility, and range of motion by focusing mainly on Squat, bench, Planks exercice for the core, etc… and not looking for performance necessarily. We will add that nothing prevent us to do some Metcon workout (Metcon is typically two to three exercises repeated for rounds. For instance, a classic example from CrossFit is “Cindy”, which consists to repeat as many rounds as possible in 20 min of 5 pull ups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats), but the idea here will be to keep them short.
Ideally, we will drink immediately after the workout.
2. Renounce to perform.
No matter what happens, our performance will be lower than usually because we most probably be in an advanced state of dehydration already. Knowing ourselves and knowing our limitations is crucial. Adaptation is the key. Do not try to perform, but rather try to sustain.
V. HOW TO RECOVER
"We are what we eat” . The food we take will determine mostly our capacity to recover from our workout. During the eating cycle (from dusk to dawn), we will need to be sure to have enough protein, carbohydrate, vitamines and minerals. We will need to be sure to be hydrated: good hydration will contribute to the repair and growth of your body cells!
Get enough sleep! Recovery occurs mainly during our sleeping time! This may be quite challenging during ramadan, with the evening meal and the early wake up for Suhoor. Eating the correct amount of food, not too much or too rich, prevents that our sleeping process is hampered, which will affect our recovery!
One way to deal with the sleeping issue during ramadan is to do power nap, if your schedule allows it. I personally experienced that a short 20 to 60 min nap in the day definitely boosts my performance during my workout, and it is especially true when I fast.
No matter how difficult it seems to do a Crossfit Wod during Ramadan, we can guarantee you will never, never, regret you did it!
And after few days of training while fasting, your body and mind get used to working with whatever fuel is available. Very soon, as usual, you will look forward to your favourite stress-reliever time of the day and you will be delighted to head to your box!
Ramadan shouldn't be an excuse for avoiding to workout or for laziness. It is the month where people are invited to do even more, taking care of themselves and of the others, inside and outside our own community, re-focus on what really matters for them, as their health, their family, feeding their heart, their soul and their body with quality nurture. We do not have to stop practising our favourite physical activity during Ramadan once we know all the benefits it has for us. However, constraints as heat, fatigue, dehydration have to push us to adapt our daily training routine, and managing a bit our schedule to be sure our workout remains fun and profitable. In the end of the day, both Ramadan and Crossfit have the same objective: helping us become a better version of ourselves!
Ramadan Mubarek to all of you!
And may the peace be with you.
Ben Abbes Jihad.