A Positive Perspective on Competing in the Fitness World

“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.

 

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Fitspiration gone wrong

Recently I came across an article published in the March issue of the International Journal of Eating Disorders that examined “fitspiration” websites versus the already known-to-be dangerous “thinspiration (or Pro-ana)” type websites.(Here’s the link to the article in case you want to read it yourself http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/25778714/ )

The study looked at 8 “coded variables” of potentially harmful messaging content on the websites, including things like food guilt, body/weight guilt and dieting/restraint messaging. Not surprisingly (to me at least), both types of websites shared common themes. In fact, the study reports that 80% of the “fitspiration” websites examined included one or more of the coded variables (potentially harmful messages). The study found that “…fitspiration (sites) include objectifying images of thin/muscular women and messages encouraging dieting and exercise for appearance rather than health motivated reasons. Such content may normalize compulsive exercise and (the) guilt inducing messages may contribute to poor body image…Research has noted the hazardous messages contained on “thinspiration” sites. The current study also indicates that sites supposedly devoted to healthy pursuits may contain (similarly) dangerous content.”

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the same results could apply to social media “fitspiration” as well as websites.

An additional study that I came across in my reading on this topic was aimed at attempting to identify demographic populations that most frequently visit/follow health and fitness related social media pages of 3 types- weight loss/fitness motivation (“fitspiration”), detox/cleansing, and diet/fitness plan pages.  Do you know what this study concluded? Teenage girls. Consumers of health and fitness related social media content were predominantly teenage girls.

Fitness family—WHAT ARE WE DOING?? The first study is indicating that we are essentially operating on the same level as pro-eating disorder websites.  And who are we promoting this to?? Teenage girls!

Something needs to change. 

The word “fit,” in the context we are looking at, by definition means: “in good health,” or “physically healthy and strong.” Nowhere, in any definition that I came across, was the word “fit” defined by anything about how a person looks. So WHY has “fitspiration” become so geared toward influencing how we look, instead of how physically healthy we are. Why are we promoting achievement of a “look” over achievement of health… (To teenage girls!!).  As a member of the fitness industry I can tell you first hand, the way a person looks is NOT an indication of his/her health status.  

One of the “coded” variables in the first study was “thin pose”- meaning a picture of someone posed in a way to make them thinner. This was not something that was typically found on the “fitspiration” sites. However, had they included a variable for “awkwardly twist your midsection to make your waist look as small as possible, pop your hip up to make your butt look bigger and don’t forget to flex your arm pose” I’m pretty sure the fitspiration sites would have scored even higher on their ability to promote damaging messages.

Here’s the thing folks, it’s OK to be proud of how you look. And it’s OK to post it up once in a while for the world to see. But maybe we all should start thinking twice about the true message we’re putting out there as well as WHO we are pushing this message on.  

You can be “fitspiring” without putting up a million and a half pictures of your abs (butt, boobs, etc). You can also be “fitspiring” without objectifying your body. You can promote healthy eating without encouraging restrictive/disordered tendencies and obscure food rules. And you can promote physical activity without insinuating a need for obsession or extremes.  

So let’s start actually promoting the concept of being FIT- as in “good health physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.”  And maybe think twice before you post that next abs/butt/boobs [insert other body part here] selfie or your “guilt-free” restrictive food rules.  What message are you really trying to send and who in fact is listening?

Why Compete

There have been more and more stories coming out about the negative experiences women are having in the realm of physique based competition (figure, bikini, etc).  I myself have even spoken on some of the negative side effects I had dealt with from my involvement in the fitness industry.  So why would I voluntary return? 
From a personal standpoint, I’ve learned so much about myself and gained so much insight over the past several years. And one thing that remains true is I simply love to train for things. I’ve reached a point in my life where being an athlete certainly doesn’t define me. I am comfortable in my own skin and I know who I am. But I truly and simply love to train to compete. If a person loves to sing she should sing, if a person loves to paint she should paint. I just happen to love training, especially with a goal in mind, so why shouldn’t I do it, so long as it’s done in a healthy way. 

At this point in my life, my options for performance based training are pretty limited due to previous injuries. Things like fitness, crossfit, triathlons and even half marathons or other running based events are really not healthy choices for me as they will almost certainly exacerbate old injuries.  But I CAN train for figure in a manner that allows me to keep my body healthy without further progressing those injuries. 

But what about all of those negative consequences that go along with competing in figure? Well, one thing I’ve learned over the past few years is that in order to embark on a journey towards any goal in a successful manner, especially one that deals directly with your body, you need to have a very good sense of self.  The fact is, when competing is approached with the right frame of mind, it can actually bring many benefits, none of which have anything to do with how you actually look. Discipline, persistence, work ethic, self confidence, strength, patience- just to name a few. There is nothing wrong with these characteristics. In fact, these are all pretty important attributes to possess to be successful for most things in life.  The problem arises when these things are rooted in fear. When behaviors are rooted in fear- fear of gaining weight, fear of not looking a certain way, fear of not being enough, fear of failure or disappointment, fear of not measuring up, fear of what other people think of you–that is when things become excessive and unhealthy.  Behaviors rooted in self love and a true desire to become a better person while maintaining a sense of contentness within yourself are not negative or unhealthy.  It’s ok to want to be better and to strive to reach goals- it just has to all come from the right place.  For example, discipline should come from a place of self love and self respect. It’s when discipline comes from a place of self punishment that it becomes unhealthy.  Obsession is not healthy. 

I can honestly say at this point in my life I have a very clear sense of what is healthy and what is not.  When I look in the mirror and ask myself why I want to compete, my reasons are exactly as I have written.  I love to do it. I love the process and I believe the process helps build me into a better person.  There is no hidden feeling of the desire to “get lean” because I don’t feel good enough as I am.  I love who I am. I say my goal is to match or beat my previous best physique. But the truth is, the actual outcome means nothing to me. It’s the behaviors and the process that truly matter. It’s challenging myself to overcome obstacles that used to cause me a lot of anxiety and feeling stronger because I can now push through them. It’s about learning to do the best I can, given the individual circumstances of each day, and feeling proud of myself for my efforts. I am no longer afraid. I’m not afraid of gaining weight after the show, I’m not afraid of what people will think and I’m not afraid of failing. I am choosing to do this for myself. 

From a professional standpoint, I feel it is my responsibility to lead by example.  There are way too many people in the fitness industry that are setting the wrong example. There’s way too much emphasis on the physical/vanity component with not enough emphasis on health. I want to show other competitors that they can choose to compete in a manner that emphasizes maintaining mental, physical and emotional health.  But who am I to tell people how to do it if I haven’t done it myself. I also work with athletes. Who am I to tell them that they can reach big goals in a healthy manner if I’m not doing it myself. I’m a big believer in the concept of actions speaking louder than words. And so I hope that my actions are what speak to those who look to me for help.

That’s why I choose to compete.

Survival of the Fittest: The Last Few Weeks of A Contest Prep

You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re cranky. You’re not sure how you will make it through your next workout, and then cardio, and then four more weeks of the same. You question whether or not you’ll be ready. You’re checking the roster to see who else is competing, sizing yourself up against them. You check your abs a few times per day to see if hat last bit of fat has finally gone away. And all you can think about is pizza and donuts.

No, you’re not crazy. You’re 4 weeks out.

Even the most well planned, well thought out, sanely executed contest preps can be extremely grueling. Competing in a physique contest is NOT easy. You are pushing your body to a state its not likely comfortable maintaining and this can prove mentally and physically challenging for even the toughest of athletes.

So how do you handle the mental aspect of those last few weeks before a show, without finding yourself elbow deep in a gallon of ice cream?

It’s easy.

Just suck it up buttercup, you’re almost there…

But for real, here are a few pointers that have helped me through those last few tough weeks before a show.

1. Do not allow yourself to become overwhelmed. This is one of the only times I would suggest NOT looking at the big picture. If you overwhelm your thought process with “oh my god, how am I going to do this for another 4 weeks” you will never survive. So break it down into pieces. Take one workout, one cardio, one meal at a time. After all, it really is only one workout, or one cardio, or one meal that you have to get through. It’s nothing more or nothing less. You’ve done it before and you can do it again.

2. Trust the process. Your body will be ready if you just trust the process. You can only do what you can do. Stressing out about how you look or not being ready will only increase cortisol levels, causing you to hold more water and fat. Relax. Take a deep breath. And have faith that your body will do what it needs to do.

3. Stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. Do what YOU are supposed to do. Just because Johnny is cutting sodium and Mary is doing two hours of cardio does not mean that YOU need to be doing that. Do what is best for YOU.

4. On a similar note, stop worrying about who else is going to be at your show. You can only control what YOU bring to the stage. It doesn’t matter if Jay Cutler is going to be in your class. It should not change what YOU put into how you look. So stop worrying about it!

5. Keep your mind busy with things other than contest prep. I know that all you feel like doing is sleeping until it’s the next time to eat again. But staying busy can help distract you from the overwhelming thoughts of “will I be ready in time” and “how will I look.” Find things to do- movies, hang out with friends, read, clean, etc. Time is going to pass regardless, but it’s better spent doing things that help keep you calm, rather than stressing you out.

6. Surround yourself with people that support you. Having a solid support system is key during those last few weeks. The last thing you need is negativity. Stay near people that boost you up and give you the confidence to keep going.

7. And finally, believe that no matter what, it will be worth it. And trust me, it will be. No matter how you look or where you place, you will be so happy that you didn’t give up. You want to be able to say, I gave it my all, I could not have done anything more. It is an experience you will never forget.

So there you have it. I hope you find these tips helpful. Please feel free to comment and share your own “survival of the fittest” tips below!

7 Tips for Preventing Post-Competition Rebounds

It’s that time of year, competition season is in full swing and you’re in full contest prep mode. Here are some tips to help you keep that hard earned body well beyond your actual competition.

1. Maintain a reasonable/balanced diet throughout the entirety of you contest prep. Your contest prep diet should mimic your “real life” diet with some tweaks for portion size and macronutrient composition. If you’re eliminating entire food groups or eating nothing but proteins and vegetables for weeks on end, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

2. Include regular “off-plan” meals throughout your contest prep. Notice I say “off-plan” and not “cheat” meals. “Cheat” implies you’re doing something wrong and promotes the wrong mindset. “Off-plan” meals are reasonably sized meals that may or may not include treat foods. One of my favorites is steak with sautéed mushrooms and onions, baked potato with real butter and a salad with real dressing. Ideally, try to save off plan meals/treats for your hardest training days. Allowing yourself to occasionally indulge in some off-plan foods/treats throughout your dieting experience will help you maintain balance AFTER the show is done. If you’re 3 weeks out and all you can think about is what you’re going to eat after your show, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

3. Be mindful of the length of time you’re spending in a calorie deficit. Many competitors do multiple shows throughout the year, but this doesn’t mean you need to spend the entire time between shows in a calorie deficit. If you have 4-6 weeks or more between shows and you’re already lean, give your body a few weeks at a maintenance level. You should not gain body fat during a maintenance phase (and if you do, you may need to re-evaluate your contest prep practices to avoid metabolic damage), and your body will respond even better when you return to a calorie deficit. If you’re spending more than about 16 weeks at a time in a calorie deficit, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

4. Be reasonable with cardio during your prep. Cardio should be used as a tool for fat loss and it should be used wisely. Always start on the low end and gradually increase your cardio sessions as needed. Try utilizing different forms of cardio including metabolic workouts, sprints, and HIIT (high intensity intervals) instead of just increasing the time spent doing steady state cardio. Your body adapts to cardio within 8 weeks. If you’re doing 2 hours of cardio per day at 12 weeks out (or at any point during your prep for that matter), you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

5. Develop post-competition goals and have a plan! It is very helpful to have a structured eating/training plan in place for after your show. If you’ve followed tip #1, this shouldn’t be too difficult. Having post competition goals is also very helpful. Many competitors feel “lost” after a competition because they no longer have that driving force (the competition) right in front of them. Evaluate your physique before you even step on stage and determine areas you’d like to improve on—use this to help develop some post competition goals and a plan for reaching those goals. If you don’t have a plan in place for after your competition, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound.

6. Avoid drastic “peak week” strategies. If you are not ready one week out, no amount of water/sodium/carbohydrate manipulations will get you ready in one week, and you may end up doing more harm than good. Keep it simple, stick to the diet that has been working all along, and skip the crazy electrolyte manipulations and diuretics. If you are using these dangerous techniques during peak week, you may be setting yourself up for a post-competition rebound (and putting yourself at risk for a host of other health issues as well).

7. And finally, be realistic! It is nearly impossible to stay competition lean all year round, not to mention for many it is downright unhealthy. It’s likely you will gain a few pounds back after your show, and that’s ok! Be prepared for this and focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle. For women, it’s reasonable to stay within 5-15lbs of your competition weight (for men it’s a little more) depending on your division- bikini, figure, physique, etc-, how lean you get for the stage and what your off-season goals are. Avoid “punishment” cardio and dieting after your show (i.e. extra cardio or cutting carbs after an indulgence) as this promotes an unhealthy mindset and can lead to metabolic damage. Keeping the right mindset after your competition will help prevent a post-competition rebound.

Remember, fitness is not a competition, it is a lifestyle. Use the strategies above to keep your body and mind healthy and maintain a fit lifestyle even after your competition is over.
If you have any more tips or suggestions, please feel free to comment below!