Can athletes fast during Ramadan? Rules of fasting during holy month in sport explained

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Liverpool’s Mo Salah and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante set to observe holy month of Ramadan

The holy month of Ramadan will begin tomorrow, Thursday 23 March 2023, and the Islamic festival is observed by Muslims worldwide as a month of fasting, prayer, reflection and community. It is determined by both the Lunar and Solar calendars and lasts approximately 30 days, ending with the arrival of Eid al-Fitr.

The event commemorates Muhammad’s first revelation and the annual observance of Ramadan is considered one of the Five Pillars of the Islamic faith. All Muslims who have hit puberty are likely to participate, including athletes. Footballers such as Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez and Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, are all among the world’s top athletes expected to fast this month.

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However, a month of abstaining from food and drink during the sunlight hours is not wholly conceivable when playing sport due to the dehydration and lack of energy which often comes from fasting. While many footballers and other athletes will fast, others may choose not to because they have an ‘adequate need’ to consume food or drink during the day.

Here is all you need to know about the rules of fasting in sport during the holy month of Ramadan...

When is Ramadan 2023?

The holy month is expected to begin on Thursday 23 March 2023. The dates are always subject to change depending on the sighting of the moon. The Islamic calendar follows the phases of the moon with months starting with the first crescent of a new moon, and the new day after sunset.

Eid al-Fitr - translated to “feast of breaking fast” - is expected to be around Friday 21 April 2023, but once again this will also depend on the sighting of the moon.

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Moeen Ali will observe the holy month of Ramadan Moeen Ali will observe the holy month of Ramadan
Moeen Ali will observe the holy month of Ramadan | Getty Images

What are the rules of Ramadan?

The most common rule during the month is to abstain from eating and drinking during sunlight hours. There are two meals a day during the month - one just before dawn (Suhoor) and another after sunset (Iftar).

Muslims are also expected to put more effort and time into religious and spiritual aspects of their religion, refraining from violence, anger and greed. In accordance with the rules, nothing is allowed to be consumed during sunlight hours, meaning people cannot smoke or chew gum. Sexual activity during sunlight hours is also not allowed.

Are athletes exempt from fasting?

Athletes are not among those who are exempt from fasting. Elderly people, pregnant women and women who are breastfeeding or menstruating are among those who are permitted from fasting.

However, as fasting has shown implications for both cognitive and physical functions, athletes often find ways around fasting everyday. Each athlete will have different rules for how they chose to operate during Ramadan. Many, such as Sir Mo Farah, will choose to observe the month when their season ends, while Team GB’s Moe Sbihi found a line in the Quran which suggested he would be permitted to miss days of Ramadan so long as he fed 60 poor people every day for 30 days instead. Often, athletes simply chose to make up any days they did not fast during the month, outside of Ramadan.

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Liverpool’s Mo Salah has previously chosen not to speak publicly about his choices during the holy month and his boss Jurgen Klopp has said in the past that his religion is private and he won’t be making declarations on when they are observing fasting. What they will ensure is they won’t let it affect their performances.

How does Ramadan affect athletes?

In some years, Muslim footballers are fortunate as the season ends during or before Ramadan. However, this year is not one of those occasions. In 2018, the Russian World Cup fell during Ramadan and countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt all had difficulty as the majority of players chose to fast.

Coaches and nutritionists had to be inventive in their preparations and included shorter training sessions and evening workouts. Exercise performance can often be compromised due to sleep quality, fuel deficits, dehydration and changes in body composition.

The now Chelsea footballer Wesley Fofana was substituted on the hour mark in April 2021 during Leicester’s 3-0 win against West Brom while he was daytime fasting. In Leicester’s next match, the game was then paused after the half-hour mark to allow Fofana and Crystal Palace’s Cheikhou Kouyate to break their Ramadan fast with some fluids.

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Ramadan, unsurprisingly, affects each person differently. England’s white-ball vice-captain Moeen Ali has said: “If I was in an office I would find it harder because I’d be used to snacking. But playing cricket keeps me busy.”

Meanwhile, boxer Amir Khan has said: “It makes you feel weak. You have to wake up at four to eat, but you’re knackered and you don’t feel like food.”

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