ICC World Cup 2019: Fasting season - How not to run on empty
Seven hours of cricket can be draining on the body, more so if it doesn’t get nutrition during the holy month of Ramadan. It is that time of the year when Muslims fast during the day, abstaining from eating, drinking, smoking and avoid any form of heavy exercise. But with the first week of the World Cup falling within this period, several cricketers have decided not to fast, like the Bangladesh players.
The timing of the World Cup matches too play a major role. Since most matches have a 10.30 am start, it means a player can’t eat till the end of day. Usually, the body adjusts to the demands of fasting. But fluids need to be replenished from time to time. If it is hot and/or humid, dehydration, many studies show, has a detrimental effect on performance and concentration and also increases injury risk. This was one the biggest issues Muslim footballers had to grapple with during the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
“Fasting from food does not have to be detrimental to performance. In fact, it can be beneficial to performance in some cases in already ‘fat adapted’ or intermittently fasting athletes. It is abstinence from fluids that may pose a greater performance issue for the player,” said former India team physiotherapist John Gloster, who is currently associated with Rajasthan Royals.
Take the case of South Africa’s Hashim Amla and Imran Tahir, who are fasting but not on match days. England spinners Moeen Ali and Adil Rashid too have adopted a similar approach. This is in keeping with the practice of either not fasting on match days or at least ensuring fluid intake. If nutrition intake is well regulated during the day one doesn’t have to keep a fast; the human body is designed to go for long periods without food and still continue to function well.
“A daylong fast from the food performance aspect is not such a big issue because of how the body can function. Our most efficient fuel source is actually fats (9cal/gram compared to carbs which are 4cal/gram) and the trigger for your body to start using your own fat stores for fuel is actually a lowering of your blood insulin levels. This lowering occurs when one fasts or doesn’t consume anything that raises blood glucose. Many elite level athletes (particularly endurance athletes, and cricket is an endurance sport) use this method for performance,” said Gloster.
The brain can also function on two different forms of energy—glucose and ketones. Ketones are produced when one uses fat as a fuel source, and new studies say the brain actually functions better on ketones than glucose. That is why intermittent fasting is often used as a way to stimulate athletes’ ability to use fat stores as a primary fuel source for performance. “An intermittent fasting period of between 15-18 hours has proven significant beneficial effects, particularly with respect to increasing insulin sensitivity,” said Gloster.
Cricketers like Amla think fasting has other advantages too. “It really helps with my conditioning,” the batsman was quoted as saying by Independent Online. “Fasting is something I always look forward to. It’s the best month of the year for me. Physically yes, you do feel thirsty and hungry. I see it as a great mental exercise. But most importantly, it is a great spiritual exercise as well,” he said.
Fasting while playing however also means taking greater care of food intake, and the composition of sehri (pre-fast meal) becomes very important. “It would be best not to consist of simple sugars, processed carbohydrates or anything that quickly raises blood sugar levels as this will only lead to slump 2-3 hours post that meal. This meal should consist of healthy fats, proteins, and if having carbohydrates, then what we call ‘slow’ carbs (ones that raise blood glucose by only a very small amount and very gradually, thus not triggering a strong insulin response). Non-sugar electrolyte drink would be suitable at this time also,” said Gloster.
The iftari (evening meal) again needs to be monitored. Gloster feels the tradition to break the fast with a date or two is acceptable. But problem arises when large amounts of high-sugar foods are consumed after such a long period of fasting. He advises some healthier options—slow carbs, healthy fats, proteins. “It would be best to avoid juices as well and substitute with a more appropriate low sugar/no sugar electrolyte replacement like nimbu pani with salt and tender coconut water,” said Gloster.
Equally significant is sleep. Sleep habits get compromised mostly in night tournaments like Indian Premier League where Afghanistan players Mohammed Nabi and Rashid Khan had played while fasting. “Sleep deprivation is an injury risk predictor and a parameter that we monitor very closely in all our cricketers today. It is not necessarily about the sleep timings but the amount that seems to be important, 7-8 hours being the minimum. So, for the fasting cricketer who is rising early for a pre-fast meal, they will need to adjust their sleep timings to accommodate,” said Gloster.
The Pakistan team refused to comment on the issue.