Article by Nick Mitchell, UP Founder & Amazon Bestselling Fitness Author.
In today’s increasingly multi-cultural, or cross-cultural (a phrase that suggests a type of integration that I feel we should be aiming for) society, we always need to address certain differences. And there are tonnes – from those who won’t eat pork (not a problem at all when it comes to optimising body composition) to those who won’t eat red meat (big problem) or even in some cases any type of animal product at all (we can improve such cases but they are totally screwed if wanting to get exceptionally lean and muscular).
So, in this spirit, I thought it might be useful to address an issue that affects a number of our personal training clients and no doubt many of our readers at large. That is the subject of how to eat over the upcoming Islamic period of religious observance known as Ramadan.
Proper nutrition, supplementation and exercise during Ramadan are very thorny issues for some.
What are the rules of Ramadan?
The “rules” of Ramadan as I understand them (and if I have got anything wrong please will someone correct me) are that for a calendar month (the ninth in the Islamic calendar, the dates of which vary and are governed by a visible crescent in the astronomical new moon) a total fast (no food, no drink, no sex) must be adhered to between sunset and dawn, beginning before and ending after specific prayers.
For anyone seeking to improve their health, fitness and physical appearance this is something of a metabolic disaster and as much damage limitation as possible needs to be put into action – nutrition during Ramadan being typically a low blood sugar-induced gorge fest. This is especially true as Ramadan seems to occur most often in the summer months when daylight is close to its peak.
In many Islamic countries, I believe, daytime life moves at a slower pace during Ramadan (in the UAE for example) and then picks up at night when people are eating, being sociable and generally feel more energetic as they have some food and drink inside their stomachs. This isn’t something that happens in the West, however, and the thought of trying to maintain a functioning, healthy daytime lifestyle in Dubai, during the months of May-June, without even water to subsist on must be a true test of religious observance that I for one can only marvel at.
Nick Mitchell’s own rules for maintaining fitness, muscle tone, and minimising a metabolic shutdown over Ramadan are as follows:
1) Don’t use Ramadan as an excuse to not exercise
It is crucially important that you do some gym work over Ramadan as without it, and in the absence of a regular eating pattern, your metabolism will go on strike quicker than a British Airways cabin crew.
Amna Al Haddad, a competitive weightlifter in the UAE, will train through Ramadan.
2) Train wisely
The best time to hit the gym during Ramadan is either early in the morning, after your first meal of the day, or after your first meal post fasting.
3) Ensure that your Ramadan ‘breakfasts’ contain easily digested protein and, depending upon your goals, some complex carbs and essential fats
By breakfast, I literally mean the two meals following a fast, one following sleep or opening the fast, the other following the day’s fasting. If you are due to follow one of these meals with a hard workout, something like a whey shake with essential fats, an apple and a handful of nuts would be great. I personally would wolf down 6 eggs, some coffee, and then go bang the weights – but not everyone could digest that and train hard.
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4) Don’t go seeking personal bests in the gym during Ramadan – (unless you are feeling on top of the world!)
My advice would be to switch up your routine from the norm, so that you don’t feel down in any way about a noticeable decrease in physical performance, and try to make the workouts as fun and varied as possible.
5) Keep your workout duration tight
Get in and out of the gym in under one hour – preferably aim for 45 minutes of hard work.
If you normally take much longer don’t worry, you can still get an awful lot done in 45 minutes and for those of you who are looking to gain muscle, Ramadan is more about anti-atrophy workouts than super mega blasting hypertrophy!
6) Hydration, hydration, hydration!
During the time that you are allowed to drink, this is extremely important. In past periods of Ramadan, I have seen dedicated Muslim gym goers almost pass out as they tried to push themselves during training without drinking water.
A good goal for a 200lb man should be to try to down 3 litres of water between dawn and sunset.
7) Don’t panic
Some people go into Ramadan thinking that they will lose all their progress as it is impossible to benefit from good nutrition, supplementation and exercise during the month of fasting.
This isn’t so, and with a bit of organisation and thought there is no reason to take a big step backwards.
4-5 meals over a 24 hour period are very possible, and this alone should be enough for maintenance, and maybe for the very lucky ones, even some small improvements.
For example, one could eat a large pre-Ramadan fast meal at 5.00am, then break the Ramadan fast at 8:30pm, eat again at 10:00pm, and finally have a supper at 11.30pm.
It isn’t ideal, but it does show you that your physique doesn’t have to come crashing down.
If minimising fat accumulation (or fat loss for the super ambitious) is your goal, the mainstay of my macronutrients would be from protein and “good fats” (think unprocessed, natural fats and you won’t go far wrong).
8) Take some supplements
There are a few supplements that would definitely help ease the metabolic challenges of Ramadan. My top Ramadan supplement picks would be:
- Acetyl L Carnitine (3gms upon awakening)
- Essential Amino Acids (snack on these as much as possible during the hours of darkness)
- Greens Powder (add several tablespoons to a large bottle of water and sip constantly)
- Casein Protein Powder (for supper)
- Whey Protein Powder Multi Vit / Mineral Magnesium (at night to aid sleep)
- Omega 3s
- A good digestive enzyme complex
- Phosphatidylserine (at night before sleep to reduce any extra cortisol production caused by daytime fasting / and to aid sleep).
In summary, the discipline of Ramadan need not prevent proper nutrition, supplementation and exercise. Yes, it will be challenging and require both discipline and moderation, but that is obviously what part of the whole process is about.