Conditioning During Ramadan – My Experience
Updated: Mar 18
Food is fuel for the body, so what happens if you have to go through training while on empty? This year I experienced a unique adventure working at a predominantly Muslim rugby club in Cape Town. Now for those of you that don’t know, Ramadan is a month of fasting for Muslims worldwide, thus abstaining from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. The interesting challenge we had to face is how to load the players’ adequately during this time not to fall victim to detraining. Collectively, the coaching team decided to fast with the players during Ramadan to experience what their bodies were going through. The purpose of this piece is to discuss what we as a group experienced, what worked, and what could be improved upon with regard to training.
A week before fasting started, a couple of senior players had already begun with their “preseason” for Ramadan, fasting for one or two days just to prepare themselves for what was to come. The junior club players (U/18s) had a lecture with Dr Sharief Hendricks, from University of Cape Town, Exercise Science and Sports Medicine department, on nutrition as well as training methodologies. The main concern from the players’ side was that their off-season strength gains and preseason work capacity were going to fade.
The way the players counteracted this was by having strength maintenance sessions 3 times a week and choosing 3 main movements in each session, then loading the movement at approximately 60% of 1RM for between 5-8 reps. We gave players freedom with sets, keeping it subjective, and allowing them to vary the amount of sets depending on their reaction to the first. One of the trends we picked up was that players reacted better to power sessions in the morning as opposed to in the evenings. These power sessions were done at moderate intensity getting out 6-8 reps. When doing evening gym sessions, players found it more comfortable shifting their reps to around 10-12, lengthening the session and focussing on hypertrophy or maintenance.
One of the biggest hurdles that we faced as a club was about what time to train – if we had kept the practice time at 18:30, it would have clashed with the breaking of the fast and prayer. The senior club players decided to shift the training time to after Iftar (when fasting is broken) and also we shortened our training sessions for the first week. During this first week of Ramadan, we had flexible sessions with regards to training load, and our emphasis was mainly on technical aspects.
After the first week, the players felt their bodies adapting, and training sessions would become progressively longer as Ramadan continued. The focus of each training session was not to destroy the players who had just eaten, but rather have a high intensity session after warm-up, and focus on technical aspects of play for rest of the session. For example, we found that most players would over-indulge at Iftar and cover fewer yards if we had planned a volume session.
The session started with a warm-up, followed by a high intensity working session for 15-20 minutes, with the aim of maintaining metabolic, as well as aerobic capacity. The remainder of the session was dependent on the players reaction to the conditioning session, if they were feeling drained we opted for mini-games. With these mini-games we had set work-to-rest ratios which we used to determine the ball in play time. By incorporating mini-games into training we found that players’ intensity lifted and covered more metres due to the fun and competitive aspect. This strategy is not uncommon as Hill-Haas (2008) found that incorporating SSG into training, resulted in increase in exercise intensity and sport specific endurance in football.
As the saying goes, “if you chase two rabbits, both will escape”, thus we chose to focus on a single aspect of our game during Ramadan. We ran our structure from set pieces during the break and our main objective was clarity. In the past the club had a couple of games before Ramadan, but due to league complications (drought) we were in the midst of a compressed season. As a team we decided to be as innovative, but as practical, as possible. Thus building a base before Ramadan and trying to maintain during this period.
Looking at the Western Province Club Rugby league, roughly 12 out of the 70 clubs are affected by Ramadan and this is not to mention any other sport codes. We as coaches, sport science and support staff are in a position where we can recommend exercises and drills or even lifestyle changes, but we have to have experienced it ourselves.
For me personally, I found that I lost about 6kg and the players awarded me major respect points for going through the fast with them. I now also incorporate fasting into my weekly routine and it has become a lifestyle. Experiencing Ramadan with a Muslim community has truly been a humbling experience, and there are really ways to train when fasting, you just have dare to be innovative.
Hill-Haas, S.V., Dawson, B., Impellizzeri, F.M. and Coutts, A.J., 2011. Physiology of small-sided games training in football. Sports medicine, 41(3), pp.199-220.