How to Run in Ramadan
Today on my run, a father pointed at me and shouted “She’s jogging and fasting! Look!” His whole family stared as I struggled up the hill and smiled. I prefer the term running, but at that point in the run, jogging was a complement. I have a history of running in Ramadan.
I trained for my first race with a bunch of friends during Ramadan–The 2008 Philadelphia Half Marathon. We were all fasting. We ran together an hour before iftar, ending strategically at the dining hall. Since then, running before iftar has become routine. While no studies have been published that address whether or not it is OK to fast and run, I have found that it feels fine. Furthermore, one of the world’s experts on fasting Dr. Mark Mattson, says that fasting and running “is not only OK, but a good idea.” Dr. Mattson is Chief of the Laboratory of Neurosciences at the National Institute on Aging and Professor of Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University, and in an email correspondence responding to my inquiry on the subject, he answered:
My opinion is that fasting for 12-16 hours prior to typical amounts of exercise (e.g. running for 30 -60 min) is not only OK, but a good idea. That said, this would likely not be practical for individuals training for ultramarathons or the tour-de-France who typically must consume more than 4,000 calories per day to maintain their ideal body weight.”
In Baltimore, today’s fast was from 4:18 AM – 8:35 PM, totaling to just over 16 hours. To yield the improved training benefits of running and fasting, one should take special precautions:
1. Hydrate Well.
I drink a lot of water and fill up on fruit at every opportunity: with iftar, after iftar, after taraweeh, and with suhoor. I gobble up fruits high in water contents to satisfy my thirst: watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapples, grapefruit, and oranges. I also munch on fruits that are high in potassium to help maintain my electrolytes for running: dates, figs, bananas, and peaches. Coconut water with suhoor helps, too.
2. Eat Smart. Quantity and quality matter more than usual during Ramadan because the meals are fewer, so every morsel makes a difference. I find it best to avoid foods full of sugar and salt because these foods don’t sit well in my stomach and will come back to haunt me on the run 16+ hours after the act. It’s also best not to fill the stomach to saturation, and to instead follow the usual 1/3rd rule. The consequences of overeating are similar to those of eating junk food–a discomfort throughout the day of fasting, which magnifies itself on the run.
Narrated Salman ibn Amir: The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: When one of you is fasting, he should break his fast with dates; but if he cannot get any, then (he should break his fast) with water, for water is purifying. [Sunan Abu Dawood – Book 13 Hadith 234]
Today’s science explains our Prophet’s wisdom. Dates are high in calories and composed largely of simple sugars which are easily digestible, rapidly replenishing the body after a run and fast. Dates are also high in potassium, which helps to maintain an electrolyte balance; iron, which determines the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood; magnesium, which has anti-inflammatory benefits; calcium, which is necessary for every neuronal synapse; and fiber, which promotes digestive health. Dates are essential for a runner, and especially so for a fasting runner!
4. Find a time that works best for you. Right before iftar is my favorite time to run, and the research suggests that it is best to run on an empty stomach. However, studies investigating fasting typically define the fast to exclude only solid fooditems and calorie-containing beverages. The Islamic fast also excludes water, therefore more research is necessary. In the mean time, runners need to be careful, and either run at a time when water is permissible or right before iftar. I usually run 30-60 minutes before iftar, depending on the weather, the number of miles intended, and how I feel. Some of my Muslim friends prefer running after iftar, either before taraweeh, after taraweeh, or even right before suhoor. I enjoy running on an empty stomach; however, running without water means paying attention to my body and responding accordingly. I have cut runs short, slowed down my pace, and switched to walking when I realize I’m sweating too much to continue without water.
5. Monitor the heat. Consider running indoors if it gets too hot. I opt for the treadmill when I’m fasting and it’s over 90 degrees Fahrenheit. An indoor workout is an opportunity to cross-train and challenge myself with strength training. Simple exercises that make a big impact in running include push-ups, sit-ups, squats, lunges, and the plank.
6. Map for Coolness. During Ramadan, I plan to run through forests or past bodies of water because these routes physically and mentally make the miles cooler. Trees could decrease the temperature by up to 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The sights and sounds of moving water also makes me feel refreshed, and mentally satisfy a part of my thirst. Lastly, I plan routes no farther than 3 miles from home in any direction; so, I am always close to safety and on familiar turf, which is soothing on water-less runs.
7. Bring a cell phone. This is a precaution I ought to carry year-round. In Ramadan, I remember to bring a cell phone, stored it in a zip lock bag in case it rains.
8. Bring a date. Both edible dates and friend dates help. Although I plan to end my runs before sunset, sometimes I end up on the road or in the trails just as the sun is starting to set. When this happens, I’m grateful to have an edible date on hand to break my fast on the run. Friend dates keep me accountable. Sometimes when I get home after a workday, all I want to do is draw; planning to meet a friend for a run ensures that I will lace up and go. Running with friends also provides safety in numbers, keeps my pace up to speed, and ends up being a social hour!
9. Sleep enough. During Ramadan, in between taraweeh and suhoor, it is easy to get less than 4 hours of sleep a night. I aim for 6-7 hours by going back to sleep after suhoor, and taking short naps after Dhur on weekends. Fasting should feel rejuvenating, not tiring. Feeling tired makes routine activities difficult, and running out of the question.
10. Run for fun. Running is fun, and this mantra is no different during Ramadan. If it feels exhausting after a day’s fast, then review hydration, nutrition, the weather, and your sleep schedule. If any of these variables are out of check, it could result in an unpleasant, or even dangerous run. Even if each variable is optimized, a run could still feel tiring, and that’s a sign to take a break.
I run in Ramadan for fun and fitness for upcoming marathons, and because running and fasting work synergistically to improve my Ramadan experience. Running gives me a boost of energy just when I’m starting to feel tired so that I could make a better use of the night. Every moment of Ramadan is special, and should not be wasted feeling tired. If it becomes a battle of resources for running versus fasting, I vote for the latter because it is better to optimize Ramadan than it is to optimize running in Ramadan.