A silhouette of participants at the TCS London Marathon

Training for a marathon during Ramadan

Supporting Muslim participants during the holy month

To help support our Muslim participants who’ll be observing the holy month – and fasting – during their marathon training, we asked Dr Zaf Iqbal, Crystal Palace FC’s Head of Sports Medicine, for his advice.

Dr Iqbal has been involved with the Premier League since 2007, having held similar positions at Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspur FC. For the last 10 years he has also advised members of the public and athletes – from all sports, not just football – who want to continue their regular physical activities during Ramadan.

“Doing endurance sports while fasting does have certain challenges,” says Dr Iqbal, “the goal should be to try to maintain or limit any losses in fitness or strength.”

According to Dr Iqbal, the key issues are:

  • Getting enough energy on board before an activity
  • Replenishing energy as you’re doing your activity – eg having regular glucose and fluid as you go along
  • Getting enough energy once you’ve done your activity to replace the energy you’ve used

“The way I approach these issues is to help people find the ideal timing for taking in and expending energy,” says Dr Iqbal, who lists three main times when people can train during Ramadan:

Before dawn – early in the morning, just before starting the fast

The problem with training at this point, just shortly after having some food, is that once the person has finished exercising they might have to wait 16 to 18 hours before they can take on any further energy to replace the glycogen store they’ve used, so they may feel tired throughout the rest of the day.

Before sunset – just before opening the fast

The advantage of training at this point is the person can use their last energy stores of the day and then immediately reopen their fast and get enough energy on board to replace what they’ve just used. Another plus is they’ll be running in the daytime before it gets dark. However, this method it is not ideal for long periods of exercise as you may not have much energy left at the end of the day.

In the period after sunset and before dawn

According to Dr Iqbal, this time in between opening and closing the fast is ideal for exercising during Ramadan, particularly for sessions of over an hour, as you can take fuel and water on board while exercising.

“From a physiological perspective in terms of making sure people recover as quickly as possible running at night is the best,” he says. “Of course, the disadvantage of running at this time is, if you’re doing your training outside it will be in the dark – although at least during March and April it should be milder.”

“The only alternative is to run on a treadmill during this time, but some people find these don’t have the same affect.”

Advantages of running at night

Looking on the bright side, Dr Iqbal’s suggestion of running at night can be convenient for people who are busy or working during the day. Like many things in life, it’s a question of balance, making some compromises and asking others for help too.

For example, if you have another friend or family member observing Ramadan you could train together at night so you don’t have to go it alone. Or if you’re part of a running club its members may want to support you by training with you (whether they are Muslim or not) or offering use of their facilities out of the usual hours.

Dr Iqbal has seen this kind of cooperation in action in the world of sport: “In Birmingham they had a league football five-a-side that was set up because some of the Muslim players wanted to continue during Ramadan – I think they did it in conjunction with Aston Villa. This league allowed some of the facilities to be used at midnight, so Muslim players could play at that time.”

Slow and steady

It’s also worth bearing in mind that you don’t need to make any changes to your training schedule suddenly – if you plan ahead you can adapt your habits gradually.

“People can practise running at night in advance of Ramadan, especially their long runs,” says Dr Iqbal. “So if they’re going to do their longest run of the week at the weekend they could do that run at night with some colleagues and see how that feels.

“And then with shorter runs if you think running at night may be a struggle, especially during the week, I recommend running just before opening your fast – you can go at a slow steady pace that you should be able to tolerate.”

What to eat and drink when training during Ramadan

There are two main times when people eat and drink during Ramadan – here are Dr Iqbal’s suggestions for what to consume at these meals:

Suhoor (pre‐dawn meal taken to mark the start of a fast)

Focus on carbohydrates that will release energy slowly over the day, combined with a small amount of foods that release energy in the short-to-medium term, including non-starchy vegetables such as spinach, kale, tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cucumber, onions and asparagus.

  • Sweet potatoes, pasta, nuts, fresh fruit and oats/porridge also release carbohydrates slowly
  • You could also consume a low-carbohydrate whey protein to prepare for the training and muscle repair
  • Try to drink around 200ml of fluids every 30 minutes in a consistent way during the night. This helps the body retain fluid
  • Some extra electrolytes in a soluble tablet form may also help the body absorb water

Iftaar (the meal that marks the break of the fast at sunset)

Avoid eating a large meal immediately on opening the fast, as your body will be in ‘storage mode’ and may try to store excess food as fat. Have a small meal, and then if possible after a couple of hours have another larger meal focusing more on protein-rich and slow-release carbohydrate foods:

  • Eat a small amount of quick-release carbohydrates on opening your fast to make you feel better: try dates, fruit, smoothies or pasta
  • Consume a whey protein drink to help with muscle regeneration and recovery
  • For your main meal, grilled fish, chicken or lean lamb (or vegetarian options such as tofu) are good for protein and muscle repair
  • Try to drink plenty of water and avoid too much caffeine (in cola, coffee or tea), which can act as a diuretic

Celebrating Eid al-Fitr

Eid follows the end of Ramadan and in 2023 will be from the evening of Friday 21 April and the evening of Saturday 22 April – the two days before the marathon, when participants may well be carb-lading as part of their preparations. Does Dr Iqbal have any advice for during this time?

“People just need to be sensible. A lot of the foods people eat at Eid are made up of quite simple carbs, like sugars. What people preparing for a marathon need are complex carbs – such as brown rice and wholewheat pasta – which are going to give you energy for longer.

“But everything in moderation – there’s no reason why people can’t have the Eid foods they enjoy as long as they don’t go overboard, especially if they’ve been being careful about what they eat up during the whole of Ramadan and then suddenly start having fried foods for Eid.

“I’m sure they will have been disciplined throughout so it’s just a case of being a disciplined for a couple of days more and they can have what they like post-marathon.”

Positives of running during Ramadan

While we’ve discussed some of the challenges of training during Ramadan, there are plenty of positives too – especially when it comes to the metal health benefits of exercise, as Dr Iqbal explains.

“I organise a conference on fasting and sport and we had the rugby player Sonny Bill Williams, cricketer Moeen Ali and footballer Frédéric Kanouté speak about that. It was interesting getting their perspectives, as a lot of the footballers often tell me that spiritually and mentally they feel they’re getting more from doing the fasting.

“Sonny Bill Williams has said he’s played rugby games when fasting and mentally it’s made him feel stronger. Mooen Ali has said he’s got through cricket games and it helps him focus and concentrate even more. So there certainly seems to be an argument for it and that’s coming from the athletes themselves.

Mental strength and focus

So perhaps a change in perspective is also needed – to think about how Ramadan can help you through your training and how running can help you through Ramadan.

“People always say the reason fasting helps them mentally is that, compared with other people around the world who aren’t in fortunate situations, at least they know they will eat and drink at a certain time. So that mentally focuses them.

“They see it as part of their training – it makes them feel mentally and physically stronger because they feel if they can get through this, then they can cope with anything.”

And that includes the TCS London Marathon – good luck!