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.

 

Advertisements

I Don’t Believe in “Cheat” Meals…

My contest prep started about 11 weeks ago and to be perfectly honest it kind of started out on a whim–I literally decided out of nowhere around 15 weeks out from the NY Pro that I wanted to compete, so I took about a week to come up with a plan and started my prep the following week. Prior to that I had spent the better part of the last two years learning, practicing and fully embracing an intuitive style of eating. My own personal experiences and subsequently a position as an eating disorder nutritionist had prompted me to learn as much as I could about eating disorders, disordered eating, food issues, body image, and everything that goes along with it. Learning the concepts of intuitive eating and listening and being kind to my body was my “recovery.” Teaching and helping others has served to reinforce everything I have learned and experienced. It is something I whole heartedly believe in. Prior to starting this prep I was in a place where I literally ate whatever it was I felt like, exercised how and when I felt like it, and still maintained my body weight within about a 2-3lb range ALL THE TIME. I ate a lot of nutritious foods but not always. And I was perfectly ok with that. I was content with myself. I no longer focused on my body or sought after the next diet or worried about my weight. I no longer battled with food. I no longer binged on food. Food and my body no longer consumed my thoughts. And it was truly a beautiful thing.
I believe that every person has the ability to maintain his/her normal/healthy body weight through a nutritiously intuitive eating style. And that is exactly what I was doing. And it was amazing. But in my heart I am an athlete. The process of training for a competition or event really brings me true joy and I really missed it. But my options for competitive sports are somewhat limited at this point in my life. So with already being an IFBB Pro, competing in the IFBB figure division seemed like the most logical option. The only problem was, the style of eating required to achieve a stage ready figure body seemingly contradicted everything I had come to believe in with regards to food. But the more I thought about it, the more I believed I could apply and maintain everything I had learned, even in a contest prep situation. It was (and is) my belief that I could approach a contest prep in a completely different way than I previously had done (and in a way that is different than what is generally considered “acceptable”) and I could succeed at both competing and maintaining a healthy relationship with food. And then I could help show others how to do it.

My goal at the start of this prep was to prove to myself (and others) that it could in fact be done without diving into the unhealthy depths of disordered eating and food obsession and body dysmorphia and ruined body image. The truth is, I was coming from such a great, healthy place that the idea of messing with it by artificially controlling my food intake (i.e. not always listening to hunger and fullness cues and not always listening to what my body was telling me it wanted to eat) for the sake of achieving an athletic goal was actually quite a bit scary- but I knew it was going to be temporary. To me, contest prep is a temporary way of eating to achieve a temporary goal. This may be a rare opinion in the fitness world, but I don’t eat on a meal plan year round, and I don’t walk around within 3lbs of my stage weight year round (nor do I have any desire to do either. To each his own).

Having a healthy relationship with food and my body and preserving that relationship at all costs (even if it meant not being as “lean” or “ripped” or “hardcore” as everyone else) was my first priority when designing my approach to this contest prep. Because in 100% honesty, having a healthy relationship with food and my body– no longer having constant anxiety around food, no longer constantly worrying about what others think of how I look, no longer feeling the need to keep foods out of the house for fear of bingeing, no longer obsessing about what I eat—has led to a significantly greater amount of happiness and peace in my life than any amount of leanness ever has or ever will. And I intend to maintain that perspective at all times.

Along with viewing the contest prep style of eating as a temporary means to a temporary ends, I’ve also implemented some other strategies along the way to help me maintain my perspective. I have approached the entire process with a perspective of “I have permission to eat whatever I choose at any time and whatever my choice is, I trust that it is what is best for me in that moment.” I trust my ability to choose the actions that will move me closer to my goal. If I choose an action that is not consistent with this, I trust it is for a good reason, and that’s good enough for me. I do not analyze or beat myself up over any choice. I own it and I keep moving forward.

I don’t believe in “cheat” meals (or days). I hate the word “cheat.” To me the word cheat has a morally negative connotation attached to it. And so if I say I’m having a “cheat” meal, it makes it seem as though there is something inherently bad about it, like I’m doing something I’m not supposed to be doing, when in fact, all I’m doing is eating food. There is nothing moral or right or wrong about it- it’s just food. So there is no reason to feel any type of way about it. I also think the “cheat” concept makes me feel like I have to go and eat certain types of food and eat as much of it as I can because after this I can’t have any of it again until my next “cheat.” And this promotes a last supper, “stuff my face” mentality rather than listening to my body’s cues.  

The most effective tool that I’ve been utilizing throughout this prep (aside from reading and journaling) is something I’ve termed an “intuitive eating day.” This is not a binge day, a “refeed” day, an “all you can eat” day or a “cheat” day. My intuitive eating day is a day where I let my body decide what it wants to eat and how much. It is just a day of “normal” eating for me (how I would eat if I weren’t prepping). I listen to my body, I trust my body, I don’t measure anything, I eat generally nutritious foods (for the most part but not always), and I eat when I’m hungry and stop eating when I’m satisfied. There is no bingeing, no stuffing my face, no “last supper” meals, no “cheating.” I eat intuitively. For those of you wondering what that might look like, here is an example:
​Breakfast: Oatmeal/egg white pancake topped with peanut butter and sugar free syrup or honey

​Lunch: Chicken, sweet potato, large salad with lots of veggies and whatever else I feel like
​Snack: No Cow protein bar, trail mix (nuts/dark chocolate mix), fruit
​Dinner: Banza chick pea pasta with ground beef, broccoli, tomato sauce and cheese (this meal always varied- sometimes sushi, sometimes pizza, sometimes just steak and veggies- whatever ​I was in the mood for)
​Dessert: Dark chocolate with natural peanut butter (a couple of times I had ice cream because I really felt like it- Ben and Jerry’s “The Tonight Dough” is the BEST ice cream ever invented!)

So you can see, its mostly nutritious foods that I genuinely like to eat, not measured, not over eaten, but eaten in amounts that satisfy me. This is how I “normally” eat. And I’d like to stay as close to that as possible. Do I believe eating like this once per week has hindered my progress in any way? Nope. And even if it has from a physical/leanness standpoint, I don’t care. It’s important to me to maintain my ability to eat this way and I believe it has actually helped me stay on my game mentally- which is really the most important thing during a contest prep. I’ve also incorporated a bit of intuitive eating throughout my prep nutrition plan, but that’s a bit harder to explain and I’m not going to get into the details.

The key is, I listen to my body.

Dan asked me the other day what I wanted to eat after my show. And I looked at him like he was crazy. I have no idea what I’m going to feel like eating 3 weeks from now. And I’m not in such a deprived state that food is constantly on my mind and all I can think about is eating (fill in the blank). Sure I get hungry and sometimes I’d like to eat more or something different, but like I originally mentioned, my perspective is “I have permission to eat anything I choose at any time.” And I trust myself to consistently make the choices that will help me to reach my goal. But if I want something badly enough I can just have it (I can count on one hand and still have fingers left over the number of times this has actually occurred but just having that self permission with no fear of judgement is key for me).  I’m not obsessed with food and what I can and cant eat.

Now please don’t mistake this approach as a “lazy” approach to nutrition for contest prep. I can assure you I have worked extremely hard on my nutrition for this prep—probably even harder than I have worked in the past and definitely harder than I had initially anticipated I would need to. But that’s all the more reason for me to keep the right perspective. When the nutrition gets really tough towards the end, having the right perspective is crucial (for me at least). My emotional well-being always takes precedent over my desire to be hardcore or shredded, but that certainly does not mean I’m not busting my butt to be my best.

I’m going to take a guess and say there’s probably not a “prep coach” out there that would advise clients to do what I’ve been doing. But I’m also going to go out on a limb and say there’s probably not many (if any) prep coaches out there that have significant experience working with people with eating disorders. I do. And the way I see it, a contest prep is a self-imposed disordered way of eating, and it can lead to many of the physical and psychological effects seen in actual eating disorders. To complicate that, many people that gravitate toward the bodybuilding sports tend to already have some type of disordered eating behaviors, and food and/or body image issues to begin with, tendencies which can certainly be exacerbated by the contest prep. So why not try to develop an approach that addresses this head on.

Many people will disagree with everything I’ve said. And that’s ok. That’s why I do my own prep. And it works for me. I’ve worked with enough eating disorder clients to understand the tendencies and the mindset. I also know my own personal experience, I know what I’ve learned from it, I know what is important to me, and I know what I want and don’t want. Is this approach necessary for everyone? No, of course not. But it would probably be very beneficial for some.  This approach works for me because I took the time to understand my own eating behaviors and to truly embrace and practice an intuitive way of eating. And I’m confident in my methods. 

I started this prep with a complete and genuine trust in my body and my ability to handle myself when it comes to food. I would strongly encourage anyone embarking on this type of journey to do the same. Unfortunately, not everyone that competes will start from a place of a healthy relationship with food and their body, and even worse many athletes (and prep coaches) do not necessarily feel this is important (or maybe they simply do not understand HOW important it is). And this is a HUGE mistake. If you’re starting from a place that involves disordered eating tendencies, and food and/or body image issues, I can almost guarantee you that a restrictive contest prep will make things much worse. My suggestion would be to take the time that you need to address these issues first and foremost. Read books, seek counselling, ask for help- do what you need to do to get yourself to a place where you have a healthy relationship with food and your body. That’s usually going to mean putting off competing. But it’s necessary and worth it. Trust me when I say, a contest prep will not solve your eating and body image issues. It will not make anything better. There is no way to implement a safe and healthy contest prep if you’re not starting from an emotionally healthy place. Let’s face it, you can’t successfully navigate an intuitive eating day if you don’t know how to eat intuitively. Then all you’re left with is the restrictive eating/cheat meal cycle. And personally I don’t believe in that approach.