Jewish Journal

Remember Ramadan: football and fasting

by Brad A. Greenberg

October 3, 2008 | 1:20 am

Ramadan is over now—thankfully, this year Iraqis got to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr without having to worry about being kidnapped—but for the month of September, Muslims worldwide fasted from food and drink and smoking and sex when the sun was above the horizon. And you thought Yom Kippur was tough.

Last week, the Baltimore Sun wrote about the struggle of fasting for Muslim athletes. Before that, the Columbus Post-Dispatch had a profile of The Ohio State’s Nader Abdallah, a football player keeping the faith despite a really big game against USC. And, a few years before that, I wrote a feature about a high school varsity player. His name was Hytham Elsherif, and he was a well-built starting O-lineman for Diamond Bar High School.

I’ve definitely written better stories, but this remains one of my favorites. Hytham (not pictured) was a cool, inspiring dude. An excerpt is after the jump:

Coach Nick Cuccia’s team meets in his classroom on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to watch films of that week’s opponent.

Two days before facing Damien High School, desktops are covered with potato chip bags and soda bottles. Players wolf down burgers, burritos, sandwiches. The smell of seasoned french fries saturates the room.

Hytham, clad in blue jeans and a black Cal State Fullerton hooded sweat shirt, twiddles his thumbs, his fingers interlocked atop an empty desk in the front row, his back to most of the munching.

He awoke at 4:50 this morning, had a light breakfast—bread topped with a spread of feta cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers and olive oil—and prayed before sleeping for another hour.

By 6:55, he was with his teammates in the high school’s weight room, working his legs and lower back for the next hour and a half.

“He’s one of the hardest lifters on the team,” Cuccia says.

Leg workouts are exceptionally strenuous because they demand energy from so many muscles, which shocks the central nervous system into releasing testosterone and growth hormone and increasing overall muscle growth. But a workout needs to be followed with food if muscles are going to grow.

“If you don’t have anything afterward to replenish, you are basically eating away at your muscles all day,” says Rehan Jalali, a Muslim and former bodybuilder from Irvine who recommends people fasting exercise at night.

But Hytham says his stomach is too small and his time too tight.

In fact, during the first few nights of Ramadan, he made the mistake of bloating his stomach with water, which stopped him from eating.

Little, if any, medical research has been done on the effects of daytime fasting on athletic performance. Anecdotally, it is perceived to have a negative effect—but one that can be mitigated.

“You just have to come up with strategies to make up for the calories you’re not getting during the day,” said Dr. Sameer Dixit, UCLA Primary Care Sports Medicine fellow.

Such strategies include eating large meals in the morning, waking up throughout the night for refueling and avoiding strenuous activity shortly before sunset.

Hakeem Olajuwon and Muhammad Ali made it work. They were role models to many young Americans, especially Muslim youths who wanted to excel at sports without compromising their religious beliefs.

Dixit, a physician for UCLA football, said coaches should watch for signs of dehydration if a player is fasting—cramps, lightheadedness, headaches, blurred vision, nausea, fatigue.

“The running is what kills me because I can’t drink anything, so I get really dehydrated and I get headaches,” says Hakam Halabi, a 6-foot-3-inch, 270-pound defensive end on Diamond Bar’s freshmen squad. “I’m not really hungry but I’m really thirsty—very thirsty.”

Speaking during practice, Hakam explains that during Ramadan he participates in only the least exhausting drills and doesn’t play in games. Fasting connects him with his religion, he says, but it distances him from football. His mouth is parched. His lips look chapped.

“You cannot break fast for weakness, but if there is a legitimate reason”—such as extreme dehydration—“you can break fast,” said Imam Farid Hasan, head of the Islamic Center of Rialto. “It’s not supposed to be a hardship. It’s supposed to teach you self-restraint.”

You can read the rest of the article here.

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