SINGAPORE: The second a text message came from her family members to inform her it is time to break fast, silat exponent Nurul Shafiqah tucked into her cup of mango yoghurt.
For the past few weeks, the 23-year-old two-time world championship bronze medallist has been training for about an hour and a half on a near-empty stomach in the late afternoon, before pressing on with another high-intensity session for two hours in the evening at OCBC Arena.
In between, she has an hour's rest to recharge and digest her food.
With the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur fast approaching, most of Singapore’s national athletes are already shifting into high gear as they aim to peak in time for the regional multi-sport event in mid-August.
For Muslim athletes, observing the fasting month of Ramadan is not an excuse to slow down. “Training is as per normal regardless of the fasting month, as we still train two times a day five times a week, with our break only over the weekends,” said Nurul Shafiqah, a Nanyang Technological University undergraduate.
Still, it makes training all the more gruelling, she admitted. “There is definitely more (hunger). We do have a pre-dawn meal, so it isn’t that bad, but at times, I do feel like I have no energy,” said Nurul Shafiqah. “Despite that I keep on pushing and my coach too, pushes me to the limit regardless.
“My aim for this SEA Games is to at least win a medal. It’d be nice to stand on the podium to win something for Singapore.”
While sparring on an empty stomach represents a challenge on its own, grappling the urge to stuff herself with food when breaking fast is another battle altogether. “Even though (the training) intensity is high, I try to avoid eating heavy,” said the sports science student.
“I usually go for things like banana bread and yoghurt and nothing too heavy as I’m scared to train on a full stomach. I usually go for an easy meal.”
To forget about her growling stomach, Nurul Shafiqah distracts herself by committing her mind to her silat training. “There’s always the (training) processes to focus on, so in a way it’s a distraction from the hunger and thirst,” she said.
For national track cyclist Mohamed Elyas, the intense cardiovascular effort needed in his sport means that his training is best held after breaking fast. For close to a month now, the 21-year-old begins training at 9pm and returns home by 1am.
Said Elyas: “For me, for the entire fasting month, I’d train during the night for about two or three hours after breaking fast. I eat a regular meal at the stipulated time by sunset, and sometimes I go to the mosque first.”
“But when I’m going to do a big set, a little more time is needed, so I come out earlier and go out for training first. If not, I’d finish my prayers first and then come out for training for an hour or two at Seletar Road,” said the 2016 Singapore National Road Racing Champion.
Instead of training in the day as he does usually, Elyas has had to make adjustments to his body clock during Ramadan. “I don’t really change my training programme that much because I simply train at night. I have my meals and am able to drink through training,” said the national rider.
“I’m still able to maintain my intensity and volume through the month, so I’m not so worried about losing my form or not peaking during the Games,” he added.
Much like Shafiqah, the track cyclist's main battle lies in the mental challenge of staving off the added exhaustion from fasting. But the 21-year-old, said he gets an added boost, spiritually.
“In my case, I draw strength by asking help from God because when fasting you’re fulfilling your religious obligations,” added Elyas. “I believe that God will help us if we keep our faith, and that’s how I get through my training while fasting.”
PROPER NOURISHMENT IS KEY: SSI
Singapore Sports Institute (SSI) dietician Cheryl Teo recommends several options for both athletes to sustain themselves during Ramadan. “Depending on their training programmes, some athletes might train just before breaking fast. In this case, Iftar will double up as a post-training recovery meal, best eaten within half an hour of training for maximum recovery benefit.”
“If it is not possible to have a meal within half an hour of training, dates and milk would also make an excellent recovery snack – dates because it is a rapid digesting carbohydrate; milk because it has the full recovery package of protein, fluid, electrolytes, and carbohydrates,” said Ms Teo.
As athletes generally sweat more during training, Ms Teo also emphasised the importance of proper hydration for athletes who fast during training. “Shafiqah’s training programme requires her to train again after Iftar. During this time she will need to maintain her hydration and energy.”
Ms Teo added: “Useful options to have during training include coconut water, diluted fruit juice with added salt, or non-gassy sports drinks.”
“To recover after training … a smoothie made with nutrient-dense foods such as nut butters, avocado, Greek yoghurt, milk, and banana would help her meet her energy intake for the day, and fulfil her post training nutrient requirements.”
Nanyang Polytechnic’s Sport and Wellness Management lecturer Damien Lee however, cautioned against overexertion for fasting athletes. “In general, our human body still allows us to go on with some physical activities while hungry, but maybe not at the optimum intensity,” said Lee.
“(Athletes) have to be mindful and be aware of some of the risk and perhaps take it a bit easier or else their muscles may not be able to perform at their optimum.”