If there were patron saints for working out during the holy fasting periods, it would have to be Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. During Israel’s exile in Babylon, while being captives, they refused to eat the King’s delicacies opting for just vegetables and water, begging that they may be tested after 10 days on their fasting diet so that they may be allowed to fast for the rest of their days. After the ten days “their features appeared better and fatter in flesh than all the young men who ate the portion of the king’s delicacies” and “among them all none was found like Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.” How I wish it were the same for me!
In previous years, whenever I worked out at the gym during Lent and I felt myself unable to lift as much as I could only weeks ago, I think of this Bible story and feel cheated by God! In response I would develop a disdain of Lent and fasting, look for loopholes and in general develop some truly negative feelings towards our Church’s seemingly unending ascetic practices! The result was that I would not work out properly and I would not fast properly either. I would start Lent physically strong and spiritually weak, and end up physically weak but remain spiritually weak.
This had to change. I was determined to fast properly and not lose any muscle, but if possible to gain size. In the lead up to this Lent I acquired a real love of the gym and a craving for the feeling of squeezing rough iron within my now calloused palms. The gym represented more than just a more muscular physique, but a university for discipline and an incubator for growth. It is a place where I could challenge myself and prove that I could overcome the barriers in my mind. I did not want to lose my progress at the gym this Lent but while I have numerous requests from God I wanted to have the best Great Fast ever.
So this time, when Lent came along, I decided to plan ahead and do some research. I googled vegan bodybuilding and intermittent fasting and I saw that it was possible, to build strength and size without eating any meat, eggs or milk and fast every day. The following is a very brief guide on how to fast properly and to still build size.
The chief reason why we lose strength and size is because we do not consume enough protein in the fast. Bodybuilder or not, we all find our muscle turning into fat and we all begin to morph into salt and pepper shakers. Our muscles grow when they are torn from the workout and they rebuild bigger and fatter. The rebuilding is done with protein. There are many vegetarian foods that have plenty of protein for example Fool Medamis served best at the monastery. However it is important to note that it is not enough to just eat some foods with protein. We need to calculate our protein intake to ensure we are getting enough.
How much protein do I need?
For a long time it was generally accepted that for body building we need 1 gram of protein for every pound of body weight that we have. Numerous studies have been conducted to find the optimal level of protein intake and they found that the necessary amount is much less and this is very good news for us cross-bearers lifting weights in the fast. Generally, 0.73g of protein / lb of body weight is enough to build. Protein levels a little less than this we will maintain our muscle mass.
So for an 80kg Copt who wants to build muscle this Lent, they must consume 128 grams of protein a day. Over 100g will still maintain.
So how do I get my protein?
It is so easy to miss out on our protein during the fast. Because our foods lack meat, it is so hard to get full. So we end up eating empty carbohydrates like hot chips, sandwhiches and etc. The foods that our mums cook eat during fasting like zater, bamia and roz, eggplant variations etc have little protein in the way they are served. So here are the best ways to get protein:
Many protein shakes are not strictly vegan but are isolates of milk protein so confirm with your fathers of confession here. For the purist there are actually protein shakes made of pea protein isolates so there are now no excuses for not getting your protein into you. I recommend a minimum of 2 protein shakes a day but preferably 3-4.
Throughout the day snack liberally on nuts which in addition to high protein levels have good fat in them (when unroasted) which helps us feel full. Here are the nuts with the highest protein: pumpkin seeds (29.8%), Peanuts (24.4%), Almonds (21.2%), Pistachios (21%), Sunflower Seeds (19.3%), Chia Seeds (16.5%), Cashews (15.3%) and Walnuts (15.2%),
There are a lot of resources on the internet about protein in plant-based diets. Foods that regularly get a mention here are: Lentils, Tofu, Black beans, Quinoa, Green Peas, Artichokes, Oatmeal, Edamame, Spinach, Broccoli, Asparagus, Chickpeas, Peanut Butter and good news for the monks, even Tahini!
You must have a plan for the gym. If you only turn up to the gym when you have time and you are still deciding what you will do when you’re walking through the door then you will most certainly fail and find yourself in a cycle of starting and stopping and never seeing results that will motivate. My results skyrocketed when I had a specific routine that I stuck to religiously. These routines are found easily enough on the internet by searching for a bodybuilder you want to look like and simply copying their routine while tailoring it to your current abilities. These plans are especially important during the fast so that you do not lose muscle or habit when the going gets tough.
Abstinence from food combined with prayer is the only way to benefit from fasting. If you think that a simple diet change is going to do the trick then you are mistaken. This could especially cause problems for the aspiring bodybuilder as now there are fewer hours to get all the energy and protein that one needs to build the body. This was problematic for me as I continued to eat clean (no junk and no carbs) despite the abstinence. As a result I found myself very feint and simply unable to complete my exercises thus leaving the gym defeated, deflated and at odds with working out and fasting simultaneously. If you find yourself in a similar situation, it could be that you are not eating enough calories in the day. The solution for me was to eat carbs. To anyone trying to shred, this is a big no, no but for someone who doesn’t want to lose size during abstinence and wants to continue to lift heavy weights with power, then eating some carbohydrates is a must.
The best way to know if you are eating enough during the non-fasting part of your day (or eating too much) is to count your calories. This way you will still have energy to lift and you will still be continuing to shred. There are apps now available that help you track your food such as ‘my fitness pal’.
Here is a sample for how you should be eating and working out during the fast and you could tailor it to suit how long you abstain for.
12-1 PM: Pre-workout meal. Approximately 20-25% of daily total calorie intake.
3-4 PM: Training should happen a few hours after the pre-workout meal.
4-5 PM: Post-workout meal (largest meal).
8-9 PM: Last meal before the fast.
If you want to only have two meals you can provided you get all the calories you need so that you could still lift properly the next day. This especially helps if you want to fast longer than 12 noon.
PHYSIOLOGICAL BENEFITS OF FASTING AND WORKING OUT
More and more celebrities are turning to intermittent fasting to fast track their results and to stay in peak physical condition. Which at first makes no sense when you look around at Church at the end of lent. Without going into too much detail it is found that fasting does the following:
- Improves insulin sensitivity. A lack of insulin sensitivity is brought on by eating too much and this then makes it harder to lose body fat. Hence insulin sensitivity brought on by fasting improves blood flow to muscles and cuts fat.
- Increase Growth Hormone. One study showed that the male body’s GH production increased by 2,000% after 24 hours of fasting. GH helps the body build muscle, burn fat and improve bone quality, physical function and longevity.
Many studies have found that training in a fasting state is a terrific way to build lean muscle mass and boost insulin sensitivity.
The Great Lent only comes around once a year and it should take the priority over working out or weight loss. Through some research and forward planning I have found that it is possible to not lose size, not get a gut and not get absolution from abouna to eat eggs or tuna during the Great Lent and to still achieve your fitness goals. This article is meant only to share my experiences as a brief introduction to the topic. I encourage anyone who is interested to do their own research and experimentation in this topic. May the prayers of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah be with us all, Amen.