Fasting from sunrise to sunset will make anyone's stomach rumble. But for top Muslim athletes, Ramadan is an extra test of their self-discipline. Health experts, however, warn of the dangers of sport without sustenance.
Süleyman Baysal dribbles a soccer ball on the Arminia Hassel field in Gelsenkirchen, the sun bearing down from a cloudless summer sky. It's been 15 hours since he's had any food or water, but soccer practice doesn't stop when Ramadan starts.
Like many Muslims, the 21-year-old student of English and philosophy is observing the Islamic holy month by fasting from sunrise to sunset.
“I always hear the same sentences, like ‘Don't you need a drink?' or ‘How can you do it?'” Baysal said. But his response is simple: “I don't need to drink right now. Really, I don't.”
About four million Muslims - or five percent of the population - live in Germany and according to the Central Council of Muslims more than 94 percent of able-bodied Muslims in Germany fast during Ramadan. Baysal has fasted for the past 10 years.
For athletes especially, the ritual means taking special precautions.
Looking up to the pros
Baysal breaks the fast with his family around 9:00 p.m. and sets an alarm for 3:00 a.m. to drink another liter of water before dawn. Half his team, YEG Hassel, is fasting. Baysal coaches a team of nine- and 10-year-olds, and the kids respect his commitment.
Baysal says the young players take their water bottles and hide from him, so he won't see them drinking: “I say, ‘You don't need to do that - just drink, it doesn't matter,' but they are so friendly.”
In 2010, the German Football Association (DFB), The German Football League (DFL) and the Central Council of Muslims declared that professional soccer players were exempt from fasting during Ramadan. But some still chose to fast. Baysal looks to these players for inspiration, like Bayern Munich's Franck Ribéry from France, who has converted to Islam.
“Those are players who are in the top leagues, in the top clubs, earning a lot of money, doing what every other professional football player is doing and they are fasting, and training three times a day,” Baysal said. “They are like idols for me.”
Specialized workout plan
At the Wing Tsun martial arts studio in Duisburg-Walsum, Oguzhan Batar pummels a wooden stick figure. His father owns the studio, and the 23-year old trains members in the art of self defense.
For Batar, this Ramadan is different. He's training to compete in a professional bodybuilding competition in April and can't risk losing muscle mass before then.
“Because [the competition] has been a childhood dream of mine, I've decided not to fast for one year,” Batar said. “I've always fasted in past years and observed the dates, and I'll make up for it by fasting after the competition.”
Half of his clients observe Ramadan, so he prepares a special workout for them that focuses on technique instead of strength. “There's less strain on the circulatory system and more focus on motor skills and the brain,” he explained.
From personal experience, Batar knows that fitness and fasting don't always mix well. “This is noticeable when you usually bench press 80 kilos (176 lbs) 10 to 12 times, and then you have a hard time moving just 60 kilos,” the bodybuilder said.
Fasting breaks down muscle
During Ramadan, Batar says it's impossible to build muscle because a fasting body feasts on its fat reserves. Dr. Mathias Riedl, a member of Germany's Association of Nutrition Specialists, agrees.
“Everyone who fasts loses muscle,” he said.
Riedl says the body must consume one gram of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, and this should be distributed over three meals per day because large amounts cannot be processed at once.
“Bodybuilding is dependant on the intake of a special amount of proteins before the exercise and two hours after the exercise,” continued Riedl.
Along those lines, Batar advises his clients to exercise in the evening right before breaking the fast. To prevent dehydration, headaches and muscle cramps, he suggests limiting workouts to 45 or 60 minutes. Don't split muscle groups like a normal routine, he says, but work the entire body.
“Combining training with Ramadan is demanding,” Batar said. “It pushes the body to its limits.”
A month of prayer
Despite the challenges of fasting, both athletes say there are perks. Soccer player Baysal cites sources that say fasting cleanses the body of toxins. Riedl, however, remains critical.
“People who fast for several days a week have severe damage of their muscle system,” Riedl said. “There are no positive effects of fasting at all.”
Although the ritual is contested, Ramadan is one of the five key pillars of Islam. It is considered a tribute to those in poverty, who must forego food every day, says Batar: “The reason is simply to understand other people's needs, what it's like to have nothing, and to appreciate and value what you do have.”
Soccer player Baysal overcomes his hunger pangs by focusing on the spiritual experience. “Fasting is some sort of a prayer, and you are doing it for 15-16 hours. So you are connected to God for 15-16 hours,” he said, pausing.
"Just thinking about it, I have goose bumps right now, because it is really a great feeling."