The challenges for fasting athletes

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  • Professional footbal clubs struggle to manage athletes who fast.

    In the micro-managed milieu of modern football, where clubs increasingly monitor off-the-pitch variables like fitness levels and dietary regimes, Ramadan is a seemingly unresolvable problem that intimidates and worries players, coaches, and medical staff alike.

    To Muslims, who make up a quarter of the world’s population, ritual fasting during Ramadan is obligatory. All able-bodied Muslims must abstain from food from sunrise until sunset during the holy month. This year, Ramadan begins on Thursday, June 18.

    In November 2011, Qatar’s Aspetar Orthopaedic Centre organised a conference in Doha to address the issue of ‘Ramadan and Football’. The self-proclaimed purpose of the meeting was: ‘to collate and review the evidence relating to all aspects of Ramadan and sports performance with the aim of establishing practical recommendations for athletes, support staff, and sports governing bodies.’

    Dr. Yacine Zerguini, an Algerian orthopaedic surgeon, who also stands on Aspetar’s board as a consultant, believes there is no easy answer to managing athletes during Ramadan.

    ‘There is no global, unique result for the research. The conclusion, in my opinion, is that each case must be treated individually,” Zerguini told Sport360.

    “One has to remember that it is highly likely that the effects of Ramadan are also linked to the spiritual qualities and physical capabilities of each athlete. Faith and belief is a big factor.

    “If players believe fasting will have no impact on their performance, then it probably will not. If they have doubt, then they better eat.”

    Ex-Tottenham striker Frédéric Kanouté observed the fast.

    Dr. Zerguini’s emphasis of the psychological influence on physical performance is particularly important. In 2009, Frederic Kanoute claimed that fasting actually improved his performance.

    “Personally, having faith helps my football and football helps me to be healthy and strengthens me. Fasting empowers and does not weaken the Muslim,” said Kanoute at the time.

    If Kanoute is correct then a devout Muslim athlete coerced into breaking his or her fast for physical reasons could actuality end up hampering their performance.

    European football clubs are notorious for ramping pressure on Muslim players observing the fast. During his stint at Inter Milan, Jose Mourinho criticised midfielder Sulley Muntari, claiming that Ramadan adversely affected his physical performance. Recently, Moroccan centre-half Abdelhamid El-Kaoutari claimed that his club, Montpellier HSC, preferred he did not fast the holy month.

    Last summer, the Algerian Football Federation adopted a smarter, more inclusive approach to Ramadan. The Algerian national team were preparing for the most important match in their history, against Germany in the round of 16 of the World Cup. When the global press continued to pester coach Vahid Halilhodzic on the issue of fasting he threatened to walk out of his press conference.

    “This is a private matter and when you ask this, you lack respect and ethics. The players will do as they wish and I would like to stop this controversy,” snapped the Bosnian, before curtly adding: ‘Stop asking me about Ramadan, otherwise I will get up and leave.”

    The Algerian Federation’s insistence on protecting player privacy was crucial, as it fashioned an insular atmosphere that allowed individuals to act on personal conviction, thus optimising performance levels.

    This year’s fast will affect three major football tournaments; The FIFA Women’s World Cup, Copa America, and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Ramadan will also interfere with European football’s pre-season preparations, as the holy month will come to an end in late July.

    When fasting, athletes can suffer from glycogen depletion, dehydration, and fatigue, all of which can lead to injury. To compensate, nutritionists recommend players adopt a tailored dietary regime. Hourly drinking schedules should be drawn up to ensure hydration throughout eating hours, players should also take naps to ensure they are getting enough sleep, and efforts should be made to eat meals replete with carbohydrates.

    During the off-season, clubs may also tamper with time slots to accommodate Muslim players who are training. Medical experts have outlined three windows for training sessions for players that are fasting; after sunrise, before sunset, and after sunset.

    After sunrise, fasting players can train with regular glycogen levels, but they would miss out on crucial post-training intakes of food. It is also estimated that the human body needs one hour to adapt from a recumbent to an upright position. If athletes decide to train just before sunset, they may be dehydrated and risk injury. Most experts agree that training after sunset is best and players may take afternoon naps to compensate for a lack of sleep, allowing them to train and recover as normal.

     Abdelhamid El-Kaoutari claimed Marseille did not approve of his fast.

    At the 1st International Consensus Meeting on Ramadan and Football, Abdul Rashid Aziz, from the Singapore Sports Council, provided tangible evidence that training after sunset is optimal. Working with various Tunisian youth national teams, Aziz described a protocol of six repeats of a standard Wingate test and showed that high intensity performance variables were lower during Ramadan for tests performed between 08:00–16:00. But performance on the test undertaken after sunset was no different than the controlled pre-Ramadan tests.

    Though shifting training to accommodate a few individuals sounds impractical, doing so is not unprecedented. In the United States, an American football coach at Fordson High School took proactive steps to generate a healthy team spirit. First the coach educated himself on Ramadan, and then moved training to two hours after sunset, encouraging his players to use their afternoons to complete schoolwork and nap.

    A few weeks into Ramadan, the team developed a heartwarming habit. The non-Muslim teammates decided to eat lunch in shifts – some would delay lunch and sit with their fasting teammates while others would eat first, then replace the first group. The visible and obvious support of Muslim players led to a more cohesive team unit.

    Whether or not football clubs follow Fordson High School’s example matters little. It is of utmost importance, however, that professional players feel no pressure with regards to how they practice their faith, and that open avenues of communication and support systems are established for those players who do decide to fast this Ramadan.

    To everyone doing so, Ramadan Kareem from us all at Sport360.