Observing Ramadan as an elite athlete

For millions of Muslims over the world, this time of the year is an opportunity for self-reflection, discipline and strengthening their faith as they observe the period of Ramadan.

We recently caught up with two current international-level athletes, shot putter Youcef Zatat (Woodford Green and Essex Ladies) and sprinter Nabil Tezkrat (Gladys Bird, Woodford Green and Essex Ladies) to learn more about Ramadan, how they manage training and competing during a period of fasting and how coaches and clubs can support their athletes during this time.

What does Ramadan mean to you?

"It is one of the five pillars of Islam" explained Youcef. "Ramadan is all about self-control and discipline.

Youcef Zatat"For me, a successful Ramadan is when people don’t realise that I am fasting, especially when I am hungry, and my personality does not change.

"Ramadan is really about community. When we break our fast in the evening, it is a communal thing, so we have loads of neighbours round us whether they are Muslim or not who come to eat food with us.

"We are the ones fasting, but there’s no reason people can’t partake in what we are doing, similar to Christmas time. Everyone comes together and shares a special moment in time.”

Nabil TezkrattFor Nabil, Ramadan is equally a time of reflection and faith. “It is about putting your head down and the final push in terms of your relationship with God. If you can control what you eat and when you eat it, you are in control of everything else. If you are giving up food and water from sunrise to sunset, anything that you put your mind to you can achieve it.

"I remember when I started fasting when I was younger, I couldn’t complete a day never mind 30 days. It has also taught me life skills, that if I want to do athletics to a high level then I can. The first step to succeeding is believing you can do it!

"If it were not for my faith, I would not be where I am today. It makes me who I am, and it drives me to know what I want to do, and why I want to achieve it. I take my faith very seriously. Islam teaches you to persevere and to self-reflect and these things are all important within athletics as well. You can use these skills to reflect on competitions, training, sleeping and nutrition."

What age did you begin observing Ramadan?

For Youcef and Nabil, they both started to try fasting around 11 to 12 years of age

"I started observing Ramadan quite young as I was born and raised a Muslim,” said Nabil. “From a young child I have always been aware of fasting due to my parents. When I was in primary school, I would try to complete days but I was too young and would not last so I would then try to do one day on and one day off.

"The first time I completed Ramadan I was in Year 8 of school – it was very tiring and can be quite intense at times."

Youcef’s journey was similar to Nabil’s as he grew up observing his parents and older siblings fasting: “When I was eight years old, I said to my parents, ‘I am fasting now’, however, it would get to 12pm, I would be hungry and then eat. I started properly around 11 to 12, but the days were shorter than they are now, you would get home from school and almost be able to eat.

"Ramadan would often fall on the cricket season which I loved to play when I was young. We would always go away on the cricket tours where my friends and teammates would also be fasting which helped."

How do you adapt your training and competition during the period of Ramadan?

As a self-coached athlete, Youcef is currently in control of his own training. "I have self-coached for a long time now," he said. "When I was younger, I didn’t want people to make a fuss around me, so I cracked on with whatever the session was. If I was struggling, I would let my coach know, but otherwise I just got on with the day of training.

"I spoke with athletes older than me, for example 2012 Olympian Abdul Buhari and he was of the same attitude. It is not going to be easy at the time, or you can choose to take a month off training during Ramadan, but you have to accept you may not throw as well during the season.

"Competition was a little difficult as the schedule doesn’t change for Ramadan. It could be challenging when travelling which I have got used to as I’ve grown older.

"Previously if I had to travel, the day that I travelled I wouldn’t fast and then the day of the competition I would fast. I would then make up the day that I missed and normal service resumed. It made me more competitive within myself. If I hadn’t eaten or had anything to drink, I would bet that I could throw far and I turned it into a competitive mindset within myself."

Nabil on the other hand continues to work with his current sprints coach, Gladys Bird and had his first period of fasting and training around two years ago.

"We started to train later in the evening closer to the time to break the fast. This meant that during the session I could get a little bit of fluid and fuel in me to keep my body ticking.

"Thankfully, I have never fainted, but it is good to be aware of the risks of fasting and what training can do to your body. If I were to train in the morning, it would be extremely hard for me to complete the day as I would be so tired."

As a strength and conditioning coach, how do you adapt sessions and those of the athletes you support?

As well as being second on the UK rankings for shot put, Youcef Zatat is also a qualified strength and conditioning (S&C) coach, putting his knowledge and experience to excellent use to adapt his own training during Ramadan.

"The frequency and intensity of my training would increase during my fast, but the volume I would do each session would decrease.

"For example, if I would usually go to the gym three times per week for 90 minutes, I would instead go six times per week, but for only 30 minutes and do a little bit every day. Across a cumulative week the amount of training is the same, just spread out.

"I work with the University of East London, independent schools in East London as well as private athletes as an S&C coach. The athletes sometimes ask if we can train in the evening and if I can facilitate that I will. There’s research out there to show that there’s spikes in growth hormones because of fasting and so you can try and take advantage of that safely."

What advice would you give to coaches who are supporting Muslim athletes during Ramadan?

"It is important for people to have an awareness, but there doesn’t need to be an intervention," explained Youcef. "A club may have a number of Muslims down at the track, and some may be fasting, and others are not, it is entirely individual. Some athletes may be open to having a conversation and want to discuss how the session can be modified with their coach. Other athletes like me may just want to crack on and will let you know if they’re struggling but other than that let’s get on and work hard.

"Awareness is the most important thing. Be conscious of how you structure sessions and being aware that athletes can do well during fasting, and others do not and that is ok - be open to modifying your sessions.

"Sometimes coaches who are not Muslim are not confident and do not want to say the wrong thing however ultimately if you don’t understand something that is absolutely fine, and we are happy to have a conversation. Coaches just need to be confident in asking and try to understand."
Video clip of Youcef's interview. Watch on YouTube

As a 400m athlete, having an open dialogue with his coach really helps Nabil to stay focussed, moving well and positive whilst training during Ramadan.

"We take precautions and when training, Gladys (my coach) will check in with me and let me know how she thinks I am doing each rep, and I will tell her how I feel in myself –we will then decide whether I am good to continue.

"If it gets to a point where I am struggling, she will stop me. One thing coaches can take from Gladys is to keep in regular touch with your athlete inside and outside of the session. This gives the athlete a sense of confidence in the coach. When somebody is regularly checking up on you, you care about them more and it shows to you that they are invested and creates a better relationship. Anything is possible when you have the right people around you. When you have good coaches, effective communication, and a good family anything is possible."

What is your relationship between your athletics and your faith?

"When I was young, it wasn’t a consideration," mentioned Youcef. "Now I train as hard as I can and do everything I can to be successful but, in my mind, what will be will be.

"Some put that down to the universe, but I say whatever God wants to happen, will happen. It gives me the ease in competition that if I am supposed to be successful today, I will be. If not, then so be it. I have given it my all in my mind and I leave the rest up to God."