Nutrition Nerd: Looking to London
Written by Tanya, Nutrition Nerd: The Summer Olympics will kick off across the pond in London, England in just over a month. While it is certainly fun to get hooked on watching sports such as swimming, gymnastics, beach volleyball, etc that do not get much attention except when the Summer Games come around every 4 years, this year the story lines I will be following most closely will be related to Muslim athletes who choose take part in the Ramadan fast during the weeks of competition. Yes, you read that correct. This year’s Olympics and Ramadan completely overlap. The Olympics run from July 27th to August 12th, while Ramadan runs from July 21st to August 20th.
Ramadan is a time of spiritual reflection and worship in the Muslim faith. From sunrise to sunset healthy, adult members of the community must refrain from eating and drinking – even water. Thus, several Muslim athletes (~3,500 are expected to compete this summer) will be faced with the difficult choice: honor religious obligations and fast, or postpone the fast until after the Games?
There are exceptions to the fasting rules, which seem to vary slightly depending upon which Muslim scholar is questioned. Some indicate that fasting it not required if it will interfere too significantly with a person’s work or if they are traveling. With those potential exceptions, Muslim athletes may decide to skip the fast during the Olympic Games, citing that their “job” is to perform their best as an athlete for their country or that competing in the Olympics requires excess travel and thus qualifies them to forgo fasting.
It may seem obvious for us to assume that performance of any fasting athlete will be compromised during the Games. However, that may not be the case. I recently attended a talk by Ron Maughan, PhD who has performed research regarding the influence of Ramadan fasting on sports performance. Maughan was quick to point out to the group that performance may not suffer [abstract]. The impact on performance will depend upon a variety of factors such as the type event, the timing of the event, and the athlete’s perception of the fast.
First, type of event: Skill-based sports, short-duration events (i.e.-200m run) and team-based sports which allow for substitutions are less likely to be negatively impacted. Other events which are prolonged in nature (marathon, decathlon), require prelims and finals on the same day, and team-based sports that do not allow for substitutions are more likely to be negatively impacted.
Second, timing of the event: An early morning or evening (post sun-down) event is less likely to be impacted because the athlete is able to fuel and hydrate properly overnight or consume food/fluid before and during the event.
Third, athlete’s perception: This last point may be the most important. Think of the placebo effect. If you consume a tablet or drink assuming that it will improve performance, chances are that it will. If you engage in an activity or consume something that you assume will decrease performance, it will. For Muslim athletes, if they believe fasting is beneficial and spiritually strengthening than it could translate in to improved athletic performance as well.
In order to assist Muslim athletes, the local-organizing committee will be ensuring that all venues and the Olympic Village are equipped to provide Muslim athletes with food for Iftar (the meal after sunset) and the pre-dawn meal. In addition, they will also have “fast breaking” meals available at all sites as well. This way in case a fasting athlete decides they need to break the fast in order to optimize performance or stay safe (I mean, would YOU run a marathon in the summer without drinking any water?? Didn’t think so).
This year’s Games will most likely provide a great deal of information regarding religious fasting and elite athletic performance. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for information about the decision some athletes will be making about fasting or not during the Olympic games and how they end up performing!
Which fasting athletes, if any, do you feel will be most disadvantaged in terms of their decision to fast and performance? What would you do if you were in their shoes? What sport is your favorite to watch in the Olympics? (My favorites are the Equestrian events, beach volleyball, and the decathlon)
(Tanya is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and is pursuing her PhD in Nutrition and Exercise Science at Virginia Tech. After graduating with her Bachelor’s in Dietetics, Tanya completed an American Dietetic Association (ADA) approved Dietetic Internship through the University of Houston. She has completed many road races from 5k to 25k. Follow her on Twitter @nutritionnerd and at her personal blog Dine, Dash & Deadlift.)