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Like most Muslims, Nargis Fontaine will observe the Islamic holy month of Ramadan with a 30-day fast between dusk and dawn. But unlike most Muslims, she will also need to balance this fast with training for her first triathlon.
“Honestly, Ramadan kind of snuck up on me, as it does every year,” Fontaine said. “It didn’t dawn on me that I would be training and fasting until about two weeks ago.”
Suddenly, Fontaine had questions, and lots of them: How do you train for a triathlon while fasting for Ramadan? How can you fuel for training while observing the fast? And how can you fit in training during the rituals and traditions of the month?
Religious fasting is present in many faiths. The Ramadan fast lasts 29 to 30 days (depending on the lunar calendar) observers forego food and drink, even water, between sunrise and sunset. In Christianity, some followers fast on certain days of the 40-day Lent holiday or practice what is known as the “Daniel Fast,” a partial fast that involves only eating vegetables and drinking water for three to 21 days. During Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish faith, observers do not eat and drink for 25 hours. Another Jewish holiday, Passover, prohibits all forms of rice, corn, wheat, barley, and seeds for eight days. All religious fasts have similar core goals: to honor tradition, develop spiritual strength, and increase one’s connection with God.
For athletes who observe fasting holidays, extra attention is required to ensure fueling and hydration is adequate for their active efforts. For some, this may mean taking time off from training; for others, it’s simply a matter of planning and preparation.
Is religious fasting the same as intermittent fasting?
Though intermittent fasting has been a nutrition trend recently, it’s important to note that fasting as a weight loss or biohacking practice is not the same as a religious fast.
“Fasted training is for the purpose of improving fat adaptation, whereas fasting for one’s religion has a higher purpose,” said former pro triathlete and coach Mary Beth Ellis. “There are vast biological and psychological differences. Most notably, typically fasted training is for a very limited duration, and doesn’t tend to offer any psychological benefits to the athlete’s mindset and personhood. Whereas I find that fasting for one’s beliefs may be harder psychologically as the duration is typically much longer but it offers benefits to the athletes overall well-being. Hence the training plan around these two are not at all similar.”
As such, adjustments to the training plan should be made with the goals of the fast in mind. “I know for most Muslims, Ramadan is the most important time of the year,” said coach Khadijah Diggs. “Training won’t stop, but will definitely change.”
These changes typically involve a decrease in run volume and cycling intensity and a focus on strength training and swimming. Diggs also works with her fasting athletes to plan a detailed nutrition strategy to maximize each meal before sunrise (known as suhur) and after sunset (or iftar). In addition to making sure the athlete has enough calories and hydration to sustain the fasting period, the active athlete must pay careful attention to carbohydrate levels for fuel and protein for muscle synthesis.
For Jewish triathlete Miriam Cole, the religious holiday of Passover also requires extra attention to keeping Kosher in all ways, including the foods consumed while training. “I cannot eat any pre-made items unless they are marked Kosher for Passover. So for the week of Passover, I concoct my own energy drinks,” Cole said. These include what she calls “Kosher for Passover Coke,” a black tea, honey, and salt mixture which is sweetened with sugar instead of corn syrup.
“The toughest thing for me will be remembering to incorporate supplements and hydrating [between sundown and sunrise],” Fontaine said. “Not just drinking water, but consuming enough hydrating foods as well. It’s something I need to remember every year but since I’m actually training this year I’m more conscious of being considerate to my body.”
A time for grace and flexibility
Because there are limited resources for athletes and coaches with relation to fasting holidays, many take a trial-and-error approach, making adjustments on a daily basis as they see how their body responds to fasting.
“I think it is best to err on the side of rest around fasting holidays,” Ellis said. “Most athletes are type A and want to push through all pain and discomfort, whether from a training session or lack of fuel, and will do so even to their detriment. I think allowing an athlete’s body the time to recover from the stress of fasting is important. I believe a fasted holiday is more similar to a hard race effort in terms of training stress score than a day off, so I treat the days after the holiday as I would the days after a race.”
“I always have a rest day on Yom Kippur, and an easy swim the day after,” Cole said, who also does not register for races in the days following Yom Kippur—including the Ironman World Championship race in October, which sometimes coincides with the holiday. She also does not participate in races scheduled during the week of Passover: “It is impossible to find or bring Kosher for Passover food on the road, and I would not be able to use any on-course nutrition.”
Diggs says the most important thing a coach or training buddy can do to support an athlete who is observing a fasting holiday is to listen and support.
“The most important thing is I give myself and the Muslim athletes I coach grace,” Diggs said. “I know for most Muslims, Ramadan is the most important time of the year. Those who have Muslims in their life, the greatest gift you can give them during this time is your patience and a smile.”