I’ve created this guide to Ramadan in Dubai to help you structure your training and nutrition. My recommendations are based on scientific research and my own observations and experience working with Muslim clients here.
(But I must give credit to my friend Yusef at PropaneFitness for creating the first practical guide written by a devout Muslim who also trains seriously.)
I’ve experimented with fasting extensively in the past for both fat loss and lean muscle gain, including 16/8 intermittent fasting (or “Leangains” after it was popularised by Martin Berkhan) and alternate day fasting (ADF).
But there are important differences between typical fasting protocols and fasting during Ramadan.
The primary focus of Ramadan is spiritual connection, with an emphasis on prayer and giving. Although you may achieve favourable changes in body composition over the holy month, this is a secondary consideration.
Muslims fast from dawn until sunset, rather than simply skipping breakfast.
Drinking is not permitted during the fast. That immediately rules out a lot of the tools that make fasting easier, like coffee and diet sodas. (And chewing gum, since it resembles eating, is not allowed either.)
I won’t discuss the potential health benefits of fasting here, because that’s outside the scope of this article. I do recommend sporadic use of fasts as part of a structured nutrition plan with my clients. Fasting is a tool that may be used to create a caloric deficit, rather than a panacea.
Experiencing Ramadan in Dubai
In 2018 Ramadan is expected to fall on May 16th, although the date may vary depending on local sighting of the moon.
Fajr ~ 4am
Magrib ~ 7pm
Isha ~ 8.30pm
The Taraweeh prayers follow Isha and usually finish about an hour later, which could be anywhere from 9.30pm to 10pm.
Suhoor ~ 11pm – 4am
Iftar ~ 7pm.
(All of the times listed below are approximate and may vary during the month.)
The climate in Dubai makes it far more challenging to go without water, although this is mitigated by shorter working hours mandated by law and mostly air conditioned work environments.
Non-Muslims must observe the fast in public and typically restaurants stay closed until Iftar. That also means that during the fast, none of my clients drink on the gym floor when they’re training with me, although they are provided a screened off area to drink if they need to. Music is typically not played in public, or at levels that are disrespectful to those who are fasting, but headphones are still allowed.
Challenges of Fasting
Paradoxically, many Muslims experience unwanted weight gain over Ramadan.
Disrupted sleeping patterns and a decrease in sleep quality – most dramatically during the start of Ramadan – results in dietary disinhibition and overeating once the fast is broken, especially with Iftar buffets and family gatherings with an array of calorie dense foods available. Perversely, food companies ramp up their advertising and special offers, encouraging you to purchase junk food.
There is a simultaneous drop in energy expenditure, with decreased activity during the day and increased lethargy. And many Muslims stop exercising completely.
Muslims often choose not to exercise over Ramadan because they’re concerned about feeling thirsty, having enough energy to train, and feeling generally fatigued or sleepy before training. They may choose not to exercise if they feel it distracts them from the main focus of Ramadan. And many simply aren’t sure how to adjust their training around the fast.
A decrease in sleep quality, fatigue, and dehydration all present a significant challenge. Changes to training times and conditions not only affect the physical state, but mental wellbeing. For example, if you habitually train in the morning and usually drink coffee before training, you’ll be in a different state of mind during Ramadan (and operating with less caffeine).
Relatively minor changes to the environment, like training without music in the gym, often create subtle nudges that decrease engagement and performance during exercise.
Fasted training isn’t necessarily optimal, but it’s workable. And it can be done safely. However, a state of hypohydration – when you’re dehydrated during the fast – creates unfavourable changes both to training performance and the hormonal response to training. Hydrated cells even release more fat and spare more protein: everything simply works better when you’re properly hydrated!
How to prepare for Ramadan
Your checklist is as follows:
- Decide how you will modify your training to best match your schedule.
- Calculate your calorie and macronutrient requirements.
- Start adapting your sleeping, eating, and training schedule before Ramadan.
I suggest that you allow yourself a lead-in time of one or two weeks to gradually adapt your schedule to match what you’ll be doing over Ramadan. For example, it’ll be much easier to switch from training in the morning to training in the evening if you do it ahead of time. And you’ll be able to anticipate any issues before they become critical, like planning around traffic.
Morning training may also help counter the shift in your sleep-wake cycle, but you have to decide if that works for you.
How to eat
Here are your main goals for eating during Ramadan:
- Eat enough protein.
- Set calories appropriately for your goals.
- Minimise digestive issues.
Drinking water will adequately rehydrate you, but it’s not the most efficient solution.
You should choose beverages with higher energy density that will provide you with additional calories, macronutrients, and electrolytes. This will make it easier to hit your protein and calorie targets.
(The only exception to this rule is if your goal is to deliberately reduce calories.)
The macronutrient and electrolyte content will also promote greater fluid retention, which will potentially delay or reduce the number of bathroom trips you need to make after breaking your fast.
Research on hydration shows that milk and orange juice outperform water and promote a positive potassium balance. I expect that laban will have a similar effect to milk, although there is no study data to support this claim.
Protein is used to repair, maintain, and build new structures in your body. Protein is essential for life, but also particularly important for promoting favourable changes in your body composition.
When you’re fasting you need to consume enough protein to maintain and build muscle, to reduce muscle breakdown, and promote satiety.
You should aim to get 1.6 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight every day, which means a 80kg adult would aim for roughly 130g to 160g.
You can get protein from a variety of food sources, like meat, eggs, and dairy. You may also consider using supplemental protein sources like whey and casein, or vegan alternatives like soy and pea.
You can expect your calorie expenditure to go down over Ramadan. With that in mind, I’d suggest that you estimate your calorie requirements conservatively.
There are many different formulae you can use to do this, but I prefer using a simple method:
Calories (kcals) = 30 (kcals/kg) x bodyweight (kg)
If you’re trying to maintain your weight, use that estimate. If your goal is to lose weight, decrease by 20%. And if your goal is to gain weight, increase by 10-20%. Make sure you track your scale measurements accurately and adjust your calories up or down according to your progress.
Protein and carbohydrate provide 4 calories per gram, while fat provides 9 calories per gram.
Start by setting your protein intake using the recommendation given above and working out how many calories that gives you.
Whatever calories you haven’t allocated to protein should be filled up with carbohydrate and fat. I’d suggest getting the majority of those calories from carbohydrate for best results, however.
Example. For a 100kg person trying to maintain their weight we would calculate:
30kcals/kg x 100kg = 3000kcals
Let’s set protein at 2g per kg, which gives us 200g of protein. That’s 200g x 4kcals/g = 800kcals. We have 2200kcals remaining to assign to carbohydrate and fat. Let’s allocate 1600kcals to carbohydate and 600kcals to fat.
That gives us 1600kcals / 4kcals/g = 400g of carbohydate and 600kcals / 9kcals/g = 67g of fat (rounded to the nearest gram).
Breaking the fast properly should involve choosing foods that are easy to digest and don’t create bloating or discomfort later when you’re training or sleeping.
Excessive fibre, fermented foods, and raw foods are probably best avoided. I’d also suggest that you avoid eating meals that are really high in fat, which will slow digestion.
For best results you want to have several protein feedings as possible, spaced out by at least 3 hours. Therefore I would recommend eating 3 or 4 meals spaced over the eating window where possible: Suhoor, Iftar, an optional meal pre-workout meal in the evening, and a meal before bed.
Suhoor is particularly important if you want to get the best results from your training. The Suhoor meal should set you up with adequate hydration, slow-digesting protein, and fuel to sustain you during the fast.
If you’re training in the evening you should consider having a moderate Iftar meal followed by a pre-workout meal later after prayers. Again, your aim here is to space out protein feedings and set up the best possible environment for training and recovery.
There are a vast array of intra-workout products available now, but the benefits of intra-workout are overstated in most cases. However, during Ramadan you may find that this is a great opportunity to squeeze in extra protein, carbohydrates, and even electrolytes.
If you’re going to consume an intra-workout drink other than water, I’d suggest using a simple mix of whey for your protein and a combination of glucose and fructose for your carbohydrate.
Whey protein is a complete protein with all the essential amino acids. BCAAs are a waste of time here – and, most likely, in general.
Glucose and fructose use slightly different transporter proteins in the gut. This potentially increases carbohydrate oxidation and promotes faster uptake of carbohydrate from the gut.
(Including electrolytes, or at least sodium, will also promote increased uptake of glucose, since some of the transport proteins are dependent on sodium.)
You can mix dextrose with ordinary table sugar to get the ideal combination of sucrose and fructose: use an equal amount of dextrose powder and ordinary table sugar (sucrose is a 50:50 ratio of glucose:fructose).
Honey also works as a carbohydrate source instead of table sugar (it has a roughly 50:50 ratio of glucose:fructose), but it may be harder to mix properly with other ingredients.
You may go as high as 60g of total carbohydrate per hour of exercise, but start with a lower dosage to make sure you don’t cause any gastric distress.
You may consider using supplements over Ramadan to make it easier to get all the protein you need and to stay hydrated. They are by no means necessary, but you are free to experiment and see if they help.
Whey is a high quality, relatively fast digesting protein derived from milk. I’d suggest using this when you break the fast or before training in the evening if you need to boost your protein intake. You may also use whey protein intra-workout.
Casein is a high quality, slow-digesting protein also derived from milk. You may find it convenient to use this if you’re struggling to get all of your protein from food. I’d suggest using it with your Suhoor meal.
An electrolyte powder mixed in your intra-workout drink may help with rehydration, especially if you lose a lot of fluid during training. (You can actually make your own rehydration solution at home, but it’s probably time that you’d rather spend on something else.)
(I don’t have any kind of affiliate deal with or get any referral bonus from MyProtein, I’ve used their products for years and feel comfortable recommending them to you now that they’re available in the UAE. But don’t take my word for it!)
How to train
I have based my recommendations around weight training. This is your best strategy for maintaining and improving body composition over Ramadan, especially if you have limited opportunities to train.
Your program should aim to do the following:
- Maintain or build muscle.
- Maintain or build strength.
- Maximise recovery and time efficiency.
And most importantly, you must be able to fit your training around your sleep, prayer, and work schedule.
There are three possibilities:
- Train before sleeping. (Suhoor > Fast > Iftar > Train > Sleep)
Optimal. You’re able to properly rehydrate and consume protein before and after training.
- Train in the morning. (Suhoor > Train > Fast > Iftar > Sleep)
Less optimal. Although you benefit from training when you’re adequately hydrated and fed, you are missing out on protein for several hours after training. But training in the morning does help anchor your circadian rhythm and counters the shift in your sleeping and waking cycle.
- Train before Iftar. (Suhoor > Fast > Train > Iftar > Sleep)
This is the least optimal scenario. Counterintuitively, you may find that performance is maintained or even improves when you train shortly before Iftar, with increased motivation in anticipation of breaking the fast and an increase in stress hormones. But physiologically this is the worst case, training without protein available, with depleted glycogen, and in a state of hypohydration.
(It’s for you to decide which option suits you best, but I would always recommend choosing option 1 where possible.)
Load, Volume, and Intensity
Try to maintain the load and intensity of your training over Ramadan, but do consider dropping your volume and increasing rest times. In practise that means fewer sets, but higher quality.
I’d suggest abandoning any supersets or circuit-based training in favour of straight sets. You won’t see any benefit in terms of calorie expenditure by doing supersets, but you’ll probably compromise performance and end up sweating more.
You should aim to hold on to neuromuscular adaptations – strength, basically – by sticking with the movements you’ve been doing and the same working weights as much as possible. You won’t lose muscle if you provide an adequate stimulus by handling heavy weights with conservative volume and working within your recovery potential.
Remember, your goal is for the most part to hold on to what you have rather than overworking yourself and trying to gain muscle under unfavourable conditions.
Here’s a sample program that you can do 2-3 times a week, alternating between upper and lower body workouts.
Day 1 – Upper
Barbell row – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)
Barbell bench press – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)
Face pulls – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Lateral raises – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Tricep extensions – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Bicep curls – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Day 2 – Lower
Squat – 3 sets of 5, 1 or 2 back-off sets of 8 to 12 (or 12 to 15)
Back extension or reverse lunges – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Hamstring curls – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Leg extensions – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Calf raises – 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12
Loading. For your main compound movements you’ll do 3 sets of 5 reps with a challenging weight, which will be in the neighbourhood of 75% of your one-rep maximum. You’ll continue with one or two back-off sets where you drop the weight and do 8 to 12 or 12 to 15 reps, depending on how you feel.
With the optional movements you should aim to do 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 reps, leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.
Warm-ups. I’d suggest that you restrict your warm-up sets to a few 5s, 3s, and 1s, climbing up to your working weight without introducing too much fatigue on the way there. Finish your warm up sequence an “over warm-up” where you do a single rep with a slightly heavier weight than you’ll be working with to prime you for the working sets.
(Over warm-ups are a technique I borrowed from strength coach Paul Carter and I often use with my personal training clients.)
Example. Let’s suppose your working weight on the bench press will be 100kg for 3 sets of 5. You might start with your warm-ups like this:
Bar x 10
50kg x 5
75kg x 3
100kg x 1
110kg x 1 – the “over warm-up”
And you would continue with your working sets like this:
100kg x 5
100kg x 5
100kg x 5
80kg x 10 – first back-off set
70kg x 13 – second back-off set
Scheduling. Setting up the program for two workouts a week would look something like this:
Sunday – Upper
Monday – Off
Tuesday – Off
Wednesday – Lower
Thursday – Off
Friday – Off
Saturday – Off
And three workouts a week would look something like this:
Sunday – Upper/Lower
Monday – Off
Tuesday – Lower/Upper
Wednesday – Off
Thursday – Upper/Lower
Friday – Off
Saturday – Off
I’ve suggested compound lifts here, like squats and barbell rows, assuming that you’re familiar with them and are proficient in their execution. But if you’re a novice, consider seeking instruction before attempting to follow this program.
You may also choose to make appropriate substitutions to better match where you’re at right now. Here are some ideas:
- Dumbbell goblet box squat or full squat
- Landmine squat
- Cable squat
- Chest-supported dumbbell row
- Seated cable row
- Machine row
Barbell Bench Press
- Landmine press
- Dumbbell bench press
- Machine chest press
- Single-leg leg press
- Barbell glute bridges
- Dumbbell sumo deadlift
- Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
You’ll need to modify the loading and rep schemes accordingly, but in general you could aim for 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps with a weight that’s challenging, leaving 1 or 2 reps in the tank on each set.
My general recommendation would be to schedule your aerobic training on your off days, when you’re not doing weight training.
Low intensity cardio in the morning would make the most sense. But I think that it’s best to simply try and stay more active during the day to fight the decline in activity levels, taking more breaks to walk around at work, for example.
If you insist on doing medium to high intensity cardio, such as interval training, you should try and schedule it like you would with your weight training, either in the morning after Suhoor or in the evening after Iftar when you’re fuelled and hydrated.
Again, the goal here is to simply maintain rather than to make dramatic improvements in your fitness over Ramadan. Try to keep your activity levels up during the day instead of doing lots of cardio to compensate.
Sample Day of Eating
- Baby spinach omelette. See recipes.
- A glass of fresh orange juice.
- Coffee with milk.
- Roughly 1 cup of lean meat and 2 cups of rice from a traditional dish like Mansaf or Machboos.
- Banana and date smoothie with 1 or 2 scoops of whey protein added (vanilla flavour works nicely). See recipes.
- A glass of fresh orange juice.
Water (or an intra-workout drink with protein, carbohydrates, and electrolytes).
- 1 litre of low-fat chocolate milk.
This would give you over 3000kcals, with at least 200g protein, 365g carbs, and 75g fat. You can scale the serving sizes and ingredients up or down based on your requirements.
Banana and date smoothie
- Medium ripe banana, frozen.
- Medjool dates, three pitted.
- Low fat milk, 250ml.
- Cinnamon to taste.
- Salt to taste.
Blend ingredients together until smooth.
- Eggs, 4 large.
- Parmesan cheese, 3 tablespoons freshly grated.
- Fresh spinach, 2 cups.
- Garlic powder, ½ teaspoon.
- Salt and pepper to taste.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl and add the spinach and Parmesan cheese. Season with garlic powder, salt, and pepper. Lightly coat a small pan with cooking spray and cook the egg mixture on a medium heat for roughly 2 to 3 minutes until partially set. Flip with a spatula and cook for another 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce heat and continue cooking until it reaches desired level of doneness.