Have you ever used Ramadan as an excuse to be physically lazy? You wouldn’t be alone if you did. Many times we cite fasting as a reason to exert as little energy as possible. But when we look at Muslim athletes around the globe, we see the exact opposite.

These amazing individuals continue to meet the grueling, physical demands of their respective sports even while abstaining from food and drink. They are an inspiration and an example of what one can accomplish with the proper mental and physical strength. Let’s take a deeper look at how Muslim athletes maintain such high levels of performance during this blessed month.



The 2014 FIFA World Cup coincided with the month of Ramadan, and this had a major effect on many of the Muslim players. One such example is the Algerian national soccer team, led by Captain Madjid Bougherra, who was determined to maintain the fast despite the searing heat of the Brazilian summer. “Personally, I’m going to see what my physical state is, but I think I can do it,” Bougherra said in an interview with France 24. The Algerian team advanced to the second round for the first time in its history.

In 2012, the Olympics took place during the month of Ramadan for the first time since 1980. Somali 400-meter runner Zamzam Mohamed Farah told The New York Times she would observe the fast. “Ramadan is something we have to perform,” she said. “I’m just as fast and I will run and I don’t think it will affect me as an athlete.” She finished near the bottom of the race, but the takeaway is that she still trained and competed in an event as intense as the Olympics, not using Ramadan as an excuse to give up.

Perhaps the best example can be found in National Basketball Association (NBA) Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon. Olajuwon is one of the most accomplished players in NBA history. He is a 2-time champion, 12-time all-star, and the only player in NBA history to win NBA Most Valuable Player (MVP), Defensive Player of the Year, and NBA Finals MVP in the same season. Yet while those feats are truly remarkable, perhaps the greatest testament to him was his ability to perform at incredibly high levels while fasting the month of Ramadan. During the 1995 season, Olajuwon won NBA player of the month in February, despite fasting the entire month as Ramadan began February 1.

So how exactly do these Muslim athletes do it? And can fasting actually be more of a benefit than a hindrance?



How does one go through a 12–15 hour fast and still maintain peak performance? I spoke with former Southern Methodist University soccer player Omar Abdalla, who explained that having a specific routine and discipline is crucial in maintaining strong performance. “My Ramadan routine was difficult,” he said. “I would wake up in the morning, have suhoor (pre-dawn meal) consisting of a large quantity of eggs, dates, and milk to ensure enough energy during the day, pray fajr (dawn prayer), and then sleep for an extra 45 minutes before getting ready to head straight to practice.”

We can also find a great example in the Abdullah brothers, former Arizona Cardinals defensive back Hamza and current Kansas City Chiefs safety Husain, who have both gone through the rigors of the National Football League (NFL) while fasting the month of Ramadan.

Hamza spoke about his Ramadan diet routine in a 2010 interview with Yahoo Sports Shutdown Corner. “On a typical day, I’ll wake up at about 4:30 in the morning, and eat a normal-sized breakfast. Waffles, vegetarian sausages, and some eggs. Oatmeal or a protein bar in there, and then I start my fast. One important thing is hydration; I probably drink 200 ounces of water in the morning, and after I break my fast, I’m continually drinking throughout the night just to make sure that I’m hydrated and replenishing those fluids that I lost during the day.”

But that is only half of the routine. A complete Ramadan regimen must encompass not only the physical nourishment, but mental and spiritual nourishment as well. “My afternoons were spent going to class and staying mentally engaged, and a nap was absolutely essential either in the afternoon or right before the time to break the fast,” Abdalla explains. “Most importantly, I dedicated a portion of my day to reading and reflecting upon the Quran, in addition to performing the daily prayers and taraweeh (special night prayers in Ramadan).”

Husain added that he would often fast from other things, such as music and video games, instead opting for spiritual nutriment. “People make extra prayers, which are called Tahajjud prayers (late night prayer), which are added at around 1:00 or 2:00 a.m. Also, during Ramadan, we read the whole Quran, which is broken up into 30 parts.”



Contrary to popular belief, there are multiple benefits gained from performing physical activity while fasting the month of Ramadan. “Detoxification, physical exhaustion leading to mental strengthening and toughness, and reduction of body fat,” Abdalla explains when asked about such benefits.

It is impossible to speak of the physical benefits without also touching on the spiritual enhancements. “Awakening, sense of commitment, selflessness to others who are forced to fast due to lack of nutrition, extreme focus, and an overall peace and tranquility,” he continues.

The point about focus is further emphasized by Dr. Najee-ullah, who states that intermittent fasting can lead to stronger focus and concentration. If one is able to perform while depriving the body of necessary nutrients and hydration, then athletes will be on another level with all of the proper components available. “The main challenge is making sure the athletes are still getting what they need during the eating hours, which aren’t very long during the summer,” she says. “I am a huge fan of supplemental vitamins and minerals. Taken regularly with the proper diet, vitamins continue to provide sustenance to the body over time.”


Teammate Reactions

“But you can at least drink water, right?” This is common refrain from teammates unfamiliar with the guidelines of the blessed month.

“Respect and extreme awe,” Abdalla tells of his teammates’ reaction when he explains to them that nothing, including water is allowed during the fast. “They couldn’t believe the mental strength it requires to be able to perform in Ramadan.”

Robert Horry, former teammate of Olajuwon, spoke to The National about Olajuwon playing during Ramadan, saying, “There are 48 minutes to a game and for you to play 42 minutes of that 48 and not even be able to take a sip of water, that is just phenomenal.”

Hamza adds, “One of my teammates, Michael Adams, recently told me, ‘Hamza, you seem like you’re really at peace.’ And I like to think that’s the benefit of fasting. You’re never too high or too low.”


Inspiration and Reflection

The willpower and discipline to completely abstain from physical nourishment while competing with such intensity is truly astonishing. The one common belief is that, although the body isn’t receiving the nutrients during the day, God is providing the sustenance for these athletes to fulfill the extreme physical demands of their sport.

“I want to test my limits as a man spiritually and physically,” says Hamza. “I want to see if I can go through the same struggles that people go through every day. There are people fasting right now who aren’t doing it by choice.”

“I’m putting nothing before God, nothing before my religion,” Husain told the Associated Press in 2010. “Football is something I choose to do, not something I have to do. So I’m always going to fast.”

The strength of such exemplary athletes as Hakeem Olajuwon, the Abdullah brothers, and the many other professional and recreational Muslim athletes who continue to fast during physical exertion is the essence of “mind over matter.” When one can control such basic needs as food and water while pushing the body to physical limits, it is truly an amazing thing. So next time you feel the fatigue of fasting trying to take over and prevent you from being strong and active, remember these athletes for some inspiration.


Maintaining Optimal Performance

Take the example of growing a garden. Months of planning and preparation are necessary to ensure a healthy garden so when the time for harvesting comes, there are plentiful crops. Such is how the Muslim is prescribed to be in the months leading up to Ramadan. Entering the month of Ramadan without preparation or an established routine will prevent the Muslim from blossoming, both physically and spiritually, just as a garden would not flourish without prepping the soil.

Dr. Muslimah Ali Najee-ullah, doctor of anatomy and health and fitness expert, works with many Muslim athletes and is currently training many sisters to run a 5k at the beginning of Ramadan. She echoes the importance of building prior habits and shares a few tips for Muslim athletes to maintain high levels of performance while observing the Ramadan fast:

Don’t start any new activity plan during Ramadan. Establish a physical routine two to three months prior to Ramadan so that activity can be maintained during the month.

Work out directly before iftar (fast-breaking meal), after iftar, or before suhoor. If at all possible, avoid exercising outside during peak hot hours of the day, especially during the summer months.

A proper diet is crucial. Eat well-balanced meals for suhoor and iftar, full of fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and vitamin supplements. Avoid processed foods and sugary sweets, especially during iftar.

Hydration is absolutely vital! Drink plenty of water during the non-fasting hours, and keep water by your bed to drink intermittently during the night. It’s strongly recommended that athletes continue to drink their recommended minimum amount of water during eating hours. The amount of water one should ingest is half of his or her weight in ounces, e.g. a 120-pound person should drink 60 ounces of water per day.

One must listen to his or her body. Showing signs of exhaustion or dehydration is a symbol to scale back and reduce workloads. Professional athletes have a team of people invested in their physical well beings, but average people don’t and have to be mindful of what their bodies are telling them.

Muneer Shehadi is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) from the Chicago area. He has a BA from the University of Illinois and his interests include sports, research, Islamic studies, and food.