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Ramadan, Fasting and Elite Athletes - a conversation with England High Performance athletes, pt 2

By ETA High Performance athletes and EDI Working Group members Haniyyah Rahman-Shepherd and Niki Bird.

This year’s Ramadan is coming to an end for Muslims around the world. Haniyyah Rahman-Shepherd and England international Niki Bird got together in early May to talk about how Haniyyah, as both a Muslim and England Touch High Performance athlete, navigates fasting and training during Ramadan.

In part one of their interview, the two members of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Working Group talked about managing depleted energy levels, maintaining discipline, and fighting temptation – even in the form of cinnamon buns. Read the second part of their interview below. 

[Niki]: We’ve talked a bit about the basics, but I want to get into the geeky stuff! When you know you’re going to be playing touch that day, how do you prepare your hydration? Do you take electrolytes?

[Haniyyah]: Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist or a dietician! Having said that, I usually aim to drink the better part of 4 litres of water between sunset and sunrise the next day. Which right now, is about 8:30pm to 3:30am. So, it’s a short window. I probably split it into 2-2.5 litres after sunset and 1.5-2 litres when I wake up for suhoor, which is hard.

[Niki]: Yeah, that is a lot of water to be chugging for someone your size, especially at 3am in the morning! For anyone that doesn’t know, Haniyyah is 5’3”!

[Haniyyah]: I have had a few early-morning-chugging-related mishaps in my lifetime… I won’t go into detail. But you get used to drinking that much in such a short window as the month goes on. I am ashamed to say I’ve never approached my hydration very methodically, such as taking electrolytes, but I should look into it! The reality is that there aren’t many in the professional oval ball world that are visibly Muslim. The lack of representation means there’s definitely a lack of research and studies specific to Touch or even Rugby on how to best hydrate or fuel for 30 days while fasting and training. And as an amateur athlete, I don’t have the luxury of solely dedicating myself to this. Everything I do is self-taught and the product of years of trial and error.

[Niki]: Sounds like this could be a really interesting (and much needed) area of research. Perhaps someone reading this may be inspired to get in touch?! It's a tough one, you need to hydrate, but you also need your sleep. We've all had that last minute glass of water before bed and regretted it at 2am when we're waking up to go to the bathroom. I just can't imagine doing 2 litres then heading back to bed!

[Haniyyah]: Yeah, I think you definitely fear being dehydrated as there will be nothing you can do to fix it, until sunset. And that fear means you never really want to test your limits in case you get it wrong. Whereas, if you’re short on sleep, you can always take a nap.

[Niki]: And what about nutrition? Do you steer towards any particular meals or types of food on days that you train?

[Haniyyah]: I always try to eat as nutritiously as I can anyway. For suhoor I mainly eat carbs and protein in the form of toast, eggs, yoghurt, and muesli. I avoid anything too high in sugar or overly processed foods. Again, this is just self-taught and what works best for me. The reality is that it also gets harder to eat as the month goes on. In the beginning you’re frying your eggs and telling yourself you’re killing it at 3am but towards the end you’re struggling to just eat a bowl of cereal. Your stomach shrinks and you don’t feel like you need as much! It’s a balance between what can I manage to eat this early in the morning and eating to fuel me for the day, even if I don’t feel like it.

[Niki]: This may be a silly question, but have you ever altered your diet in any way, in the build up to Ramadan in preparation for fasting. For example, have you ever bulked up and increased daily calories? I don't know if you would typically lose or gain weight (if either) at all during the month?

[Haniyyah]: No, that’s a great question! Most people assume you’ll lose weight but you don’t really. It’s very easy to make up those missed calories in your suhoor and iftar meals, particularly as you’re focused on making sure you do eat enough. I’ve never approached Ramadan really technically or strategically like that, but I think most Muslims who are athletes or even into fitness strive to just maintain muscle mass during the month. For me, the conditioning is what I focus on maintaining the most as it’s my weaker area. There’s a limit to how many excuses you can make for yourself. If you want to see results you have to put in the work. I just have to adapt, do the sessions at different times like after iftar,once I’ve had water and a bite to eat. I give myself a little pep talk and then I push myself to see what I can achieve. But if my results are worse than usual, I’m realistic enough to know that ultimately I’m probably not going to outrun dehydration or poor sleep. So I draw a line under that session and try again tomorrow.

[Niki]: That's a great attitude to have. I think fasting or not, it's something we can all apply to our own lives. Just recognising that we are all going to have some moments or days tougher than others, but those moments don't have to define your week, month, etc. Tomorrow is a new day to try again! I find it really interesting how you talk about fitting your training around your fasting, as opposed to skipping it all together – even if we were in the midst of an international campaign. I was curious as I had read about a number of professional Muslim athletes who were not able to fast because of the demands of their sport and made up for it in their off-peak months. Is this something you have ever considered?

[Haniyyah]: I think the way you practice Islam or your religion is up to you. It’s your own journey. In my opinion, it’s equally important as a Muslim to encourage your fellow Muslims to participate in these practices as it is to support them in whatever decision they do make. It’s not for me to judge. Ramadan is supposed to teach you about sacrifice and struggle, and you are supposed to learn how to deal with both. Having said that, I am not a professional athlete and I haven’t yet had to experience Ramadan right in the middle of a crucial training block. So, I can’t speak for how I would react then. But for now, where I feel I can manage fasting and training I will. I have a huge amount of respect for those professional athletes whose livelihoods depend on how hard they train. I don’t know if I’d even do a whole day NTS right now!

[Niki]: Even though we aren't paid professional athletes, I can't help but think back to some of my past World Cup experiences. Just knowing what is required of us in the build up to tournaments as well as the demands during, especially in locations like Malaysia for the 2019 World Cup. I just don't know how you could safely compete whilst fasting. I was parched just walking to the pitches!

[Haniyyah]: Oh absolutely, I would never take it to a point where it was dangerous. I think the answer is that every athlete knows their limits, every Muslim knows how they want to practice their faith. You combine those two things, and you do what is best for you. I would go at it with the mentality that I can and will do everything I normally do, until it is no longer physically safe to do so.

[Niki]: There are so many things you talk about as a high performance athlete during Ramadan that we can apply as athletes in general – regardless of religion or whatever level of athlete you are. So much of what you practice in this month could go a long way if it were applied by every athlete, and especially in a team environment.

[Haniyyah]: Definitely. Every single Ramadan you learn something new, about yourself, about how you cope under strain. Ramadan starts earlier every year, as it’s a lunar calendar, so the duration of your daily fast changes yearly and you have to adapt to that. As a fasting athlete you learn so much about what you need to do to perform and about how brave you are. Things that other people say are too hard or even impossible, you witness yourself endure and surpass. Every year you have under your belt, better prepares you for the next. Fasting also forces you to closely observe your own behaviours and (hopefully) teaches you more patience. Sometimes you learn the hard way, like my sister and I trying to stop the 'hanger' seeping into our conversations with one another! It's a daily effort. But as they say, it only takes 18 days to form a habit.

[Niki]: I like to think of myself as being a pretty positive person, especially with what I do as a fitness and wellness professional, but it's so great learning about your experiences and hearing your perspective. It's been extremely motivating speaking with you. I know we could speak for hours more, but what I'd really love to know is what else can I, as a teammate, do to support you more during Ramadan and when you're fasting?

[Haniyyah]: There is a growing awareness of what Ramadan is, definitely. But I still find myself explaining those basics every year, which I have no problem doing. But the fast-track to greater awareness of the more complex, interesting issues such as the ones we’ve been talking about so far, is making sure you have a basic understanding of what Ramadan is and having the right intentions when you do ask a question. I do sometimes feel uncomfortable; as the only fasting Muslim in any of my Touch teams, being in the hot seat of an inquisition on the very basics of Ramadan makes me feel a bit like the alien outsider being examined under a magnifying glass. I’d love to have more conversations that go beyond the basics and acknowledge that being a Muslim doesn’t exist in isolation of my other identities. I am a mixed ethnicity, brown Muslim woman who is also a high performance athlete and I want conversations that engage with that complexity. What matters as my teammate is really what you do on the pitch to manifest your support. Whether that’s refraining from how frequently you talk about your thirst or fatigue or my pod deciding to sub every set so I can recover, these small decisions make a huge difference to me when fasting. I’m lucky to be surrounded by really supportive and respectful teammates and I’m fortunate enough to be confident and comfortable speaking up whenever I need to. But not everyone will have that environment. I think of my younger Muslim sisters who will, in particular, not want to draw extra attention to themselves, or speak out, or who may just really be struggling with fasting itself and don’t have the energy to say anything. So, it’s really important to me that we as a team take responsibility and consider how all our teammates are feeling at any point in time.

[Niki]: As a teammate you should never feel alone. That’s a fundamental element of being part of a team, right? One of the biggest things I take away from this conversation is that it shouldn’t be solely up to you to do the educating. We should be putting in the work too. It’s not that we can’t ask you about Ramadan, but the more that we know before we come talk to you, the more interesting and productive those conversations will be. At least have done a bit of reading so that those questions come from a place of curiosity and allyship rather than, you just didn’t know because you couldn’t be bothered to read up about it…!

[Haniyyah]: I just hope this conversation has shown how as a Muslim, fasting makes you practice really key values day in day out: discipline, consistency, patience, empathy. But even if you're not a Muslim, there's also so much more to Ramadan than just not eating or drinking that I think is worth emulating, for any athlete.

[Niki]: Thank you so much for talking to me about all of this. To have a friend and teammate that is observing Ramadan and able to talk us through all this is so valuable. I hope this conversation sparks plenty more and I hope that it connects you to more Muslim Touch athletes who will know that they are welcome and respected here.

[Haniyyah]: Thank you for your really interesting questions! I’m not sure I’ve seen this kind of content out there in the Touch world, so it makes me really excited to think of any other Muslim athletes out there reading this now.

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