Article originally published June 17, 2015 – constantly updated and our most popular article (read by over 4000 individuals across the globe!)
It’s that time of year again where over 1.6 billion individuals engage in a similar feat known as intermittent fasting, but with a twist. For those who are unfamiliar with intermittent fasting, here’s a brief explanation; staying away from food for a prolonged period of time typically 16 hours and concluding with an eating period of 8 hours based on a 24 hour day. There are various protocols to this but what will be discussed here is very different. What I’m talking about is the month of Ramadhan where refraining from food, drink and other bodily needs for a period of 9+ hours (depending on where you live; this year in Toronto it will last 16+ hours) is completed every day for 30 days. Basically, the fast goes from sunrise to sunset and a window of eating opens up during the late hours. The task here, especially for many individuals, is how does one go about taking care of themselves physically while boosting their spiritual and mental prowess during the entire month? What will be discussed here is how anyone can maintain a healthy lifestyle without demolishing their health completely (mainly during the ‘refuel period’) and keeping energy levels high enough to be active throughout the daytime when the fast occurs.
Our primary concern is the individual who takes part in either recreational or competitive activity either daily or weekly and requires a level of support that will prevent them from reducing their ability when they participate in any activity. However, any other individual who exercises regularly or is concerned about staying healthy during this month of fasting will benefit too. Take whatever you read with a grain of salt (if you know what I mean) and relax; we’re giving you all the proof anyway. Everything that we’ll be telling you has either been tested by us or in a lab somewhere around the world.
A couple of goals that have been presented to me are the following:
-Losing weight (a given)
-keeping healthy in general
A typical day and some extras
I’m going to quickly outline a typical (Toronto, Ontario) individual’s day to make things more clear.
3:30AM Begin Fast
3:30AM to 9:00PM typical activities performed (sleeping is usually done to preserve energy)
9:00PM Break the fast with date (fruit) or salt; eat and load up on carbohydrates (including insoluble fibre), protein and water. Some people go the extra mile and overindulge (need to do this tactfully)
9:30PM till 3:30AM Sleeping; snacking, drinking water. Light meal just around 3am.
Most individuals will consume about 1-2 meals and might only meet half their daily water requirements (~2 litres). Some will consume meals large enough to feed a family during the breaking of the fast (‘iftar’) while others will do the opposite and some will eat the large meal just before fasting (‘sehri’). Some people might even eat one meal, the iftar and forgo the sehri meal and just drink water. What matters in all of these scenarios is how each individual is priming their body for the day ahead as opposed to the moment of just eating whatever they see. Certain ratios of carbohydrates to proteins to fats are necessary for digestive balance and prevention of fatigue and hunger during the next day. The addition of fibre through complex carbohydrate sources will ensure you are full earlier in your meal and help with digestion. Water is especially important and many forget this aspect as it is especially important during the summer months.
I haven’t mentioned when the above individual exercises. There’s a good chance that if they do exercise they will either do it while fasting (if they have enough energy) or they might do it after iftar. For most people, exercising after getting something to eat and drink would be ideal, however, with a fasting period of 16+ hours it is difficult to cram everything in after the fast and many sports occur during the morning or the evening. A prime example would be the situation in the FIFA World Cup 2014 in Brazil. Sometimes an athlete has to compete regardless of the circumstances. There will definitely be some decrease in performance depending on the activity. Typically, endurance based activities (aerobic) are affected.
Positives VS Negatives (if you are viewing on mobile, you should switch to desktop view or try rotating your view)
Anyway, let’s go over some of the many benefits an individual typically experiences (before trying to change anything just yet).
|Positives (during and after fast)||Negatives (while fasting)|
|-Improved body weight (temporary) and waist circumference (and in some cases lowered body fat)||-Decreased exercise ability, endurance based (acute)|
|-Increased HDL cholesterol (the good one), decreased LDL cholesterol||-Dehydration risks: cramps, muscle strains, joint pain, disc herniations|
|-Better glucose management (insulin sensitivity)||-Increased urea and mineral output (potassium is retained, sodium loss)|
|-Decreased inflammation||-Weight loss (vitamins, minerals, water, glycogen, fat, muscle)|
|-Improved lung function (more air in and out)||-Slightly elevated heart rate while in a fasting state|
|-Higher level of mental sturdiness||-Intense exercise may lead to inflammatory responses|
|-Slowed metabolism in the afternoon, leading to decreased VO2 (oxygen consumption)|
So we’ve listed the good and bad. However, the bad only happen if you allow it to. This means, if you are under eating, under hydrating and not getting enough sleep you are setting yourself up for a disaster. Also, if you are planning on exercising while doing the fast you will need to reduce the intensity a couple of notches and if you plan on exercising after iftar, you will have to make sure you’ve selected the right foods for fuel without creating a digestive upset. Depending on your goal you’ll either have to strategically conserve or expend calories accordingly. At the same time, it also depends on what you are eating and how much during the eating period.
A Sample Eating Plan
Here’s a modified plan, example, after breaking the fast:
9:00PM: Food: date, various vegetables, 1 handful of carbohydrate source + ~10g of insoluble fibre (from fruits, vegetables etc), 1 handful of protein source, teaspoon of fat source. Omega 3 source (tablet, oil)
Liquid: 3 cups of water; lemon water before eating meal
9:45PM: Exercise: medium intensity (60-70%) weights, full body; cardio activity 20-30 min (60-75%).
Food: Post workout shake (protein : carbs, 1:2 ratio (have some chocolate milk is a decent one; fibre source). 2 cups of water). Vitamin C source should be consumed too (try to obtain from fruits/ veggies).
11:00PM – At this point, many people will choose to sleep or stay awake until sunrise. By now, about 1-1.5 litres of water should have been consumed, approximately 2-3 servings of protein and 3-4 servings of carbohydrates must have been consumed. If one plans on sleeping, it is recommended they wake up just before the start of fasting and consume a moderate carbohydrate meal with protein with an inclusion of some dietary fats.
3:30AM – by this time, it is expected a total of 3-4 litres of water have been consumed, just above the base caloric needs are met and enough carbohydrates are consumed during each meal. This will lead to better physical and mental function throughout the next day.
What you just read was a sample and an unspecific plan for most individuals. Not everyone can make it a point to exercise after iftar so some will exercise while fasting. Exercising while fasting, aerobic or anaerobic is not a bad thing. One just has to keep in mind that your ability will be slightly diminished and there will be an associated weight loss (which can be recovered post-Ramadhan).
We’ve laid some groundwork above and now it’s time to go deeper and narrow down certain aspects.
While fasting, your body uses carbohydrates as energy, much of it stored within your muscles and liver. This is normal on any given day, even outside of Ramadhan and once the body has depleted itself of its stored carbohydrates (glycogen) then the next fuel source is fat. Keep in mind this is zero to low intensity work; this happens while you even do nothing at all. Simply put, you’re either going to use your glycogen storage and fat stores (mainly triglycerides to begin with) when you’re in a fasted state. As the intensity of exercise increases, you’ll burn more carbohydrates one of the reasons being because it is faster to break them down and convert to energy (ATP). Once you’ve run out of fats and glycogen there is a risk of body protein being used, especially during high intensity exercise while fasting.
So now what? Should you refrain from any strenuous exercise, talk a walk or what? How about losing weight, gaining any strength or muscle? Should one prioritize?
Let’s cover each segment as briefly as possible to give you some insight as to what is the most sensible option for yourself.
Training for fat loss:
Optimal fat loss typically occurs when you have embraced a diet consisting of increased fats and proteins as well as sitting in a caloric deficit while keeping water intake high. The effects of a low caloric diet are quickly experienced during a state of fasting, usually within the first week or so. The body quickly readjusts itself for survival reasons. Based on the research, women tend to lose more body fat then men but both groups see a regain after the month ends (due to returning to their normal eating habits). What one should focus on instead of trying to prepare for a bodybuilding competition (we won’t even go there) should be keeping their metabolism up and eating sensibly. Complex carbohydrates (vegetables, whole grains, fruits) for sustained energy levels for the next day, serotonin production for sleeping, and additional fibre to help with feeling full as well as sending the food down; quality protein sources (fish, meat, eggs etc) to recover from the metabolic damage throughout the day and fats for optimal hormone functioning. The workouts should not deplete you of your energy depending on the timing of your workout. We recommend training just before you’ve broken your fast to ensure your metabolic rate goes up and your hormones are ready for what you’ll be putting in your body. Stick to strength building to prevent muscle loss and weakness; and do not forget your cardiovascular work (minimum 20 minutes) at a workload that you feel comfortable with. Everyone is different especially when it comes down to how each one feels before and after they perform their workout. Fat loss (and weight loss) are guaranteed but remember, the effects can be temporary unless you change your habits post Ramadhan.
We have a lot of people out there who are extremely confident they can build muscle during Ramdhan. In actuality, it is harder than they think unless they are fasting for 8-12 hours only and are opting to stay awake throughout the night. Believe it or not, but your metabolic rate goes down during the day, so you will definitely save your energy thus enabling you to perform your workouts effectively. The fight will be against the clock and dehydration. As dehydration sets its course, your work capacity will decrease (resting and working heart rates lowered). So keeping that in mind, stick to brief workouts consisting of lower volume (don’t forget the key words, “Stimulate, don’t annihilate”). Sticking to a higher carbohydrate diet around workouts (peri-workout) will work wonders for you but you’ll have to be wary of bloating, so make sure you get enough fibre; so try to get your workout in right before or after you have broken your fast. In this case, supplements may help. And finally, do your best not to stuff yourself and stick to easily digestible meals for your own benefit.
Get stronger approach:
A similar approach to gaining some muscle (mass?) will help for keeping up your strength. Eat as best as you can and keep your workout volume low to medium. If you’ve done a deload before, you should know what to do. If not, just don’t go too hard (keep the intensity lower than usual) and stay away from any max lifts (your body will thank you). If you plan on training with low fuel in your tank, forget getting stronger and focus on maintenance. Strength gains tend to deteriorate after a couple of weeks, so do not panic.
One aspect of fitness a lot of people forget or undervalue is flexibility. Those of you who plan to be active, especially during the fast will realize their muscles become tighter than usual (with associated pains in the neck, back etc.). One obvious way to keep this at a minimum is to put flexibility at the top of your list (and to make sure you have hydrated as much as you could during the eating period. Find a yoga routine; use a foam roller; or spend at least 10 minutes every day stretching out whatever you need to (can be light stretching; intense is not necessary).
All in all, focus on proper eating habits and put maintenance above your goals. There is no need to stress your body more than it needs to be stressed. The month takes a toll on your body but can still be seen as an asset in strengthening your willpower (something which many people lack).
Keep in mind that we have not covered everything here and please use your own discretion when making decisions. This article serves as a guide and those who are ill are not supposed to be fasting. Those who are involved in strenuous activities must regulate themselves accordingly as well.
Hold on! If you just finished reading this article, that means you’re probably interested in Ramadhan (nutrition and/or exercise). CLICK HERE to get your copy of the Ramadhan Nutrition and Exercise guides! They are filled with tons of info and go much beyond this article.
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