Fasting, Fast Times and the Olympics

The fact that the 2012 London Olympics is going to be held entirely during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadhan in August this year poses  the question: does fasting affect sports performance?

In July 2012, it is estimated that more than 11,000 athletes will compete, of which about a quarter of whom will be Muslims who will be expected to undertake a dawn-to-dusk complete abstinence of all food and water. That means, at the height of summer, no food or drink from something like from 4.30am till 9.30pm daily.

In the 2012 Olympic long-distance races, contestants from East Africa,mainly Muslims, will compete during the fasting period.

Lets take a look at how fasting may affect sports performance. Broadly, it does so in the following ways:

1. Energy restriction – while it is generally held that the total calories will drop in a day, the food intake is very cultural and depends also on whether the diet is balanced. So it is possible to ingest more calories than one would normally do when not fasting with consequent weight gain. Experts are divided whether there is any curb on energy at all.

2.Hydration – dehydration of more than 2% of body weight will impair aerobic exercise performance, despite the attempt by the body to conserve water, as seen by one’s highly concentrated urine when fasting and the fact that one tends to sweat less when exercising.

3.Body temperature is governed by circadian rhythm of one’s body and explains why body temperature, muscular strength and reflexes become optimum in the late afternoon, at the peak of the circadian rhythm. When fasting, the alteration of sleep (sleep deprivation)and altered eating habits affect the circadian rhythm. This may cause a reduction in exercise performance.

4.Training load – while it is generally believed that fasting will affect training, largely by a perception of easy tiredness, professional coaches have established that, if diet, sleep, a balanced diet and hydration are maintained, athletes can undergo the same physical training load as those who are non-fasting.

Most authorities accept that athletes who maintain their energy intake and  prefasting hydration status and who get adequate sleep can maintain their training load during fasting without suffering any substantial impairment in performance. Of course, if the fasting is on religious grounds, this is a personal matter for the athlete to decide as to whether, in the first place, he should fast at all and defer the fasting period till after the race.

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