It happens every year without fail. If you’re a dude or dudette that takes fitness seriously, Ramadan is a time of year that you probably dread. On a good year, I only lose about 10 lbs of mostly muscle. Usually, it’s closer to 15. If you read this and think to yourself, “That sounds awesome! What’s the problem?,” then you probably won’t benefit from some of these tips. This is targeted to those who know how hard it is to gain 15 lbs of muscle in one year, at least in a way that is sustainable. So, here’s the process that I’ve refined over many years of trial and error. I hope you find it useful. Full disclosure: I’m not a personal trainer nor do I have a background in nutritional sciences or kinesiology. I’m just a bro who does, indeed, lift.
1. Do not lift on an empty stomach.
No matter what anybody tells you, performing demanding anaerobic workouts without proper replenishment will do more damage than good in the long run. I can’t stress this enough. Ideally, hit the gym after Taraweeh for about an hour, so you can still get a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep before waking up for Suhoor. If you can only lift before Iftar, I would recommend doing some low intensity calisthenics and ensuring you get plenty of rest in between sets since you won’t be able to hydrate. This is a great month to focus more on form rather than maxing out. During some of my training, they play classical music to ensure that it isn’t the “music thumping” that’s getting us through, but mental strength and attention to the details of every movement. I would recommend taking a similar approach. Really focus on the nuances of your lifts. I imagine listening to an Islamic podcast or a lecture or whatever supplements your spiritual pursuits during the month will bring much of the same effect. If you’re not participating in the Iftar preparation process, then push your workout as close to sunset as possible so you can replenish within 20-30 minutes of completing your workouts.
Running on an empty stomach or even power walking is actually a great way to tap into fat storage without burning muscle. The key here will be the intensity and duration. We’re looking at running roughly 65-75% of your max heart rate for about 20-30 minutes. If you’re a person that usually runs 7 min/mile for 5-6 miles, you might want to shrink that to 3 miles at a pace of 8-9 min/mile. The reason here being simple arithmetic; your body will demand more resources to conduct the same amount of work while you’re fasting and muscle is just an easier and more readily available source of energy for quick access because muscle oxidizes faster than fat. So, if you increase the intensity, the amount of time it takes to mobilize fuel from your fats is longer and will not be able to sustain your cardio vascular activity, so it’ll just resort to your muscles for energy. During a time when your ability to replenish that loss is minimized, that’s no bueno. Again, ideally you still want this to be close-ish to Iftar so you can recover sooner rather than later. And just for fun, cyclists actually report increased power and capacity after biking for less than 90 minutes on an overnight fast at a pace that is referred to as steady state cardio. So, maybe not a bad month to dust off your bike and hit the road. As a matter of fact, one study published in Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that women lost roughly the same amount of weight and fat with an hour of steady-state cardio whether they ate beforehand or not. (Gender is irrelevant, the study added—the same would apply to men.) Bear in mind, this study wasn’t for people who were fasting, simply whether or not they ate before cardio.
This is the big one and probably the most difficult one because there is so much good food! If I had a nickel for every time my brothers and I “agree” that we’re going to be better this Ramadan about our diet, and mom… well, let’s just say, she don’t play that. Over time, we’ve realized that it’s probably better to moderate our intake versus trying to tell her what we’d like to eat. It’s sad to say, but as is always the case, we’ve learned the hard way that the greatest wisdom comes from the teachings of the Prophet PBUH regarding healthy eating habits:“A human being fills no worse vessel than his stomach. It is sufficient for a human being to eat a few mouthfuls to keep his spine straight. But if he must (fill it), then one third of food, one third for drink, and one third for air.” So, 1400 years ago, Islam was teaching about portion control. I’m not going to give you a long list of “earth foods” or tell you what to eat. Everybody’s body is different and based on your fitness goals, you know what you need to replenish more of. Plus, I don’t really know which category most Ramadan foods fall into… Delicious? Go easy on the fried food. Don’t eat till you can’t move. My brothers and I have actually learned that maybe just having some dates and fruit right after the Adhan, and then just hanging out for a bit after prayer is probably a good way to gauge how much food you really need versus stuffing our faces immediately. All I’ll tell you is that if you have a workout plan, then eat with your workouts in mind, knowing when, where, and how you’ll be working out so you can be prepared to do it when the time arrives. Make sure you’re getting your healthy fats and protein replenished. If you have supplements that you take on a regular basis like fish oils, multi-vitamins, protein-shakes, etc., then factor those into your plan as well. I find that those are best for Suhoor rather than before going to sleep. A slow-released Casein protein is probably not a bad idea either. I used a raw vegan organic meal replacement supplement from garden of life that is an excellent source of protein and power foods that I fully intend on including as part of meals during Ramadan. You can find it on Amazon, but I’ll warn you… it’s an acquired taste.
4. Home workouts.
There are plenty of home workouts that can help you maintain some semblance of shape during the month of Ramadan if you don’t have access to a gym that is open late. I’ve personally used resistance band training, a set of dumbbells, a pull up bar, and the website www.onehundredpushups.com to stay in shape during Ramadan and managed to minimize my losses even if I didn’t make maximum gains. This isn’t the month for PRs. YouTube has no shortage of home calisthenic videos and ab routines that you can do as well, if you don’t have any of your own.
There are going to be those days when your family and friends decide that all 17 of you are going to a buffet in Paterson without making reservations, and on days like that, just enjoy yourself. Plus, by the time you’ve found a table and gotten to the front of the line, you’re gonna want to do some damage. Embrace it. I’ve spent enough time away from family and friends, or spent the entire month of Ramadan without a community, that I regret the times I took for granted. Remember that Ramadan is an opportunity for both physical and spiritual detox. Don’t make up for your starvation by obsessing over food. Just be deliberate in what you eat, if you can help it, and if you have a say. Make sure you have some sort of plan and manage your expectations. Having said that, prioritize family and worship, not gym time. It’ll be OK, I promise. Unless you’re competing during the next Olympics, of course, in which case, this article probably isn’t for you.