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
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).
Food, but above all water
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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%.