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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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.

That little thing called “genetics”

I recently read an article that talked about how people respond differently to different types/amounts of cardio based on genetic factors.  To me this seemed pretty obvious, but I don’t know if the majority of people out there see it that way.  Let me preface all this by saying, the majority of what I’m going to bring up is based mostly on personal experience, discussion with others and observation.  My college degree is in Nutritional Science (which was in fact a “pre-med” major because I used to think I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon), but in pursuing that degree, I took one class in genetics which covered nothing about training/exercise/diet.  So that is the extent of my formal scientific training in genetics. 


Regardless, I’m going to speak my mind on own my understanding of the topic as it may or may not relate to training/nutrition based on MY experience.


Genetics is something a lot of people bring up when it comes to having a certain “look.”  Typically in physique sports the top competitors have “good” genetics, or even what we may consider “exceptional” genetics based on their natural shape/structure.  For women, this may mean naturally wide/capped shoulders, tiny waist, round glutes, etc.   The fact is everyone has a different genetic structure to work with.   Unfortunately, in the physique sports, genetic structure plays a major role.  It’s not to say we have no influence on how we look.  Proper training and nutrition can certainly help to alter one’s physique in dramatic ways.  However, we are ultimately limited by our natural structure.  I think it’s very important to accept this when it comes to developing physique based goals.  Be honest with yourself and be realistic with your own physical capabilities.  We would all love to have “perfect” structure, but it’s really not worth using unhealthy/unsafe practices in an attempt to alter your own genetic structure (i.e. wearing a squeem for hours a day in an attempt to reduce your waist size) for a placing at bodybuilding show.


Another concept involving genetics that I think is often overlooked is how it may impact our nutrition and training.  This is why there is no such thing as a one size fits all training or diet protocol.  I’m going to use my own personal experience here to explain the points I’m trying to make.  I feel like I can use myself as a valid example because I’ve been an athlete for a very long time, I’ve been training for many years, I’ve worked with many different coaches and I have employed many different training and nutrition styles over the years.  In doing so, I’ve really learned exactly how my body will respond to certain things—in essence, I’ve learned my own “genetics” when it comes to training/nutrition.  


I’ve learned that genetically speaking, I build muscle very well.  Additionally, I hold onto muscle very well.  I used to joke that I could eat nothing but iceberg lettuce and my body would still find a way to utilize it.  But what does that mean in terms of training and nutrition.  Well, in terms of getting ready for a fitness competition, it meant I could afford to do a decent amount of cardio without a huge fear of burning muscle.  It also meant that I could be a little stricter with my carb intake and still maintain size.  (And as a quick note, it doesn’t mean that it was ok or ideal for me to be doing zero carbs and 2 hours of cardio for weeks on end- it just meant that I probably could do more than some others and still maintain muscle mass).  There are others out there that lose muscle with just the thought of extra cardio, and thus their training/nutrition should be tailored accordingly


On the topic of cardio (and I’d like to do a full blog one day on this topic as it seems to be one of great debate), I did a contest prep one time which included little to no cardio (at least, it was a significant amount less than my body was used to doing), and I really didn’t have great results with that approach.  In addition to my personal genetic response to cardio I also attribute this to the fact that growing up and through college, I was spending anywhere from 4-8 hours in the gym everyday training for gymnastics.  My theory is- maybe my body just needs a little more because of this (training adaptation).  There are plenty of others out there who can do an entire contest prep and get stage-ready lean with hardly any cardio at all– and honestly, if you can do it that way you should!  But that wasn’t me (and it still isn’t- to this day my body responds very well to certain types/amounts of cardio)


Another example would be my response to strength training.  Like I said, I build muscle very easily.  I know there are some competitors that typically include crossfit workouts (and/or a lot of heavy barbell stuff) while getting ready for a show.  In fact, I know of a fellow fitness competitor that trained for her last show using exclusively crossfit training (in addition to routine work)-and her physique is AMAZING.  However, personally, that approach would never have worked for me.  I did a lot of heavy training and metabolic stuff back in my day, which would have been similar to crossfit as this was before crossfit became mainstream (you can still see the youtube videos of my crazy training here https://www.youtube.com/user/Ergis1999/videos, but the fact is, that type of training was actually detrimental to MY “stage” physique.  It was awesome, I loved it, I got super strong and I had a blast, so I certainly don’t regret any of it, but it definitely did not help me out in terms of my physique round placings.  So why can some people train like that and look amazing, and others maybe not so much- well, for me, I build muscle quickly, I have a very wide and thick back, my traps insert high on my neck (they used to call me Marcus Ruhl when I trained with the guys) and I naturally have a wider waistline with very thick core muscles.  That type of training enhances all of those features– which is the opposite of what I wanted for the physique rounds.  But on a side note, my fitness routine kicked ass when I was training like that because it was the strongest I have ever been (you can see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPRtGeDue2Y if you don’t believe me).


The last show I did back in 2013 was my ultimate physique to date.  The reason why is because I understood my body and I trained very specifically with that understanding in mind.  I used lighter/moderate weights with a VERY (let me repeat VEEEEERRY) strong emphasis on the mind muscle connection and focused VERY hard on feeling exactly what muscle I wanted to be targeting.  I also did a good mix of high intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio- not a ton of steady state stuff- and metabolic workouts.  My cardio was geared towards preparing me for my fitness routine– I felt like none of it was “wasted” or “mindless” – each cardio workout had a specific purpose.  My nutrition consisted of a moderate amount of healthy carbs, fats and proteins- a very balanced approach- but I ate mostly fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, eggs, sweet potatoes, lean meats, greek yogurt) because these were the foods I responded best to, from both a performance and physique perspective.   I also limited gluten because I generally feel much better when I keep it relatively low in my diet (side bar here, I do not have Celiacs disease and I do not advocate a gluten free diet.  There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, and I CANand do eat a modest amount of food containing gluten, I just personally feel a million times better when I keep it low—again, learn your body).  


I can honestly say I did NOTHING excessive or extreme for that contest prep.  It was really a matter of using all of the knowledge I had gained along the way, knowing how my body would respond to specific training and nutrition techniques and being smart about what I was doing.  And I was able to present my best physique.  It doesn’t mean that the way I trained is the ONLY way, and it doesn’t mean that the way I prepped will work for everyone.  


The point I’m trying to make here is learn your own “genetics.”  Avoid falling into the trap of following certain protocols just because other people are using them.  Learn what YOU need to do to improve YOURSELF, whether it be performance or physique based, and tailor your approach with that specific goal in mind.  If you work with a coach, make sure you are both on the same page when it comes to your goals and your genetic response (and make sure your program is tailored to YOU).  


Furthermore, be honest with yourself about your own structural and genetic limitations.  We can’t all look like Ms. Figure/Physique/Bikini (or Mr.) Olympia, just like we can’t all perform like Rich Froning or Camille Leblanc-Bazinet (crossfit superstars if you’re not familiar with the names).  I’m not saying don’t try.  It’s not the point I’m trying to make at all.  We truly have the power to accomplish great things when we work hard, believe in ourselves and go after our goals.  However, I AM saying be realistic.  Focus on self improvement in a way that’s healthy and productive, not self destructive.  Not everyone’s “end-all/be-all” is to be a Pro in the physique sports or a crossfit games competitor, and that’s OK.  Try to be the best YOU that you can be.  Learn to listen to your body.  Learn to work WITH your body, not against it. And always keep your health as top priority. Learning your “genetics” is a process, but the outcomes will be well worth it.