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Soccer During Ramadan

Jesse Khan PNG

For one month out of every year, Muslims across the globe take part in the world’s largest fasting event: Ramadan. Whether you’re a doctor, a teacher, or even a professional athlete, you cannot eat or drink while the sun is up during this holy month. This obviously presents a few challenges, but there’s more to it than just energy levels and nourishment.

In Islamic tradition, the month of Ramadan is among the Five Pillars, the guiding principles of the religion. It offers Muslims a chance to grow spiritually while they show their devotion to Allah, practice self-discipline and empathize with one another. This is believed to be the month during which the Prophet Muhammad received the Qur’an from the angel Gabriel, one of the most important events in the religion’s history.

What has this got to do with Minnesota United, you ask? Well, like so many teams around the globe, we had a few athletes celebrate the holy month here in the Twin Cities. MNUFC2’s very own Molik Jesse Khan spent the last month fasting and helping his team to a great start in MLS NEXT Pro, and he recently sat down to discuss what it’s like to be a professional soccer player during Ramadan.

Khan joined Islam when he was just 8 years old, back in Trinidad and Tobago. He began observing Ramadan with his family when he was about 11 years old, but fully participated at the age of 13. For him, this is by no means a new experience, but it is the first time he is observing the tradition on his own, far from home.

“I observe by myself for the time being,” he said. “My teammate Zaydan [Bello] is also Muslim, so we help each other out on the road when we go for games. He helps me, I help him, you know? To wake up on time and stay committed.”

Balancing an active career with the physical toll of this tradition isn’t easy, but it’s a challenge that Khan embraces. Ramadan requires daily discipline, making for a unique schedule shift.

“My typical day before was to stay at home, pray and get some rest,” he said. “Now, it’s coming to practice in the morning, which takes up most of my morning, up until 2 p.m. basically. Then I go home, I rest for a bit, I wake up, I pray, and by the time all of that is finished, it’s about time to break my fast in the night. Then I just eat a meal and head to bed. It’s a really short day because you’ve got to wake up at 4:30 a.m. to eat, so you’ve got to sleep earlier than usual.”

Naturally, this change in sleeping and eating schedules affects energy levels in a serious way, especially for athletes. While Khan is used to these effects by now, he still feels the dehydration that builds up during the day. His performance on the pitch hasn’t suffered at all, proving that willpower is an incredibly powerful tool when we choose to use it.

Though Jesse and Zaydan are the ones observing the holiday, they aren’t doing it without help from the club. MNUFC’s Director of Performance Nutrition, Austin Kowitz, has been providing both young men with plans and recommendations to get the most out of the limited times they break their fast.

“It’s the same thing that someone would have regularly; it’s just the timing of it,” Kowitz said. “Making sure that they’re eating enough before the sun comes up—it’s like breakfast plus. It might be having more eggs than you normally have, having more peanut butter and toast than you might have, or something like that. It’s just a higher volume. There are some things that have “slower” carbs, mainly things with a higher fiber content, but nothing is going to carry them into the evening, energy wise. That’s where it gets tough. There’s really nothing you can do that’s going to take them that far.”

With meals spread out from as early as 4:30 a.m. and as late as 8 p.m., Kowitz knows that there isn’t much he can do to give the athletes energy that will last all day. Instead, the focus shifts to quality, volume, and timing. During his interview, he shared some of the instructions that he passes along to the players.

Among the instructions he provides the players with, Kowitz stresses the need to consume additional carbohydrates in the morning, drink plenty of fluids and electrolytes whenever possible, and replenish with lean proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables after sundown. The guide also includes example meals, a list of snacks and other general tips to get the most out of each meal.

“I want them to eat a lot at night, but I don’t want it to be six cheeseburgers or a 20-piece nugget and a bunch of fries,” he said. “We want it to be things that are going to make up for what they missed out on during the day. I’m just telling them and giving them recommendations, but I can’t be there to remind them or feed them, so I’m hoping they’re doing it. Eat more vegetables; eat more nutrient-dense foods; eat more fiber-dense foods; drink a lot of water to get electrolytes and stuff.”

As if the regular challenges of daily training weren’t enough, there can be added obstacles on game day. While it only affected a single game for MNUFC2, it can be a problem for Muslim athletes when the sun sets mid-game. Luckily, MLS and MLS NEXT Pro have addressed that issue this season, allowing for designated drink breaks at sundown.

During the Loons’ match against North Texas SC, the game was stopped at 8:01 p.m. to allow players a chance to break their fast. While this is a wonderful chance to get some valuable energy, Kowitz stressed the importance of taking in the right things during this break.

“One of the biggest things that I’ve seen while watching games is the fasting break,” he said. “I don’t want to say I’ve seen it done incorrectly, but what do you do at that point? You haven’t eaten since 5:30 or 6 a.m., so you’d think that you should just get in whatever you can. The problem with that is that the body doesn’t work like we think it might work. It’s kind of a balance with what you can take in, like water, electrolytes, sports gels, or a banana. I’ve seen some go with something like a protein shake, but protein isn’t energy, so that isn’t necessarily what you should do.”

Next time you’re watching a game and you see players go to the sideline at sundown, remember that it’s about more than just getting water. While neither Jesse or Zaydan will have to worry about breaking their fast during any more games this season, their commitment doesn’t end this month.

Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan on April 21, but the lasting impact of the experience never leaves those who observe the holiday. All five of Islam’s pillars are filled with meaning and tradition for those who practice them, serving as reminders and opportunities to grow in faith and life itself. By taking part in something bigger than yourself, you learn to relate to others in profound ways.

While soccer brings us together in similar ways, it does not define us. We are more accurately defined by our actions, our beliefs, and the ways in which we interact with the world. The beautiful game is just a tool we use, spreading joy and connecting us with people from all walks of life. We are brought together by the badge on our jerseys, the desire in our hearts, and the unity born of competing alongside one another. The common goal we share with our teammates reminds us that we are all quite similar in the most meaningful of ways, no matter how much food is in your stomach during Ramadan.