As an athlete, you use Ramadan as an opportunity to make yourself better. Fasting while training is what helps you become mentally stronger, more adaptive, and more aware of your body.
By Kyle Deeken - MileSplit
It's 7:00 p.m. on a beautiful, late April evening and you're getting into the blocks for the first rep of your workout: Five times over the first five hurdles with five minutes of active rest.
Kneeling over the rubber in lane 8, there's nobody else on the track except your father, who is your coach.
After the 185 meter reps, the jog back to the line won't take too long, and dynamic drills will carry you to the beginning of the next one.
Not too bad, right?
But then, your stomach starts to rumble.
It's the month of Ramadan and you haven't eaten or drank anything since 4:30 a.m.
But this is the scene for Michigan native Jibril Syed, a graduating senior at Auburn Hills Avondale who's headed off to Georgetown in the fall. This is his first workout since he began the holy month of Ramadan, a stretch of 30 days in which millions of muslims all across the globe fast from sunrise to sunset and perform obligatory acts of charity, among other practices.
Last summer, Jibril earned a rare honor when he became the first track and field athlete in AAU Junior Olympics and US history to score All-American honors in both the 400 meter hurdles and the 2,000 meter steeplechase.
It ultimately did incredible things for his future, setting up scholarship opportunities from various NCAA Division I universities, including Georgetown University, the school with whom he eventually signed.
But with that signature came certain responsibilities of a future Division I athlete. And more than ever, Jibril had to recognize the balance between his faith and sport.
Ramadan presented a real challenge to that idea.
Fortunately, his father, Jameel -- the lone coach on the track with him now -- has been there to guide him through that journey. While Ramadan is a time of sacrifice, it also presents a moment for muslims to reflect on their spiritually, and it teaches them how to reconnect with their communities.
"Ramadan is much more than just depriving yourself of food and water," Jameel said.
The practices during Ramadan certainly can bring about double takes from coaches, teammates, fans, and bystanders who don't fully understand why they are done. Jameel notes that several athletes like Jibril face stigmas surrounding the practice of fasting for 12-14 hours a day every day for an entire month. It's an act which produces anxiety for some, and often forces young athletes to find a hard balance between their faith and sport.
Luckily for Jibril, his soon-to-be coach at Georgetown, Associate Head Coach Alton McKenzie, helped him feel confident that such a choice would not have to be made.
After reaching out to Jibril before Ramadan to discuss how he was feeling and how he was preparing for the month, Jibril was reassured and Jameel and the rest of the Syed family felt appreciative. Coach McKenzie's gesture gave them a sense of validation, that the decision to attend and compete for Georgetown, an institution with Roman Catholic traditions, was a good move.
"I felt reassured that my culture and religion will be respected," Jibril said. "I didn't even know he knew about [Ramadan] until he said something to me about it."
The Syeds are also cognizant of how they can use Ramadan to not only grow spiritually, but mentally and physically. This isn't just some practice they have to do because they're told to, but one they embrace because of what it represents and what it does for them deep down inside.
"When you go through not having food and water, it breaks down your ego and there's a lot of humility that comes," Jameel said.
Back to the track.
You just finished your first rep in 23 seconds. Five hurdles cleared, just under 200 meters covered, time to jog back to the blocks and get ready for number 2.
But you can't shake that feeling. That feeling of reaching for a water bottle or stopping at a fountain. That feeling of pure emptiness in your stomach.
The thoughts start swirling.
It's just another workout, it's just another workout, nothing different it's just another workout.
You came into the workout feeling like you were going to have the same energy out put, but this active recovery isn't exactly helping you recover like you thought it might.
And boy did that recovery go by quick.
"Back to the blocks, Jibril."
Time for Number 2.
During Ramadan, Jibril begins his day at 4:30 a.m. with a breakfast large and nutritious enough to keep him going through the day.
"It's hard to focus on eating when all you want to do is go back to sleep," Jibril says.
Then comes the first prayer of the day at 5:10 a.m. Whereas it may be difficult for some to get up for this prayer, Jibril said one of his New Year's Resolutions was to make sure he was up early enough to complete that prayer every day.
Luckily, with the coronavirus pandemic canceling school, it's become even easier. He can just go back to sleep afterward. But he digresses on that small little detail. Islam "urges us to continue our daily activities while fasting," he said. "Fasting is not an excuse to not do the things you would normally do."
This shows the true test of the spirit of a Muslim during Ramadan. Do you make the sacrifice by carrying on with your daily routine while fasting, or will you take the easier route and shorten the amount of time you will be required to fast by sleeping while the sun is up?
For Jibril and his family, the decision is easy: they're going to stick to their routine.
You hit the second rep at 23 again.
But now it's really starting to set in. Normally during the recovery period between sets, you might lose 15-percent of the energy you had when you started. Now, however, you're starting to realize that energy levels are declining much quicker and more drastically.
You're heading into rep number 3 of 5 and you were already feeling like you were operating at about 60-percent after the first one. Now what? Maybe 50? 45?
So what do you do?
Maybe slow down the jogging. That should help compensate and preserve energy. Once you get back to the line, you can stick with the dynamic stretching.
Every workout is going to have it's obstacles -- especially if you're a hurdler.
Each day follows a similar schedule. At 9:30 a.m., there is Quran study, a couple of hours of independent reading, Zoom meetings, scheduled prayers, and a workout to end the day.
As a result of the coronavirus canceling school, Jibril is already done with his senior year of high school, so the focus to end the year is to fulfill his religious obligations, apply for privately funded scholarships to help cover his Georgetown costs, and stay in peak shape.
There will be five more pauses in the day for prayer and plenty of time to think about sneaking a granola bar or maybe a sip of water, but Jibril is laser-focused.
The five obligatory prayers are what remains constant. But in order for an athlete to perform at a high level, there are obligations they must navigate.
We're halfway done.
Rep No. 3 was a 24, so even though it's getting tougher you're still hitting the mark dead on.
Stay strong, focus on your form, and keep pushing.
But it doesn't feel like you've got this. In fact, the lactic acid is really starting to build in your legs. Your lungs are laboring to pull in the oxygen they so desperately need.
"Back in the blocks, son! Let's go on number four!"
Evening workouts are sometimes delayed to be closer to sunset and the breaking of the fast for the day.
Jameel calls it a 5x5x5 because of the five reps over five hurdles with five minutes rest, but it's not normally called that. The rest has an additional minute this time, up from four minutes to five.
"We need to make sure that we can give [these athletes] workouts that they can handle without putting them in jeopardy," Jameel said.
He recognizes the importance of being reflective of all the elements of the workout, including, in this case, Jibril's fast. These kinds of adjustments are commonplace for any athlete who may be coming to practice with an additional level of fatigue.
The warm-up starts at 6:00 p.m. and involves a mile jog, hurdle mobility exercises, and a combination of dynamic and static stretches. But the warm-up must take a back seat for a few minutes in order to observe the third prayer of the day.
Jibril slows down to a walk as he arrives back at his workout bag. He grabs his prayer rug and faces it northeast toward the holy city of Mecca. Because the prayer takes place during a busy time of the day, it can sometimes occur at inopportune times.
"It is a little bit different adjusting to praying outside, but eventually I got used to it because ultimately it is my responsibility," Jibril said.
"When I think about it, I shouldn't be embarrassed to pray because it is something that is a part of me."
The second-to-last rep always seems to be the hardest. Another 24.
The slower jog during the recovery phase has been helping, but your energy is zapped.
Just one more hard one, though.
Then two cool down miles and on your way to dinner time. While the mind usually wanders to all that food you may get to eat, the reality is the fast keeps you from devouring as much as you're imagining.
You know this from past Ramadans. Biology isn't going to allow you to scarf down all that food when the sun goes down. No matter how much you love the homemade lo mein, orange chicken, and fried rice, chances are good there's going to be a lot of leftovers.
"Let's finish it up, kid. Go!"
The sun officially sets at 8:30 p.m., but before the Syeds can dig into the main course, they must first break their fast with some small dates and water and say their fourth prayer of the day. The timing of the evening meal and the fourth prayer are a matter of preference. For the Syeds, they choose to pray first, eat second.
Then, after a meal and some quality family time, it is time for the fifth and, typically, final prayer of the day -- though the Syeds add a special prayer for Ramadan, too, and this can sometimes be the "most strenuous" of them all.
Jibril clears the table and wraps up those leftovers he knew the family was going to have in the end.
"Ramadan is a great reminder not to waste food, and shows us what we take for granted," Jibril observed.
Upon finishing the evening prayers, Jibril reflects on his day and prepares for bed. As the clock reads 11:30 p.m., he sets his alarm again for 4:30 a.m., and tries to get some sleep before starting the cycle all over again in the morning.
"C'mon kid! Finish it up! Finish it up!"
After all of this pain and adversity, you're still clearing hurdles with that pinpoint form you've been practicing over and over and over again. You're laser-focused on the next one, using the seemingly wider turn in Lane 8 to slingshot you into the final stretch.
14 steps, boom. 14 steps, boom. 14 steps, boom.
The hard part is over. You fall to your knees and roll over to your back.
Eyes closed, you're surely breathing heavy but not exactly wheezing. This pain shall pass.
You slowly rise back to your knees, take another deep breath and bring yourself up to your feet.
Now it's time to go over all 10 of the hurdles, but this time for a full mile and at a much slower pace. The focus is on form over the hurdles and recovering. You slip on your flats and start on the cool down.
Each hurdle represents some obstacle you're facing this month. The pandemic is isolating you from your friends. It took away your last year of high school. It took away your last chance at competing in high school, maybe breaking that 53.82 second personal best in the 400 meter hurdles you set last summer.
You're facing 30 days of fasting from food or drink for over half of each day. You're facing balancing this task with workouts like this and tomorrow's sled pulls, or the 600s coming up in a few days. You're facing scholarship applications and the financial obligations that come with attending Georgetown.
There are a lot of barriers.
But as an athlete, you use Ramadan as an opportunity to make yourself better. Fasting while training is what helps you become mentally stronger, more adaptive, and more aware of your body.
All of this makes you stronger.
Once that 40th and final barrier is cleared, it's time to really cool down. One more mile on the turf in your socks followed by a static stretching session and 15 minutes of core.
"I'm happy because during this time of spring, historically I've never been able to have the type of results that I'm seeing right now, and I don't want to take any steps back," you say.
Blocks and spikes in one hand, your prayer rug in the other, you head back to the car.