“Seek not to become a person of great success, but rather a person of great value.”Albert Einstein (rephrased)
My journey back to the stage started on a whim when a former eating disorder client of mine from several years ago contacted me with regards to doing a figure competition prep nutrition plan for her. Knowing what I do about eating disorders and competition prep, I was very reluctant to say the least. However, after meeting with her, I could tell she was in a better place, and quite frankly, she was going to pursue competing with or without my help. So I decided I would help her and we developed a game plan.
At that time competing had not been on my radar for several years. I was enjoying life as an intuitive eater, free from food anxiety, and not worrying at all about the scale. I was focusing more on my career and had recently started in a contracted sports nutrition dietitian position for the US Air Force. From a training perspective, I had completed a half marathon a few months earlier and I was still doing some running and getting in some lifting (maybe) a couple days per week, but nothing really focused or consistent.
After meeting with this client I really got to thinking about the feasibility of successfully competing in the physique based sports with a history of eating disorder tendencies. Personally, I was the furthest away from these tendencies that I had ever been in my life. I had a healthy relationship with food and my body, and I genuinely liked it that way. I was in a really good place. And competing again was not in my plans, as I had no intention of messing with that new found perspective.
But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it could be done- compete, but maintain a healthy perspective toward food and my body. I have to admit, I really missed the challenge of training for something. I’m an athlete at heart and I have been my whole life. And I genuinely love the process of training for competition. But in addition to my mental health, my physical health had also been a concern when it came to competing. I had pushed myself too far in the past- worked through injuries that I never should have worked through, and ultimately destroyed my shoulder to the point where competing in the fitness division is no longer even possible.
And then suddenly I had this bright idea- “But what about Figure?”
Truthfully, the thought of competing in Figure was pretty intimidating to me. I am a FITNESS pro. I turned PRO and excelled in FITNESS because 2/3 of your score is based on your routine and I had some kick ass routines. But I certainly was not known for my physique. So to compete in a division judged solely on physique, against women that had spent years and years perfecting every detail of their physiques— one could see how that might be intimidating.
Regardless, I went online and checked the IFBB schedule and saw that the NY Pro was about 14.5 weeks away. Hmmm… doable…maybe?? Something in me kept saying yes. There was suddenly a strong compelling force within me saying “Yes. You can do this. You need to do this.” I don’t really know why I felt SOOO strongly about it, but I just felt like this is exactly what I was supposed to do.
So I emailed Dan to make sure he would be on board, and of course he was supportive (although I’m sure he also thought I was slightly out of my mind), but once I knew he was ok with it and believed I could pull it off, I literally got right to work. I came up with a plan and started right at 14 weeks out.
Right from the very start my mindset toward competing was completely different than it ever had been before. I was not doing this for a placing. And I was not doing this as a desperate attempt to get lean because I was so uncomfortable with my body (both underlying reasons for competing in the past). I was doing this so that I could go through the process, as someone that had truly developed a healthy relationship with food and my body, as someone that had developed the tools and mental strength to handle disordered eating thoughts and as someone that was regularly helping other athletes to do the same (but not necessarily within the fitness industry). I wanted to go through this process, knowing what I now knew, and then be able to share the experience with others and hopefully offer some legitimate insight into the experience of competition prep.
Before I go any further, let me make one thing clear. Despite my positive experience, I would still NOT advise anyone with a history of a diagnosed eating disorder to get into physique based competition. The fact is the eating/exercise behaviors required to get on stage are in some ways like a self-imposed eating disorder. If it’s done with the mindset that it is for a temporary period of time for a temporary look, and with a positive perspective toward one’s body and relationship with food that is maintained at all times- it can be done safely (in my opinion). However someone with a previously diagnosed eating disorder may find it very difficult to view it in this way and stay in this mind frame despite being recovered and old thoughts and behaviors may creep in. And it’s not worth that risk.
Furthermore, the entire mindset that is portrayed throughout the fitness industry in general also tends to be very disordered- it can be so triggering to those that are susceptible if not viewed in the right way. There are even a lot of people that enter the fitness industry with a perfectly healthy mindset and leave it with disordered eating tendencies. I want to be someone that is doing it “the right way” and sending the right message.
So back to my journey- I honestly had no idea how my body would hold up or how it would respond to literally being thrown into a contest prep nutrition/training regimen, but I was determined to give it a shot. And so I got started. I developed my own nutrition and training plan and started plugging away. I also began journaling- not just keeping track of my nutrition and training but really writing down all of my thoughts and insights and analyzing my successes and struggles- maybe I’ll publish it someday, maybe not. I also started reading more books about how to develop a strong and positive mindset, and applied these principles to my prep on a daily basis.
Several weeks into my prep, from a behavioral perspective, everything was going smoothly. I was on point with my nutrition, I was training hard and sticking to my schedule, and I was maintaining a positive state of mind. Unfortunately, my body was not responding as quickly as I would have hoped. In the past this would have really thrown me into a state of panic and anxiety, however this time around I managed to keep myself calm and focused and I just continued to trust that I was doing the right thing.
At about 6 weeks out I knew I was behind. But I had made so much progress and gained so much insight by that point that I just didn’t want to quit. I just knew that I could get to the stage. I also knew that I was going to have to be a little more extreme with my nutrition and training than I would have liked to be, but it was necessary (TEMPORARY and short term, but necessary) if I wanted to get on stage looking like I belonged there.
I had made the commitment to myself before I started that if I felt like I was jeopardizing my mental or physical health in any way, at any point during the prep, I would stop. But I honestly felt great physically, and my mental game/mindset was stronger than it had ever been. So I made the decision to push through until the end, even if it meant double cardios and very low carbs, as long as I kept that commitment and a positive frame of mind.
Those last 6 weeks were not easy, and to be honest, I was not always perfect. But looking back through my journal there is one key thing that stands out. No matter what happened, I never resorted to negative judgement toward myself. No matter what happened, I was always able to come back to a positive and determined mindset. I was always able to get back to trusting that I was going to pull it off and no matter the outcome I would be proud of myself because I knew I was doing all that I could. I just believed it was all going to come together at the end. And it did!
This was the most positive prep experience I have ever had. I have truly gained so much insight and confidence from this experience, and I’ve learned so much that I believe can be helpful to others. Here are some of the initial major insights I’d like to share:
1. It was NOT easy. In fact, it was really, really HARD. And I was NOT always perfect. But I never beat myself up for it. I viewed every failure as a chance to learn and improve. I never resorted to judging myself negatively or “hating myself” for any choice or action. I analyzed it and learned from it. This has significantly improved my confidence in my ability to handle obstacles.
2. I never judged myself based on my body. My body was not necessarily responding how I wanted it to but I never let that determine how I felt about myself. I knew I was giving it my all, and I trusted that my body would do what it needed to do. And in the end if it didn’t, I was still going to stand on stage tall and proud because I knew where I started from and the amount of work I was putting in to make it happen. Throughout the prep I continually encouraged myself and made sure I felt proud of what I was achieving, regardless of how I looked. This made a HUGE difference in the experience as a whole.
3. I learned to stop comparing myself to everyone else and to my previous self. This was much more difficult than I had anticipated it being, and I had to be diligent in my efforts to avoid this behavior. But for as difficult as that was, I was never, ever focused on a placing. Getting on stage was my goal. Where I placed was irrelevant. In the end my placing had no impact whatsoever on how I felt about myself, my journey or what I had accomplished (and this is the first time I can say this with 100% honesty).
4. I managed to maintain a healthy relationship with food. No matter how rough the diet got, I always viewed it as a temporary way of eating for a temporary goal. And once that goal was achieved I knew I would resume a healthy, balanced way of eating. Again, I was not perfect and I had my moments. But I was always able to bring myself back to a positive place pretty quickly. I never ever judged myself negatively, or freaked out about, or had a mental meltdown regarding any food choice/behavior that was less than consistent with my goals. I just got right back to a positive place mentally and right back on track to the best of my ability- always with the trust and belief that I was capable of seeing this through (this too is the first time I can say this with 100% honesty).
5. I maintained self-love. This sounds weird, but in the past I used to allow my fear of not being good enough to motivate my actions. I would do things because I felt like I had to, or else I was not good enough. This time around, I always believed I was enough, regardless of how I looked or if I had made a mistake. I always believed in myself, I always treated myself kindly and I never acted out of fear or compensation or punishment. I learned how to handle and overcome my anxiety and keep my mind on what I believed I could achieve, not on the fear of what might happen (again, another first).
In the end, this prep truly strengthened my confidence level in my ability to achieve any goal I set for myself. It improved my ability to handle and overcome obstacle and setbacks. And it strengthened my trust in myself and my body. My mind and self-image are stronger than ever and my healthy relationship with food has remained perfectly intact. Physically, I did not make my shoulder injury any worse (this is a big success as my last fitness prep REALLY added a lot of damage to my shoulder joint).
Even in this post competition period which, in the past, I’ve REALLY struggled with, I’m finding my confidence in my ability to handle it is stronger than ever. I am two weeks post competition and it’s the best I’ve ever felt mentally and physically after a show. I have yet to experience any signs of a physical or emotional post-competition “rebound.” My body is healthy. My metabolism is healthy. And my mind is healthy. I am healthy. And I’m continuing to move forward in a positive way by setting new goals for myself.
So what is the next step for me? Do I plan on competing again? Absolutely…just not right away. I had to put my body through a lot for the final few weeks of this past prep and I don’t believe it’s healthy to compete multiple times in a row under those circumstances. Additionally, I want to focus more on other aspects of my life. A contest prep requires so much time and dedication, and most of your energy gets devoted to preparing to get on stage- other things tend to take a back seat. And this is ok, temporarily, because to achieve a great goal you must really put 100% of your energy into it. But I do not want my life to be that way year round. My goal is not necessarily to win a show or to compete at the Olympia (I’ve already been there, done that). My goal is to have a complete, well rounded and fulfilling life. Competing can be part of that life but it is not my whole life. For now I’d like to put a little more energy into building my professional career and sharing with others all that I’ve gained through this experience. I will compete again when the time is right, but in the meantime I’m going to try to build bigger shoulders and a bigger butt, spend a lot of time enjoying the summer with Dan and my family, and focus on helping others to achieve their nutrition and fitness goals.