Great, interesting article by a local superstar triathlete!
By Omar Nour
So, here it was upon us again - Ramadan, the month of fasting. A complete fast from sunrise to sunset for an entire month, and when I say a complete fast, I mean it. No food, no fluids (yes, that includes water), no gum, no smoking (that one shouldn't be too tough for triathletes) - basically nothing enters your mouth. Ramadan is a month in the Islamic calendar, which is a lunar calendar with months either 29 days or 30 days. This makes the Islamic year shorter than the Gregorian year (30 or 31 days). Therefore, the month of Ramadan moves up every year by about 11 days on the Western Calendar. So what does this have to do with triathlon? Well, everything is peachy when you are fasting in January, and the sun rises at 8 a.m. and sets at 4 p.m. It becomes slightly more problematic when Ramadan falls smack in the middle of August when the sun rises between 4 and 5 a.m., and sets around 7-8 p.m., lasts an entire month and your favorite race happens to be The Nation's Triathlon on the third Sunday of fasting when you are nice and feeble.
It all started in April 2007 when a friend of mine mentioned that he had signed up for a triathlon in DC, where we live. I ask what a triathlon is, and being the hyper-competitive type, as soon as I hear the answer, I declare that I will participate as well. With The Nation's Triathlon as my objective, I had only about four months to shape up.
The training started, the pounds shed and the general feeling of euphoria that one can only experience through endurance sports was at an all-time high. I was really loving the new lifestyle and was doing it all by myself. I had an Omar vs. The World mentality, which kept me motivated and eager to race. What I didn't realize was that the race would fall at the end of the first week of Ramadan.
I was following a plan that based all the training on time as opposed to distance or intensity. It was a fantastic plan for beginners as it was very positive in that as long as you completed the times, which started off very low and increased gradually, you were a winner (I am a huge believer in positive reinforcement... blame it on my mom). Because the plan was less strenuous, I found it difficult yet manageable to do my workouts right before sunset and then break my fast. The timing was ideal because eating after workouts is extremely important for the muscles to recover and get the full benefit of the workouts. One week into Ramadan, one's body is usually holding up pretty well, and it looked like I would be able to have a good race.
I decided to break my fast on race day, which was a very smart decision as I surely would not have completed the race otherwise. The extended effects of a week of fasting did not affect me too much and I did great for my first triathlon. Some said that the fact that I was training without any fluids, electrolytes or calories got me used to performing under these circumstances and translated into a positive performance when my body was fed those nutrients on race day. I came in 8th in my AG (25-29) with a 2:18:50, not too shabby given the circumstances. That's when my obsession with triathlons commenced.
My next year was drastically different. I started training with a group of unbelievable athletes, led by none other than the mayor of Washington DC, Adrian Fenty. It was a unique blend of type A, hyper-competitive personalities who still managed to get along like a family. This group became known as All Out All the Time (AOAT). The group is called AOAT because every time we are out training, it incorporates the core belief that one should train all out, work all out and live all out. It took some time for my body to adjust to this new regimen, but I eventually got the hang of it and became a better competitor because of it.
Fall 2008 arrived, and The Nation's Triathlon was fast approaching along with, you guessed it, Ramadan! This time around, Chuck Brodsky, a mentor of mine and the founder of The Nation's Triathlon, had moved the race up by a week but Ramadan moved up by 11 days, which meant that the race would fall two weeks into my fasting. Although I was used to intense training, I decided right off the bat to adopt the same proven techniques as the previous year and workout right before sunset. The workout intensity and volume were higher than the previous year's, but I never pushed hard enough to get into the danger zone. I broke my fast again the day of the race, but things did not go like the previous year. I could feel the effect of the fasting and started cramping up in my quads and hamstrings during the run. I suffered more than I have ever suffered in a race, and it was difficult to pinpoint why I had not performed as I expected. I finished 25th in my AG (now 30-34) with a 2:25:51. This became even more confusing when I added a half Ironman the week after (Savageman, widely known as a brutal mountainous course that is very demanding) and ended up fourth in my AG. What was the difference? If anything, I fasted a week longer for Savageman, had the same routine as before Nation's including breaking fast the day of the race, and the race was much longer. It was a complete mystery.
After an offseason of training and losing 20 pounds, the 2009 season was shaping up to be an amazing one. After having lost my first race by 45 seconds in my age group, my brother, Diaa, who also is my roommate, business partner, best friend and more recently, my manager, coach, nutritionist and triathlon go-to man, decided that enough was enough. He pulled some money together and replaced my 7-year-old road bike with a new Felt B2. I was now equipped with good fitness, a lighter body and a new TT bike. I was ready to tackle the rest of the season.
On my first race with my new setup, Eagleman, I finished as the second overall amateur, and my bike average mph increased by over 2.5 mph over my best Olympic bike segment to 25.2 mph. The solid performances continued throughout the season, and I was propelled to the next level. I ended up breaking the 2-hour mark for Olympic distance at the DC ITU Race with a 1:58:47. That race performance determined that decisions had to be made.
How seriously was I going to take triathlon? Despite loving every second of training, I was spending too much time to be a casual weekend warrior, yet needed more structure to take it to the next level. I sat down with my brother, and we decided that I should go ahead and take it to the top of the sport, the Olympics. Triathlon grew from an interesting challenge to a fun hobby to a life altering change in only two years.
All of these moving parts came together in mid-August of this year. The Nation's Triathlon was scheduled for September 13. Here I was, training my heart out, Ramadan starting literally two days after signing the coaches to Team o.n., and a lot of eyes focusing on Nation's, wondering how I would handle it all. The race would fall on the third weekend of Ramadan, which would give the long days of fasting plenty of time to wear me down. On the second day of Ramadan, I decided to go for a 10-mile run before sunset. I felt incredibly solid and started thinking that this Ramadan, I would be able to push harder than in the past. This is why on the third day of Ramadan I gladly accepted an offer to go riding with the AOAT crew at noon when the temperature was 95 degrees. Well, 3 hours and 60 miles later, I found myself working hard to stay conscious. My peripheral vision started fading and my entire body was covered in goose bumps... a good sign that I was about to check out. I realized that I may have become a stronger athlete over the years but that you can't really strong-arm science. When your body is out of fuel, it's out of fuel! It was clear I would have to reduce the volume and adjust the workouts for Ramadan. Short and intense would become the name of the game.
Contrary to popular belief, the hardest thing about Ramadan for me is to prevent my body from gaining fat weight as opposed to losing it. One fasts all day and usually cannot practice much restraint at sunset; therefore, one overeats, naps after the meal, then eats again before sunrise and goes back to bed for a few hours before going to work. In other words, food is followed by sleep, which is not a great recipe for regulating one's body fat. This year was more difficult than any of the previous years because not only was the fasting day longer than ever, but my training was more intense and my performance during training sessions more important. I experimented and found that the only way I could push hard during workouts while keeping my body weight fairly stable was as follows:
Workout between 4-7 p.m.
Eat breakfast but try not to make it a huge meal
Hydrate and eat small meals throughout the night until sunrise (do work at that time)
Go to bed after sunrise and wake up at 1 p.m. so I can get my 8 hours of sleep (crucial)
Do more work and start over
The formula worked beautifully. I obviously couldn't push myself in workouts like I can when I am not fasting, but overall, I got some good rest and had enough energy at 4 p.m. to perform. The problem that I was going to encounter was the fact that my system got used to sleeping at 5 a.m. and the race would start at 7 a.m., right in the middle of my night! To add fuel to the fire, my brother set my goals for this race unusually high - an outright win on our home course.
As race day approached, I made a fairly tough decision. I decided to break my fast not only on race day, like previous years, but also the 2 days leading up to it so that I could 1) hydrate my body properly and fill it with the necessary nutrients and 2) readjust my sleeping habits. Everything went according to plan except my sleep pattern. I simply could not sleep at night and ended up only getting a few hours of sleep the nights leading up to and only 2 hours the night of the race. That was definitely not a good sign but I didn't let it affect me mentally. I pushed myself hard, and my body responded well during the race. I could feel more burn on the bike than normal and my heart rate was slightly more elevated than I am used to on races, but at the end of the day I delivered. I ended up crossing the line 3rd overall with 1:59:44 but received a 2-minute penalty that took me off the podium.
Every year, as Ramadan approaches, I start thinking about how hard training will be, and it seems that every year is tougher than the previous one. Some say that Ramadan actually hurts me; others say it makes me stronger, but my swimming coach, John, summarized it best when he said that like anything else in endurance sports, it's adversity. It is, in fact, an opportunity to excel, to test yourself and to push the limits. I grew up watching Hakeem Olajuwon play the NBA Finals after having fasted all day. He broke his fast during the game on water. I cannot say that my situation is any more difficult than his. Due to my upbringing, I cannot say that he is better than me. I truly believe that human beings are capable of much more than they think they are on all levels. I also think that one creates their own reality and boundaries and that the key to success in triathlon, and in life in general, is to visualize and truly believe in a reality that is beyond what is plausible. My reality? Take on the Olympic!
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Editor's Note: USA Triathlon recommends that you check with your doctor prior to training while fasting.