On the same day many of us were excited for gyms to be reopening and beer gardens to be back in action, British Muslims began the first day of Ramadan: a month of abstaining from food, drink and other parts of daily life between predawn (around 4.30am) and sunset. It’s a time for focusing on development and spirituality, reflection and goals, and yet there is one part of daily life that is not always considered in this relationship between fasting and focus: how do you do a workout when you can’t even drink water?
Haroon Mota runs Muslim Runners and Asra Run Club, a community space centring Muslim women in sports, wellness and sisterhood. He’s been an athlete for more than 20 years, but, “Never in my time have I received professional or expert advice about how to train safely in Ramadan.” He started in martial arts in his teens, before moving to football, hiking and now running. All of these he kept doing through Ramadan, but advice on how to do it safely is thin on the ground, he says. It’s something Sports Direct are trying to change via a new initiative called Fast & Slow, which looks to bring the advice of fitness experts such as Mota to those who want to work out during the holy month.
“People think Ramadan is about just prayer, worship, fasting. However, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be carrying on with the things that keep us healthy, the things that we enjoy, whether it’s exercise or hobbies,” said Mota, who thinks fitness is often disregarded during this time. “Being an underrepresented community, we’re already affected by the greatest of health inequalities. Our physical activity levels are low. There’s two million Muslims in the UK and the majority are already probably not exercising enough.”
The data gathered for Fast & Slow’s launch found that more than 80 per cent of young Muslim men and women were concerned how to train and eat safely over the month. So we asked Mota to give us his top tips for anyone who wants to make sure they’re still working out.
Getting into the right mindset
“People shouldn’t think about exercising on day one of Ramadan. It would be silly to just start something new and put additional strain on the body, so it’s preparing in advance for whatever people are accustomed to in terms of their fitness regimes. If they maintain that level of consistency beforehand, it just means that when it comes to Ramadan they can be a bit more confident. If you’ve never worked out before… We know what it feels like when you do exercise for the first time – you don’t move for a week. That’s the last thing that you need, especially when you’re abstaining from food and drink.
“Ramadan itself is not just about being hungry and being thirsty. It is a lot about mentality, mindset, self-reflection, God-consciousness. So it presents a fantastic opportunity for people to actually reflect and think about their goals, whether that’s personal life goals or whether it’s health and fitness. In our faith as Muslims, health is considered very sacred: we believe health belongs to God, it’s given to us from God and we have to look after it. So it’s important that in the month of Ramadan we continue exercising, especially in the pandemic. We know physical inactivity costs the NHS millions, so to start being inactive now is the last thing that the nation needs.”
Account for the pandemic
“I’ve been seeing a lot of noise on social media, how people can’t wait to go back to the gyms. And it’s quite likely that people might have been missing the gym and also haven’t substituted the gyms for any other exercise. So it is starting fresh at the gym again.
“It’s important that people do take small steps and set realistic goals. Just take it easy. This is the advice that I’ve kind of been pushing all along and it’s what Fast & Slow the campaign is about: taking it easy, slowing down. That doesn’t just mean reducing your speed, it means reducing your volume of exercise, reducing your intensity or the frequency of exercising or, actually, just taking more rest.
“The month of Ramadan is only 30 days and it will fly by. People shouldn’t be too concerned about losing fitness. There’s another 11 months to go afterwards. Sometimes we just need to prioritise and do a bit more rest. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself.”
Talk to your gym or PT
“I think it’s important to have open and honest dialogue both ways and this needs to happen well in advance of Ramadan. I have a running coach and he doesn’t have Muslim athletes – or he didn’t have Muslim athletes until very recently – so he’s very new to the concept of coaching in Ramadan. I think it’s important to assert what your own goals are first, so that your coach knows what your needs are.
“Coaches or personal trainers should be very open to being flexible with regimes, whether that’s tweaking timings of sessions or whether it’s actually factoring in more rest or whether it’s simply just reducing the expectation and intensity of the actual training itself and also being flexible, because fitness has so many different dimensions. There are other aspects of fitness that are less strenuous, which can be prioritised in the month of Ramadan.”
Advice for cardio lovers
“The preconception is to avoid cardio in Ramadan because it’s sustained activity, which is linked to dehydration. You’re going to sweat lots and in Ramadan that’s one thing you want to avoid. However, for people who are runners or cyclists, they’re not going to miss out their cardio, so it’s just a matter of trying to slow it down: reducing the intensity, the volume, the speed.
“I found that quite difficult, because you’re so used to working hard and pushing your body. Coming into Ramadan and slowing it down, sometimes it can be difficult. It’s actually a skill. And that’s another reason why the campaign is actually telling you to go slow. I’ve been forcing myself to run at an extremely low level of exertion, where you’re feeling like you’re plodding along. It almost feels like you’re not exercising, if you know what I mean…
“You might think, ‘What am I doing this for? I don’t feel anything,’ but that’s the level of exercise you want to be doing in Ramadan in terms of cardio. It doesn’t feel nice when you’re doing a very tough interval training session or a tempo position – it’s just too taxing on the body and it can make you feel sick. It’s about being sensible and not being drastic in this holy month.”
Advice for strength fans
“I guess this is a bit more easy to deal with in the month of Ramadan. If you’re working on heavier weights and low repetition, compared to lower weights and higher repetition, it just means less cardio and it’s kind of pure strength.
“You can do something like that in the day or even in the night. And sometimes, you know, you might not need an hour or two hours in the gym, you might just go for 20 or 30 minutes, get a quick fix, feel that happy pump and you go home. But it’s still important to take it easy, especially people who are just returning to the gym after months of inactivity. So people can think about reducing the load, actually lifting the weights a bit slower than normal, concentrating more on the breathing. Experiencing an injury after not having lifted weights for so long is the last thing you want.”
A perfect time for mobility
“If someone is looking for a way to remain healthy and active in the month of Ramadan and if cardio or strength training isn’t for them, it’s a great opportunity to have some light activity. It doesn’t have to be a YouTube yoga class, it could just be a bit of self stretching at home.
“Flexibility and core strength is probably the most neglected area of fitness. It might seem boring, but it’s paramount for injury prevention. We know that women tend to be more flexible than men and men probably do more weight training and sometimes they become a bit more stocky, so it’s more important they adopt this aspect of fitness. Ramadan is probably a perfect time to do it.
“People are, of course, praying more and worshiping in the month of Ramadan. One of the great things about flexibility is it’s slow and easy. It’s a good time to think and pray. People can observe their rituals of prayer, even while exercising and doing their flexibility. I mean, I do that while running: I’m exercising so slow that I can really put my mind at peace. So during that time, I’m either listening to the Quran or rituals of prayer, reflecting and thinking. I really benefit from the spiritual side of Ramadan during my runs. The same can be applied to flexibility.”
Nutrition at Iftar
“Prioritise quality of food rather than quantity. I think sometimes, after a very long fast, our eyes become very hungry and you see food and you want to take it all down. However, during the fast our stomachs actually shrink, which means we’ve got less space. You eat a few morsels of food and you’re already feeling full, or you get full, so you’ve got to prioritise quality nutrition.
“For myself, I’m prioritising carbs so that I’ve got energy to last the fast and also energy to train. The last thing you want to do is to be exercising on an empty tank, especially if you’re running – it just feels awful and horrible. After a fast it’s traditional that many of our tables will be filled with fried samosas and pakoras and they smell delicious and everybody wants to dive into them. I think it’s about having a bit of moderation. Eat quality carbs instead – whether that’s rice, pasta, potatoes – and make sure that you’ve got a good balance of proteins.”
“I weigh myself pre and post runs. I’m a very sweaty person, but I lose about one litre to 1.5 litres of water on my daily runs in the month of Ramadan. That really puts into perspective how much I need to compensate for rehydration – not just replacing the water for the day, but also compensating for your fluid loss. For those who might be exercising a bit more seriously, think about your electrolyte levels and what supplements you might need.
“I try to drink at least three to four litres of water after sundown. That might sound quite bizarre, because you only get six hours to drink it, so that’s about half a litre an hour. Also, when you gulp that first half a litre, it does make you feel very bloated. So what I do is stay awake through the night just for the sake of hydration. We’re going to sleep after night prayers at midnight and then have to wake up again at 4am for breakfast. If you go to sleep in that period, it means you could end up dehydrated. If you can stay awake a little bit longer just to drink and even when people go to the mosque in the evenings for their prayers, take a litre bottle and keep sipping it gradually and slowly.
“Don’t be shy to fill your bottles with electrolytes as well, because you’re going to be losing a lot of electrolytes in your sweat. It’s important to replenish these and even just consider a carbohydrate drink. I take on Lucozade Sport – it’s easy to drink. Not only are you replacing electrolytes, but also keeping your energy levels topped up as well.”
Timing your workout
“What works for one won’t for somebody else. Me, personally, my preferred time is to exercise an hour or so before sunset. So if I’m running a 10K, I’ve finished my run just a few minutes before sundown and it means I can instantly take on drink and food. It also means if I did become dizzy or if I did struggle, I don’t have to wait too long to actually break my fast.
“But for some people, parents or people in the family who are having to prepare food for the Iftar meal, they simply can’t exercise at that time. So they might choose to get out in the morning. The negative side of going out in the morning means that you finish your run and you might have to wait ten or more hours before you can actually drink and that could make you feel very, very fatigued and tired.
“Some people might even exercise after they’ve broken their fast in the evening or in the night or early in the morning before the predawn breakfast. I think it’s about trial and error. Don’t feel pressured to do what everyone else is doing.”
Rest is essential
“We become night zombies in Ramadan. It’s really, really hectic; I’m actually really exhausted right now. We come up for night prayers about midnight. That’s the time I need to go sleep, it’s also the time I need to hydrate. Then I’m on my phone until about 2am in the morning. Mainly that’s work, social media and networking and whatnot and then you go to sleep at 2am, so you struggle to wake up for your breakfast two hours later. You’re sitting there looking at your plate because you’ve not got enough energy to eat it. If you do manage to down it then actually going to sleep after that breakfast is quite challenging.
“It’s so important to think about sleep and rest in the month of Ramadan. We know it’s challenging, we know it’s very, very difficult, but if you’re not getting your sleep you’re going to struggle with your fast, you might struggle with your work-life balance, you might struggle to exercise or you could become ill. Try and fit in an afternoon nap or even a couple of afternoon naps.
“Ramadan is hard, but I think with the right guidance and help from experienced members of the community, athletes, experts, it can go a long way in challenging some of the misconceptions, but, more importantly, empowering and inspiring communities to be better versions of themselves.”