Training by faith: the role of religion in sports performance

So much has been said about it in 2012, which for the first time in more than thirty years the sacred period coincided with the days of the Olympic Games. It was discussed again in 2016, with the Rio Olympic Games, when the same coincidence occurred again. And recently the topic has returned to occupy the pages of newspapers and television studios, since this year the final of the Champions League will also fall in the middle of Ramadan.

It is an important and complex issue that, from identity to religion, up to health, involves different dimensions of extraordinary delicacy, posing a question that has already been shown to be controversial: can we train, perhaps prepare for an important competition, by fasting?

Ramadan: the month of faith and fasting

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, the sacred month dedicated to prayer and fasting. During this time of year, all men and women of the Islamic faith, with the sole exception of sick people, those on the move, children and pregnant women, are required to abstain daily from food, water and any other type of drink, smoke and sexual relations, from dawn to dusk.
It is the largest of the religious feasts in Islam, during which the first revelation of the Koran to Mohammed is celebrated, and constitutes one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion.

It is clear that Muslim athletes periodically face a challenge that goes beyond the field of play, having to limit their intake of food and drink to just two moments of suhur and iftar (before sunrise and after sunset, respectively).

Before even looking for the best solution to continue training in unfavourable physical conditions, they also have to decide whether to respect the precepts of their religion or sacrifice their cultural belonging and beliefs to avoid the risk of compromising their preparation and performance. A situation of stress that can only intensify if the competition that is preparing is expected during the course of Ramadan.

Food, but above all water

Even more than food, to represent a significant limit in the training of athletes who choose to abide by religious precepts is the duty to refrain from drinking: the combination of intense physical effort and the impossibility of taking liquids make the risk of dehydration a concrete and not inconsiderable risk that, in addition to undermining the quality of training, can threaten the health and general physical condition of sportsmen.

Does this mean that Ramadan and training are incompatible? Even if the opinion is far from unanimous, it seems possible to indicate with a certain degree of certainty a tendentially negative answer: training during Ramadan, with the necessary expedients of the case, you can.

It is easy to see that not everyone responds in the same way to such physical stress. For this reason, many people recommend reducing the load and intensity of training in the first week of Ramadan, in order to keep the body's reaction to fasting under control and allow it to adapt to the new situation. After the first few days, you will have a better perception of your conditions and, as a result, you will be better able to distribute the load of training that you think you can cope with. In short, the fundamental advice will not sound like a novelty to athletes: first of all, you need to know how to listen to your body.

But is fasting really an obstacle?

Despite the fact that the subject is becoming increasingly important, there are still few studies on the relationship between Ramadan and sports performance. The theme is articulated and the variables to be considered are many. However, the research that has been carried out has produced very interesting results.

Ron Maughan, Professor of Sport and Exercise Nutrition at Loughborough University, studied the effects of fasting on the performance of athletes who participated in the London 2012 Olympics. His research has shown that fasting has an impact on the activity of athletes engaged in disciplines that require particularly intense physical effort, on all marathons, but in more general terms the effect can be considered relatively small.
It was more difficult, however, to measure the relationship between fasting and performance in sports with more complex dynamics, such as football, where, according to Maughan, variables should be considered almost impossible to evaluate.

In any case, the professor believes that there could be a not very significant impact on the sport, as confirmed by the research conducted by Michel D'Hooghe, chairman of FIFA's medical committee, in collaboration with the Algerian football federation.

When fasting improves performance

The rower Mohamed Sbihi, winner of the gold medal in the "4 without" at the Olympics in Rio 2016, has an even more unusual position on the matter, and certainly the elements to defend it are not lacking: it is precisely in a race sustained during a period of fasting that has set his personal record.

And on the thesis that fasting can become a useful stimulus to improve performance he built a research for his degree in Sports Sciences, showing how most people, in perceiving that they are at a disadvantage, naturally increase the level of commitment, turning the difficulties of departure into a strength.

Whether religious fasting is perceived as an opportunity or an obstacle, for some the opportunity to practice it is not even in question. This is the case of Ibtihaj Muhammad, fencer who has gone down in history for being the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics, those of Rio 2016, wearing a hijab.

In an interview at the Huffington Post just before the Brazilian Olympics, where he won a bronze medal in the team saber, the athlete said:

For me faith is a priority. That's why I never wondered whether or not to practice fasting during training periods. Since I competed at this level, I have always had to train and fast at the same time. The only difference for me is that I am now in the middle of the preparation for the Olympics.

To better manage the preparation during Ramadan, Ibtihaj Muhammad changed his entire training routine and corrected his diet, supplementing the meat he seldom consumed during the other periods of the year and preferring foods with a high water content.
However, whether or not to practice fasting in view of an important competition remains a very personal choice: there are many cases of athletes who have preferred to move the period of abstention to another time of year or have turned to religious authorities to be dispensed from the practice of Ramadan.

As already pointed out, it is first of all a question of self-awareness, which has more to do with the perception of one's own potential and physical limits than with attachment to one's own culture and faith: without a doubt, in no case is it a decision taken lightly.

The faith of the athlete

Ramadan is certainly a unique anniversary, an element that strongly characterizes the Islamic religion and the life of those who profess it. However, apart from the fact that there is hardly any religion that does not prescribe precise eating behaviour, more or less limited to specific times of the year, the relationship between religion and sport goes far beyond the "Ramadan question", proving to be independent of particular beliefs.

In his book Bounce: The Myth of Talent and the Power of Practice, British journalist Matthew Syed theorized how religious faith, any kind of religious faith, can positively affect an athlete's performance and career. According to Syed, faith would have the power to reduce anxiety and increase self-confidence, supporting athletes in managing the ongoing stress situations they are subjected to.

In addition, prayers and rituals would have the ability to instill in athletes a beneficial sense of control even over what is by nature independent of their efforts. In Syed's book we read how faith can give top-level sportsmen and women a meaning that justifies their efforts, safeguards their motivation and helps them overcome the most difficult moments, such as defeats and injuries.

And if you look at the world of American sport, and that of American football in particular, for scepticism seems to remain very little space: in a country where about 25% of the population identifies as evangelical Christian, the estimated number of evangelical players of the National Football League is close to 40%.

Philadelphia Eagles, the team that competes in the East Division of National Football Conference for the city of Philadelphia, is perhaps the most emblematic story of all: just look at the video, also taken from an article in the Washington Post, in which Carson Wentz, quarterback of the team, is the promoter of "Football Sunday", a movement created by the players of the NFL in order to turn football into "an opportunity for evangelization for evangelical churches around the world”. The same Philadelphia Eagles, moreover, this year have been protagonists together with the New England Patriots of Boston, of the Super Bowl, the final of the championship of the National Football League.

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