For Muslim athletes, keeping faith during Ramadan is top priority
Oakland Mills football player Fuad Suleiman (above middle) is one of the area athletes who fasts during the holy month of Ramadan. (Baltimore Sun photo by Monica Lopossay / September 23, 2008)
At Oakland Mills, it's heating up, too. Fuad Suleiman, in full pads, goes all-out in hitting drills at football practice. He gradually slows down, eventually taking a knee on the sideline to catch his breath. His buddies tell him to get some water, but he does not.
Toure and Suleiman won't drink anything at practice for 30 days as they observe the Ramadan fast. The Muslim teenagers won't eat or drink between sunup and sundown during the holy month, which commemorates the completion of Allah's revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad.
Fasting all day presents a challenge to young Muslim athletes such as Toure and Suleiman, for whom sports is secondary to their religious beliefs.
"It's not like anybody forces me. It's a choice," said Toure, 16. "Because I go to school, and if I chose, I could easily eat when nobody knew, but that's not what I want. I actually believe in my religion. It's not like some other people: They say, 'This is my religion,' but they don't really practice it."
It's a balancing act for the two seniors, who said they are careful not to push their bodies too far. They eat and drink at night and early in the morning to fuel themselves for the entire day.
Although their diets vary, both usually consume oatmeal, fruit juice and lots of water. They eat a lot of protein and carbohydrates, and Suleiman drinks protein shakes.
Dr. Charles Shubin, director of pediatrics for Mercy Family Care, said their diet is just right to carry them through the day.
"What it boils down to in young people, their physical activity notwithstanding, is they have the resilience, mostly through their liver, to maintain themselves through those periods of not eating," Shubin said. "Basically, what the liver does is store energy in the form of glycogen, which it releases when you need it."
Some athletes can get lightheaded from swings in their blood-sugar levels, said Shubin, who recommends eating complex carbohydrates, such as pasta, to prevent that.
"What the kids have to do is tune in to their own bodies and figure out what works for them," he said, "and it won't be one thing for everybody. It will vary from individual to individual."
Toure and Suleiman do the best they can, but they still find themselves fading as practice goes on.
"Sometimes, I have to think about how many sprints I have left," Toure said. "It's more of a calculation than just running until you get tired. I don't usually get tired, but with Ramadan, it's a different thing with the water limit."
In games, Toure often moves from wing to defense, where he doesn't have to run as much. Suleiman takes more breaks, and because the Scorpions play their games at night, he will drink water after sundown.
Neither said he has ever felt in real physical danger, such as suffering from serious dehydration or heat exhaustion. Both said under serious circumstances, it is permissible to break the fast. Toure said he never has, but Suleiman did on a warm, humid Friday two weeks ago.
"A pain started creeping up from my gut, and it crept up to my chest," said Suleiman, 17. "I felt like when you've eaten a lot or you have to burp real badly, but it just kept building to the point where I was starting to heave when I was breathing … so I said some prayers for having to break it a little bit early. After that, I ate a PowerBar and had some Powerade. After a while, I felt better."
Coaches and athletic trainers are especially vigilant with fasting athletes, watching for signs of trouble.
"When it's real hot, because he can't even technically drink water - he can rinse his mouth out and that's about all - we watch what we have him doing," Oakland Mills football coach Jim Riss said. "We're looking for signs of heat exhaustion, like a cold, clammy sweat, upset stomach, all that stuff. We check with him regularly, and we try not to push him too hard."
Gilman athletic trainer Lori Bristow has observed many fasting athletes but said she has never had a serious health problem with one.