Objective: Ramadan is a period of daylight abstention from liquid or solid nutrients. As sports continue to be scheduled, an understanding of the effects of Ramadan on Muslim athletes is warranted.
Design: Two Algerian professional soccer teams (55 men) were studied. Field tests of physical and soccer performance were collected before, at the end and 2 weeks after Ramadan in 2004. Players were queried on sleeping habits and personal perception of training and match performance.
Setting: Field setting at club training ground.
Main outcome measures: Performance on fitness and skill tests.
Results: Performance declined significantly (p<0.05) for speed, agility, dribbling speed and endurance, and most stayed low after the conclusion of Ramadan. Nearly 70% of the players thought that their training and performance were adversely affected during the fast.
Conclusions: The phase shift of food intake and disruption of sleep patterns affect actual and perceived physical performance. Islamic athletes need to explore strategies that will maximise performance during Ramadan.
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Soccer’s popularity crosses geographical, political and religious boundaries. One of the major religions of the world is Islam, with over one billion people in multiple nations living under Islamic laws where soccer is one of the major spectator and participant sports.
The major religious period of the Islamic calendar is Ramadan, when healthy post-pubescent Muslims fast, without damaging their health, from sunrise to sunset for the 4-week period. Muslims are invited to abstain from all types of liquid or solid nutrient intake as well as all unhealthy or aggressive behaviour during this period of purification, internal meditation and regeneration.
Physiological and clinical effects of Ramadan on hormonal, metabolic and behavioural responses have been the focus of study. Limited data on physical performance show that submaximal factors (ie, heart rate) are affected little whereas maximal work declines.1 Because football is contested internationally and matches continue to be scheduled during Ramadan, our aim was to learn how Ramadan affects the performance of competitive soccer players.
MATERIALS AND METHODS
The study was conducted in Algeria in 2004 when Ramadan occurred between 15 October and 13 November. Two professional teams consented to participate in the project. The total number of players who participated in the study was 55. The ethics committee of the state of Algiers approved the protocol. All players gave their signed, informed consent before participation in the project.
Field tests of fitness were conducted 2 days after a match at 14:00 h (typical match time). Explosive leg power was determined by the standing vertical jump. Agility was measured using the four-line test.2 A dribbling test2 was used as a test of soccer skill. Speed and acceleration were obtained by photoelectric cells during a 20 m sprint from a standing start. The sprint course had timing lights every 5 m. The fastest of three trials was reported in m/s. Endurance was measured using the 12 min run, with recovery heart rates monitored for 5 min.
Players were tested 2 weeks before the beginning of Ramadan, in the last week of Ramadan and 2 weeks after the end of Ramadan. The players were interviewed daily during the fast by one of two trained technicians regarding physical and emotional factors.
Continuous data were summarised by routine descriptive statistics. Changes over time were determined by repeated-measures analysis of variance (Geisser–Greenhouse correction) with Tukey’s follow-up procedure using SAS JMP statistical software (Cary, North Carolina, USA). Nominal data from the interviews were summarised by frequencies. The significance level was set at 0.05.
Of the original 55 players, we had complete data on 48 (injuries or illness). The players averaged 72.6 (SD 5.8) kg in mass, 178.2 (6.1) cm in stature and were aged 17–34 years. Weight did not change over the course of the project.
Table 1 shows the descriptive data and the levels of significance for the performance data. In the fourth week of Ramadan, performance was reduced on a wide range of tests (20 m speed, speed dribbling, agility, endurance and recovery) and was below the initial values when tested 2 weeks after the end of the fasting period.
Table 2 lists descriptive information on subjective ratings regarding the fast. About 70% of players reported that the quality of their training was poorer during the fast, and just over 75% of the players thought that their match performance was reduced during the fast. Sleep volume was reduced by just over 30 min during Ramadan, but nearly three-quarters of the players said that the quality of their sleep was poorer than before Ramadan because the sleep cycle is disrupted to accommodate food intake.
Nearly one-quarter of the players thought that they ate more during Ramadan, whereas more than half perceived that they ate less. The players’ estimate of food volume rebounded above pre-Ramadan values during the 2 weeks after the fast. An interesting finding was that the players believed they increased consumption of soft drinks during the fast.
Finally, a series of symptoms changed during the fast, especially an increase in headache and vertigo. In most cases, after the fast, subjective ratings by the players had either returned to pre-Ramadan values or rebounded above pre-fasting levels. Importantly, nearly all the players believed that their training and match performance had improved to close to pre-Ramadan levels once the fast had been concluded.
Although data on the effects of Ramadan on physical performance are limited, this is the first study to focus on competitive professional athletes. Our data show transient changes in performance variables, some of which recover quickly and others that are still reduced 2 weeks after the end of Ramadan.
Endurance capacity was reduced by nearly 20% at the end of Ramadan and about half of the reduction was regained in the 2 weeks after the fast (table 1). Immediate post-run heart rates were increased in near parallel to the reduction in endurance; however, even though the run distance increased in the 2 weeks after the fast, the post-run heart rate was unchanged. One reason for the decline might be the change in sleep patterns. Martin3 showed about an 11% reduction in aerobic capacity with acute sleep deprivation. Another possibility is that even with adequate carbohydrate intake, football players fail to fully replenish glycogen levels after a match,4 which would have an impact on an exhaustive effort 2 days after a match. Nonetheless, endurance was reduced, recovered somewhat after the fast, and recovery heart rates were further evidence of a reduction in endurance capacity.
Dribbling speed and agility were both affected, but to say that fasting was the cause might be neglecting other factors such as the environment, motivation and so on. Neither of these tests is of sufficient length of time to have been influenced by availability of fuel and are unlikely to be affected by low calorie intake. Submaximal physical exercise does not seem to be affected appreciably during Ramadan, but there is a shift towards fat metabolism during exercise performed in the afternoon before the evening meal; however, maximal exercise is reduced during Ramadan.1
Ramadan is a phase shift in food intake and a disruption in sleep patterns more than a “fast” where food is restricted. Food intake is not restricted during Ramadan; the restriction is when food is eaten. Shifting food intake until after sunset upsets the timing of intake, sleep patterns to accommodate the change in mealtime, and the likely effects on behavioural aspects of the normal day’s activities. This makes the influence of Ramadan on daily activities more a matter of chronobiology than of calorie restriction.
Training or a match scheduled at 14:00 h could well be ⩾8 h after the player’s last meal and many hours until their next meal, which is beyond the window for optimal glycogen replenishment. On the basis of the present data and other practical matters regarding performance and nutrition, the Islamic athlete faces unique challenges not experienced by non-Muslims and needs to explore strategies to optimise physical performance during Ramadan.
All our physical tests required a maximal effort, but these professional football players ran just over 2900 m in 12 min, which, when used to calculate maximum oxygen consumption, gives an average of 52 ml/kg/min. Most reports on the aerobic fitness of male football players give values of 55–65 ml/kg/min. As with most physical tasks that require an exhaustive effort, subject motivation is always an issue. Players who think that their training and match performance have been affected by the fast might not be overly motivated to perform at maximal effort during testing. This could be a result of mood and motivation like that reported by Roky et al,5,6 who showed significant reductions in mood and alertness at the end of Ramadan. The players did believe that their training and performance were both below normal and could be a reflection of their mood during this period.
What is already known on this topic
The effects of food restriction on laboratory performance are well known.
Ramadan is, however, less a fast and more a phase shift in calorie intake and change in sleeping habits.
These phase shifts are reported to have effects on the selected activities of daily living, mood, motivation and maximal performance, with little effect on submaximal exercise.
What this study adds
Ramadan reduced physical and football-specific performance, and many of these decrements had not recovered in the 2 weeks after the end of this period of fasting.
Players thought that the fast affected both their training and match performance.
These data show that physical performance in soccer players is affected during Ramadan, which may be a result of changes in fitness or changes in mood and motivation which has been reported by others. The Islamic competitive athlete needs to explore strategies and options to maintain optimal performance during Ramadan.
Published Online First 15 January 2007
Competing interests: None declared.
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