10 tips to safe exercise during Ramadan
Doing exercise during Ramadan doesn’t have to be a total write-off. In fact, with some advice from the experts, it’s still something you can do safely and sustainably over the thirty day period of reflection. The top line is not to push yourself. Your focus should be on three things: maintaining your fitness, creating a sustainable (and safe) exercise routine and concentrating on nutrient-dense and water-rich foods.
Nesrine Dally, a former world champion Muay Thai boxer who made history as the first woman to compete for England in a hijab observes Ramadan every year. We caught up with her for her tips, as well as two more experts for their advice on exercising safely during Ramadan.
What is Ramadan?
‘As a Muslim who observes Ramadan, I can tell you that it’s a month-long period of fasting where we refrain from eating, drinking, and other activities from dawn (fajr) until sunset (maghrib),’ Dally explains. ‘During this time, we have two main meals – the ‘suhoor’ or ‘sehri’ just before dawn and the ‘iftar’ after sunset. So, essentially, we fast during the day and break our fast at night. I like to describe it as being restricted from food/water whilst focusing on nourishing your soul, through self-reflection and giving to those in need.’
According to a study by technology platform Givematch, 90% of British Muslims feel their wellbeing improves during Ramadan.
Dally’s usual exercise routine
- Monday: I usually focus on strength training. This includes exercises like squats, deadlifts, and bench presses, as well as bodyweight exercises like pull-ups and push-ups.
- Tuesday: Tuesdays are dedicated to my Muay Thai training, so it’s a pretty intense day. I work on my technique, combinations, and sparring, but I also need to make sure I’m properly fuelled and hydrated to get through it.
- Wednesday: Active recovery. I’ll do some light cardio like jogging or cycling, along with mobility exercises and stretching.
- Thursday: Muay Thai training. I’ll work on my technique, combinations, and sparring, and I may include some strength or conditioning exercises as well.
- Friday: Strength training. I’ll focus on exercises like deadlifts, lunges, and pull-ups, and I may also include some explosive movements like plyometric exercises.
- Saturday: I typically do some form of cardio like running or cycling to maintain my cardiovascular fitness and stamina.
- Sunday: Rest day. I’ll usually just do some light stretching or mobility work, or maybe take a yoga class to help me recover from the previous week’s training.
Dally’s Ramadan training routine
‘My training schedule during Ramadan is Monday to Sunday, but workouts are usually around 30 minutes, which is quite a bit shorter than usual.
‘I like to mix it up with a variety of activities like light pad work (boxing), strength training, mobility exercises, stretching, short jogs, or walks. I reduce the volume and intensity of my training during this time, and avoid cardio and aerobic fitness.
‘Instead, I concentrate on bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups and also use equipment like my TRX. I also use light kettlebells and dumbbells to maintain my strength at home. I’m able to maintain my fitness level while also respecting the spiritual significance of Ramadan.
‘Don’t be afraid to train during Ramadan if you want to. As long as you listen to your body and make adjustments as needed, it can be safe. Shorter, lower-intensity workouts can help you maintain your fitness level and improve your overall health and wellbeing during Ramadan.’
1. Find a time that works best for you
Exercising in a fasted state is not an easy feat, especially when you add in daily stressors and warmer weather. Finding the best time for you will be a major key to keeping your exercise routine safe and sustainable.
Dally tells us: ‘I usually train in the evenings, but during Ramadan, I prefer to train just before Iftar, so I can break my fast right after my workout. This means that I need to make sure I have enough energy to get through my workout, but it also means that I can replenish my energy stores right after.’
‘Exercising just before iftar (breaking of the fast) or between iftar and suhoor (pre-dawn meal) before the start of the next fast, are good times as you can eat and drink after you exercise and replenish and rehydrate your body,’ adds GP Dr Sayyada Mawji.
If those suggestions don’t work for you or your schedule, don’t worry. Experiment with exercising when you can, just don’t be afraid to try a slightly new routine.
2. Aim to maintain
Now is not the time to be trying to hit personal bests or 1 rep maxes. Instead, look to maintain what you’ve already achieved.
‘Exercising whilst fasting can be a challenge and it’s important to do it safely. Most importantly, remember to be sensible and listen to your body,’ advises Dr Mawji.
‘Aim to maintain your fitness levels rather than starting a new or intense exercise regime. This may mean you may have to adjust your usual regime to reduce the length and intensity of the exercise.’
3. Double down on hydration between iftar and suhoor
A lack of water is something to be on the lookout for. It will make exercise feel more difficult and cause you to fatigue faster, as well. Fortunately, there are some tips to make the time you’re not drinking water a little easier.
‘Keep yourself well hydrated between iftar and suhoor (between breaking the fast and starting the next one), keep a water bottle with you and drink regularly throughout this time. This will ensure you are well hydrated before the start of the next fast,’ says Dr Mawji.
Dally adds: ‘Training just before iftar means that I can suitably rehydrate as fast is broken. I make sure to drink plenty of water and electrolyte drinks in the evening to rehydrate and replenish my energy stores before fast recommences. At iftar, I like to incorporate soup and other hydrating foods like melon and cucumber salads.’
Another good point to note is that hydration doesn’t have to come only from the tap – eating fluid-rich fruits and vegetables when you break your fast will help to keep you replenished and hydrated, too.
High-water content fruits and vegetables
4. Watch out for the warning signs of dehydration
If you’re doing everything to stay hydrated between suhoor and iftar but still experiencing any of the following symptoms, pull back on exercise and try to bring your heart rate down advises Dr Mawji.
- Dark urine
- Feeling very thirsty
- Muscle cramps
- Fast heart rate
Severe symptoms of dehydration also include confusion, weakness and loss of consciousness – if you experience any of these symptoms seek immediate medical attention.
5. Don’t be afraid to scale back the intensity
It’s difficult to switch gears, especially if you’ve been getting after your workouts with progress on the mind. However, taking a few steps back might be the key to keeping your exercise sustainable during Ramadan.
‘Moderate your intensity and volume by 30-40%. You can continue to train but you may want to focus on low-moderate training intensities and try to simply maintain your fitness levels,’ says Dally. ‘I reduce the intensity of my workouts during Ramadan, so I’m not pushing myself too hard while fasting. This means that I’m not working on my cardio or aerobic fitness as much, but I’m still able to maintain my strength and technique.’
But, don’t worry you can still make progress – it might just be in the areas surrounding your fitness rather than the actual workouts themselves.
‘Use the time to work on a skill or something you want to get better at and otherwise do not make time for. This could be skipping, core work, push-ups or mobility.’
6. Focus on bodyweight exercises when strength training
According to Dally, Ramadan might be the time to prioritise bodyweight strength training over cardio workouts as it’ll help to slow down the process of muscle loss while fasting.
‘It’s safe to strength train and, in fact, I’d say it’s one of the safest training modalities [during Ramadan]. ‘I would suggest doing it pre-Iftar but ultimately it’s a personal preference. If you train after Iftar keep your meal light and save your biggest meal for after your training session so you don’t feel uncomfortable when training.
‘During Ramadan, I prefer to focus on bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and squats, as they don’t require as much energy as lifting heavy weights. I also use TRX equipment to add some variety to my bodyweight workouts.’
Brush up on your resistance training knowledge to get to grips with the different types of workouts you can do during this time. Or, grab yourself a set of dumbbells or a kettlebell to work with at home. The main takeaway is not to attempt anything overly strenuous or totally new.
7. Keep an eye on how much cardio you’re doing
The flipside of spending more time on strength training is pulling back on the amount and intensity of your cardio workouts (and cardio home workouts, too).
‘I wouldn’t suggest doing cardio that takes you over 60/65% of your maximum effort,’ says Dally. ‘It can be quite tough to do cardio as it increased thirst as your body is already in a state of dehydration. Always start and progress slowly if you’re trying things for the first time when fasted.’
So, gentle jogs, light walks and cardio that doesn’t take you into out of breath or exhausted territory. And, if you exercise outside, be careful of how warm it is – it’s best to avoid exercising in high temperatures or in the sun for too long.
8. It’s fine to increase how many rest days you’re taking
‘Ramadan is not the time to push yourself to your limits physically,’ says Dally. ‘Adding more rest days into your routine is advisable – I would advise adding one to two extra rest days. You could train one day and rest the next, alternating that throughout the week.
‘Ramadan is a time of reflection so it’s important we don’t lose sight of the spiritual aspect. It’s only 30 days and we want to make sure we make the most of the holy month,’ reminds Dally.
The aforementioned study by Givematch also showed that 50% of British Muslim women will exercise less during Ramadan, and that’s totally fine.
9. Go for high-fibre and protein-rich foods when you break your fast
Combining high-fibre starchy foods and quality sources of protein is the most important thing during Ramadan says award-winning nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem.
‘High fibre foods are digested slowly and release energy slowly,’ she explains, detailing the foods with the most bang-for-your-fibre-buck.
- Whole wheat grains
- Brown rice
- Potatoes with the skin on
- Vegetables such as green beans
- Almost all fruits, including dried fruits
‘Combine these foods with good sources of protein such as milk, yoghurt, beans, fish or meat,’ she advises. ‘This combination will ensure a stable level of glucose in your blood so less likely to feel hungry the next day.’
‘It’s also important to have suhoor (pre-dawn meal, before fasting begins), in order to feel fuller for longer, too. Suhoor is an important meal that provides you with energy and hydration for the next fasting day, so try to include high fibre foods to allow for slow energy release. Also, add protein to your meal to help curb any hunger.
‘If you are unable to wake up for suhoor, then consider having a balanced light meal before going to bed.’
Dally makes sure she always has a meal at suhoor. ‘I make sure this meal consists of complex carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats. This helps me sustain my energy levels throughout the day while fasting. Overnight oats that have been soaked in an Optimum Nutrition Gold Standard Whey protein are a firm favourite.
‘I also eat a balanced meal during iftar, after sunset, when you break your fast. I have a balanced meal that includes protein, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats to help me recover from my workouts and prepare for the next day’s training. This usually includes soup, rice, chicken or fish along with lots of salad and vegetables.’
10. Skip excess salt, caffeine and foods that will make you thirstier
Some foods will naturally make you more thirsty. It’s kind of their thing. Unfortunately, they’re some of the most delicious and widely eaten things in everyday life: salt and caffeine.
Dr Hashem recommends steering clear of anything that’s going to affect how thirsty you are during your fast.
Salt and salty foods
‘Salt can have an immediate effect [on thirst] if eaten in excess. Eating salty foods, adding a lot of salt at the table or while cooking, can result in thirst and dehydration during the fast. I’d encourage the use of herbs, spices, lemon and lime to add flavour to food, instead of salt,’ she advises.
Caffeine and fizzy drinks containing caffeine
‘It’s best to avoid caffeinated drinks altogether in Ramadan, if possible. These drinks are diuretics, so will make the body lose water faster as well as interfere with nutrient absorption – particularly iron absorption – which should be avoided, particularly during Ramadan.’
The main thing is to respect where you, your body and your exercise are now – as a period of reflection, focus on maintaining your health and sustaining good habits.
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