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Bruin athletes work with UCLA dieticians to develop eating regimens during Ramadan

Ahmed Mahmood, a sophomore who competed on the track and field team last year, has been fasting for the past three weeks for Ramadan.

By Steven Covella

Aug. 13, 2012 6:30 a.m.

After waking up every two hours throughout the night to eat or drink, Ahmed Mahmood gets up at 5 a.m. and has breakfast ““ the last food and water he’ll take in for the next 15 hours.

Mahmood, a sophomore who competed on the UCLA men’s track and field team last year, has been following this routine for the past three weeks as he fasts for Ramadan, a month that Muslims commemorate each year as the time their holy book, the Quran, was revealed.

The sacred month on the Islamic calendar encourages modesty and piety in followers who seek spiritual enrichment by forgoing food and liquid from sunrise to sundown.

“It’s when we fast and keep away from other worldly desires. It’s not only that we don’t eat, but it’s also that you refrain from any other worldly temptation,” Mahmood said.

“It makes your soul … stronger. If I can go throughout the day and not have any food, it makes my mental state much stronger.”

But unlike Mahmood, most who fast throughout Ramadan aren’t training to be collegiate athletes, which intensifies his challenge.

Mahmood was a member of the UCLA track and field team last season but, because of the recent consolidation of the men’s and women’s programs, he must try out for a spot this year.

The fact that Mahmood has to compete for a place on the team makes it crucial that he stay in shape during the offseason. This increases the importance for Mahmood of having a closely monitored diet.

The need for a proper diet led to Mahmood and UCLA dietitians working together to come up with a meal plan that has him eating multiple times throughout the night to obtain the calories and nutrients necessary for his training.

The results have been staggering, as Mahmood has actually gained a pound since he began fasting.

Being unable to consume water during training can pose obvious problems for an athlete, but Mahmood’s optimistic outlook and desire for both athletic and spiritual improvement help him push through such adversity.

“You get thirsty, but that’s when I rinse my mouth off and that’s fine,” said Mahmood, who competed in various jumping events as a freshman.

“At that time, (I adopt) an “˜it’s pain leaving the body’ type of mentality. I know I’m doing something right “¦ and I know God has my best interests.”

Mahmood designates two hours each day to training, sometime between the hours of 3 p.m. and 6 p.m.

One reason he is able to suppress the inevitable hunger that comes along with fasting throughout the month is Mahmood’s workout regimen, which he specifically crafts for Ramadan.

Instead of power or endurance workouts, like weight lifting or long-distance running, Mahmood said he focuses on dialing in his technique, pinpointing specific areas of his form.

“So, when I’m doing track, it’s the way I run and have my elbows and shoulders, and the way my foot strikes down when I’m about to jump,” Mahmood said. “It’s all technical stuff where your mind is sharp, and I believe whenever you’re sick (or fasting), your mind tunes into the sport even more.”

Mahmood referenced the 1997 NBA Finals game when Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to victory, despite having the flu, as an example of the effects that a suffering body can have in sharpening the mind.

Jenna Becker, the assistant sports dietitian at UCLA, works on nutrition plans with Bruin athletes to prepare them for their specific needs. Over the last month, she has worked with Mahmood on forming a diet to aid in his fasting.

When talking to Becker on the subject, there’s the notable presence of the word “theoretically” in her explanations of the effects fasting has on the body. While she said there are obvious physical effects on the body, she also backed Mahmood’s claims that the deprivation promotes an increased mental state.

“There is a great deal of mental and spiritual discipline involved in Ramadan, and those effects shouldn’t be discounted,” Becker said.

“The physiology, it definitely seems like it would affect it, but they are also probably more focused. (Ramadan) is a spiritual time and that faith can maybe give them strength to perform better.”

Although Mahmood emphasizes the positives of fasting, the process can be grueling and has definite negative physiological effects on the body, Becker said.

Before workouts, athletes need to fuel their body with carbs, proteins and water as well as after, when their bodies and muscles are in a catabolic, or breakdown, state and in need of fuel to rebuild, Becker said. This refueling process is made much more difficult for athletes that are fasting.

For these reasons, coupled with other conditions, some Muslim athletes aren’t able to observe fasting during Ramadan.

For redshirt junior wide receiver Ricky Marvray, practicing in full pads in triple-digit San Bernardino heat makes fasting an impossibility.

However, Marvray, and those in similar positions, find alternative ways of self-reflection and to contribute to the community during Ramadan.

“We believe if you can’t do Ramadan, there are other ways to fast.” Marvray said. “You can give up something like cursing or you can feed a homeless person once a day. You can spiritually fast; you can do a lot of things.”

Mahmood’s situation is more conducive to fasting than one such as Marvray’s, where fasting could be deadly, but it’s not easy, Mahmood said.

Although the challenge can be daunting, it’s an undertaking Mahmood embraces as it presents the opportunity for self-discovery and improvement, while also fostering a deeper connection with his religion.

“During that time, every good deed you do can be multiplied and every bad deed can be multiplied too,” Mahmood said.

“So, you just try to become an overall good person, and religiously it’s making your soul wise, being able to understand the world and who you really are. Like, what you’re meant here to do and what it takes to get to another level, what it takes to be successful.”

After 8:30 p.m., when the sun sets, Mahmood “opens” his fast by eating dinner. Then he relaxes, goes to sleep and starts the cycle again.

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Steven Covella
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