Ramadan: How to work out and eat to maintain muscle and fitness while fasting

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This year, Ramadan falls from April 23 to May 23 and sees Muslims across the world fasting from sunrise to sunset while reflecting, spending time with family, and celebrating the holy month.

As the dates change every year, so does the fasting window — being nearly summer, at the end of Ramadan 2020 in the UK, for example, Muslims will be fasting from 3 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Not only does this mean no food for 18 hours, but no water or other drinks either.

It’s important to look after yourself and stay healthy during Ramadan, and for people who are particularly into their fitness, personal trainer Faisal Abdalla has an excellent guide on how to workout during the holy month.

With only around six to eight hours of non-fasting in the day, you might think it’s impossible to work out during Ramadan in the summer, but that’s not the case.

“When Ramadan falls in the summer months, as it has for the last few years, it is especially hard because the days are longer and the weather is warmer. The window to eat and sleep is significantly smaller than in the winter, so training has its challenges, but it’s not impossible,” wrote Abdalla, who is known as Mr. PMA (Positive Mental Attitude).

When it comes to exercising during Ramadan, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

“We all respond to fasting in different ways, we all have different family set-ups and demands upon us, and the same goes for work outside of the home,” Abdalla explained.

Everyone responds differently to fasting, so Abdalla stresses the importance of listening to your body.

For him, this means strength training during the day but saving any cardio for after iftar (breaking the fast at sunset).

“But I’ve been doing that for years and my body responds well to it,” Abdalla added. “It’s not something I recommend in general to most people, but it works for me.”

If you’re conscious of holding on to your muscle during Ramadan, Abdalla recommends limiting cardio to twice a week and, like him, doing it after iftar.

He also advises keeping workouts light in daylight hours, like going on a brisk walk, and saving any higher intensity workouts until after you’ve broken your fast.

If you want to do heavy weight training, Abdalla advises doing so early in the morning before suhoor (sunrise), so you can refuel properly afterward. 

One thing Abdalla absolutely does not recommend, however, is starting a new workout regime during Ramadan.

“Ramadan is all about bettering yourself in every way, and your health is an integral part of that,” he told Insider.

“Therefore you should certainly be looking to keep moving and stay active, but I wouldn’t recommend starting a whole new grueling exercise regime.”

If you don’t normally exercise at all, Abdalla advises keeping movement light. 

“Picking up intensive training shouldn’t be done when you’re not hydrated and adequately fueled,” he said.

“Above anything else, it won’t be enjoyable and if you want something to be sustainable it has to be something you want to keep doing!”

He recommends going for walks or trying some of the low-intensity exercises he’s sharing on his Ramadan IGTV series, and saving the big fitness push for after the holy month. 

Eating healthily and limiting refined sugars during Ramadan is recommended as it will help you regulate your energy levels.

Ideally, you want to avoid processed, fried, and salty foods. “These will dehydrate you and make the fast feel so much longer,” Juliana Campos, former fitness coach to the Abu Dhabi royal family, explained to Insider.

Abdalla echoed this point, saying that such foods “make the next day a real struggle, especially if you’re training or losing fluids through sweat in warmer weather.”

While it might be tempting to guzzle down as much water as you can after sunset, this isn’t recommended.

“Aim for about 2.5 liters but rehydrate slowly and sensibly until you begin your fast again so your body can absorb it properly,” said Abdalla. “And if you train after breaking fast, be sure to sip water during your training and after.”

“I would also recommend taking vitamin C supplements and making juices or teas with fresh ginger and turmeric, as both ingredients are packed full of antioxidants and are great for the immune system,” Campos said.

Avoid caffeine as it will dehydrate you further.

Don’t overeat. “Don’t overeat to try and compensate for lost calories in the day,” said Abdalla. “Take your time and don’t eat more than what you would in a normal day outside of Ramadan.”

Keep your energy levels up by focusing on nutritious, colorful foods.

“Opt for complex, fibrous, slow-release carbohydrates with meals such as wholegrain rice, quinoa, beans, lentils, or sweet potatoes because it takes longer to break them down,” explained Abdalla, adding that such foods will release energy slowly and stabilize your blood sugar.

Dates are traditionally eaten to break the fast and are a great energy source.

“Dates are recommended because they’re packed with potassium which helps your muscles and nerves function, and they keep you regular which can be an issue in the first few days of fasting,” said Abdalla.

“But they’re also high in sugar so go easy on them.”