The impact of heat and fatigue on Muslim soccer players fasting for Ramadan could play a key role in the final score of Tuesday’s World Cup match between undefeated Belgium and Team USA.
Heat and humidity in Brazil have had players and fans drenched in sweat, and referees calling for cooling breaks during some of the most grueling matches. Factoring in some players abstaining from food and water until the sun sets could make for a challenging environment, sports nutritionists said.
“It’s brutal, there’s no question,” said Shawn Arent, associate professor in the Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies at Rutgers University. “Honestly I don’t know how they do it.”
What makes soccer interesting and challenging for athletes is that “it’s not just an endurance sport, it’s power-endurance and high demanding,” said Arent, a member of the national staff for the U.S. Soccer Federation.
“In a 90-plus-minute match, they’re expected to perform at a high intensity,” he said. “When you have these athletes that can’t eat or drink, what worries me, not only are they probably not fully hydrated, but with the heat and humidity, it definitely presents a unique physiological challenge.”
If Brazil’s tropical climate is tough, consider the earliest Muslims fasting in the desert, said Edgar Hopida, spokesman for the Islamic Society of North America.
Hopida said every Muslim who is physically able and has reached the age of puberty is expected to fast during the holy month, though there are some exemptions.
“Sports is not one of them,” he said.
Fasting is one of the “five pillars of Islam,” along with daily prayers, charity, faith and a pilgrimage to Mecca.
More than 1 billion Muslims are expected to take part in the fast, which began June 28 and ends the evening of July 28, and requires adherents to forego food and drink from sun up to sun down.
“The idea of fasting in Ramadan is sort of a spiritual discipline, where we remind ourselves the spirit is superior to our body,” Hopida said. “The point is not to eat excessively, but eat to replenish what the body lost.”
While fasting is not going to give players a leg up on the competition, it might not be as debilitating as some might expect, said Sara Campbell, assistant professor in the Rutgers Department of Exercise Science and Sport Studies and a member of the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Society for Nutrition.
She said some evidence suggests that if athletes are “really strict about making sure they’re adequately replenishing proteins, essential fatty acids, carbohydrates there are not tremendous impacts” on their aerobic performance.
What would be most dramatically affected, she said, is the anaerobic performance, or the sprinting.
“Those types of things are definitely impacted by the fasting,” Campbell said. “You might see a potential deficit with those players.”
According to the Religion News Service, some of the remaining Muslims in the tournament include Belgium’s Mousa Dembele, Marouane Fellaini and Adnan Januzaj, and Xherdan Shaqiri of Switzerland, who the U.S. could meet in the next round.
“Where most of the difference happens is in the second half, from the fuel storage,” Arent said. “That’s where you are going to start seeing games won or lost.”
Odsen Piton, founder and executive director of the Muslim Athletic League in Roxbury, Mass., said the Muslim players might be low on fuel, but they’ll have the support of Muslims everywhere.
“It’s gonna be hard, they’re definitely going to be at a disadvantage,” he said. “We Muslims around the world, we love what they’re doing, the sacrifice that they’re doing. We’re all praying they find a way to get strength and be able to compete at the highest level against their opponents.”