5 Things I Wish I Would Have Known Before Competing
This post may upset you - but that is not what it is intended for.
So if this upsets you - please note: ** it is perfectly acceptable to disagree with something you see on the internet and move on happily unaffected. Just sayin'.
I write this because:
a) I love to educate b) I think it is important to understand all aspects of something prior to getting involved
c) I wish someone would have shared this info with me d) If this can help ONE woman to not feel controlled by her body image, then it did it's job
So you think you want to do a fitness competition. Ask yourself this question:
Why do you want to compete?
I know exactly what led me to compete. A lifetime of being 'the fat girl', 'the bigger girl', the one who got shouted at out truck windows in the high school parking lot 'ever heard of weight watchers?' The one who got put down by her own friends for her weight. The one who never had a boyfriend until college. The one who thought about how to lose weight most of her young life.
That girl was screaming for some sort EXTERNAL validation.
A competition where people pose in barely-there bikini's and are judged on their physique? Sign me up!
I was out to prove everyone wrong. Everyone who ever put me down or made me feel less than because of my body - this was for them. I had already dropped 70lbs on my own so why not attempt to get as lean as I humanly possibly could. Yep! Let's DO THIS!
My low self esteem, years of negative body image, need for external validation and lack of self-love led me there. It was like some sort of 'payback.'
I know not everyone that competes follows the same reasoning above. I know some people who can compete and live a perfectly balanced and healthy life. BUT - I will say, MOST of the people I know who have competed in the past did it for one of the reasons above: to feel 'good enough' for something they were lacking in life.
How does a sparkly swimsuit, a darker-than-life fake tan and a plastic trophy make you feel 'good enough?'
Well......... like this:
Taking your body to such low body-fat as an aesthetic athlete requires a LOT of dedication. This can feel fulfilling
Getting to the level of leaness/muscularity it requires to compete at a national level is something a small percentage of the population has done or could do. This can feel fulfilling.
Controlling every single thing you put in your body and every single minute you devote to exercise can give you a sense of purpose. This can feel fulfilling.
Having a group of friends and contacts that are all at the same level of dedication and discipline can be motivating. This can feel fulfilling.
Walking on stage at 8-10% body-fat and being judged for your physique can feel fulfilling.
Winning a trophy out of a large class of other competitors can feel fulfilling.
But on the flip-side, the side we don't always hear about, there can be some negative factors that can live with you a long time....even for life. Things I wish I would have known and thought about prior to doing 7 fitness competitions that led me down a path to diminishing returns.
Below I will go in to detail on 5 of these factors that myself and others I know personally faced when being part of the 'competition world':
1) 'Living' At the Gym:
Caveat: I am well aware not everyone does hours upon hours of cardio like myself and others did or have done to prep for fitness competitions. Not when you coach with GOOD coaches like the Paul Revelia's and Layne Norton's of the world. But there are hundreds of 'old-school' coaches out there preaching extremes by way of restrictive meal-plans and 2-a-day cardios totaling 2+ hours or more.
WHO has time for 2+ hours of JUST cardio, plus lifting, plus hours of food prep each week, plus a job (which I hope you have) plus family life, relationships, friendships, time for yourself, spirituality on and on and on. That's the point. You DON'T have time for those things. So inevitably some things must fall by the wayside. And most of those 'things' are those that matter most: relationships with people.
The things you give up can sometimes cause deep strains in your relationships. If you recognize this, know it is only temporary and can maintain a healthy balance - GO YOU! Most people struggle here. I know my family and friends felt that I isolated myself and chose competing over them. And for the most part, I did. I was obsessed. It's all I talked about, it's all I cared about, it's all I stood for. And unfortunately, it' easy to get that way when you see what's happening to your body for the first time in your life. It's also excruciatingly difficult to get out of.
2) Food Obsessed: To be judged in competition based on your overall lean physique, inevitably you will have to sacrifice by way of your food intake. But the sacrifice sometimes comes at a price that can affect people mentally for years.
When I was competing, I lived by restrictive 'meal plans': aka: I spent 4 hours every Sunday prepping, weighing and portioning all my food that I froze and ate out of plastic bags and containers throughout the week (yes even dinners and yes even at restaurants.) Because of how insanely lean my body was becoming by eating this way, I became convinced that THIS was the ONLY way to eat. I became 'food obsessed' and refused to eat healthy things like avocado or almond butter - because they were "not on my plan."
On weekends, I would obsess over my 'cheat meal' - the one 'off-plan' meal I was able to eat each week. I would pour over menus, stress over what I was going to have and dream about it. I was obsessed with eating on my meal plan and obsessed with dreaming of 'forbidden foods'. What this was doing was creating a disordered relationship with food - and making others around me exhausted with my food issues.
Restriction almost always leads to very unhealthy relationships with food. Period. If you are the kind of person that can look at your prep-time as just temporary and easily transition away from restrictive calories and foods, again GO YOU! But most people struggle here.
That struggle can go on for years and years after competing. It can manifest in many ways from eating disorders like orthorexia, binge-eating disorder and anxiety. It can lead to years of internal battles and struggles constantly over food choices, social situations, water weight and the scale.
When you go below a healthy amount of body-fat for a long duration of time, many things happen hormonally that take your body out of homeostasis. The three that affect females the most are:
Loss of menses
Lack of libido
No big deal right? Well loss of menses can be if you want to reproduce someday. Lack of libido can be if you want to be in a happy romantic relationship. Sleep issues can be if you want to be successful in your work.
Every female competitor I have spoken to (myself included) has at some time discussed or joked about the time period around competition prep and the effects on libido. This is considered 'normal' because of low body-fat and hormonal fluctuations. However, what is NOT normal is to go months on end without intimacy between you and your spouse/partner - all in the name of competing. No amount of plastic trophies will ever be worth losing intimacy between you and your partner. Nor will they ever be worth not being able to conceive (if this is a desire of yours).
Sleep is CRUCIAL to overall health. Less than 7-9 hours a night for adults not only affects your stress, eating habits and weight BUT also affects cognitive function, focus and productivity. If your lack of sleep is affecting your life, you may want to re-think priorities.
NOTE: I know a select few who did not lose menses when competing - but once you approach a certain body-fat as a female, it is almost impossible not to. Throwing your body off it's normal menses cycles over and over again can cause permanent issues hormonally.
4.) Seeing Your Body Stage Lean
Perhaps the most detrimental. Once you see your body stage lean - you can never un-see your body stage lean. This can take a massive psychological toll on people. It definitely did me.
This is called Body Dysmorphia.
If you ask most people who have ever competed in any kind of aesthetic competition to show you a photo of themselves, they likely will show you a stage photo or may even have it as their social media profile photo months or years after a competition. Yet this is what they look like less than 1% of their life. Why? Because contrary to the belief that competing gets you in 'the best shape of your life', it is actually unhealthy to stay at the level of leaness/low-body fat for longer than a few weeks. Yet somehow, getting that lean becomes part of a fitness competitors identity. The way competitors look after the stage becomes their 'off-season' physique and many constantly live to get back to that lean state.
The reason people work so hard for a fitness competition is because it is a snapshot in time. The body cannot withstand the lack of calories and amount of work-load put on it to be that low body-fat for long durations. It just can't keep up.
But imagine yourself being overweight your entire life or being the super-skinny kid who never received validation for a body they always hated. And all the sudden after months and sometimes years of preparation, they get accolades for that body. WOW! When a person sees their body THAT lean, they can't imagine ever going back. Many fight to stay that lean year round (as was my case) and struggle when their metabolism takes a turn.
5) The Aftermath of Extremes The most taboo phrase in the fitness competition world: 'metabolic damage'.
Call it what you want but metabolic adaptation is a very real thing. The longer you diet, the slower your metabolism becomes. This has it's roots in 'survival': so that when food becomes available again, your body can gain weight and attempt to get back to its 'safe' zone. Hormone production is lowered (particularly sex hormones as discussed above), thyroid output is decreased and your activity output (ie: amount of calories you burn with exercise) decreases.
What results is typically bodyfat gain, hormonal fluctuations, inability to drop bodyfat despite adding more exercise and dropping calories even further and a lot of frustration (and in many cases - depression).
I know and have worked with countless competitors who have experienced metabolic adaptation. You cannot put your body through such extremes and stress and expect no consequences. I never knew that what I was doing would lead me to such diminishing returns that has taken YEARS (yes years) to reverse.
The good news? The Flexible Dieting revolution has changed much of the above. Research and science have shown us that people can eat things they love that fit a certain macronutrient ratio and still get results without risking disordered relationships with food. We have found that shorter durations of intense cardio and heavy compound lifts can garner incredible results and keep hormones balanced. We've learned that correctly reverse dieting in and out of periods of low body fat can help people to avoid metabolic adaptation.
Yet one thing that remains is the same for myself and most fitness competitors I speak to: the issue of seeing your body 'stage lean' and being able to accept your body once healthy weight is gained back. The desire to be 'lean', 'ripped', 'tiny' and 'shredded' and constantly comparing your body to your stage-self. A struggle many will deal with for life.
For this I tell you, the only way out of this negative view of your body is to do the hard work. Not the work inside the gym picking up the heavy weights with sweat drenched Lulu's - the internal work. The work to overcome limiting beliefs about yourself that led you to believe your body must look a certain way in order to be 'relevant', worthy or loved.
That is the work I am dedicated to for life: helping people, especially women, see their worth outside of their body.
For some of those lucky souls that have done the hard, heavy, internal work and can still do aesthetic fitness competitions - I commend you. For most others who still struggle to this day, I encourage you to seek fulfillment inside of yourself. Focus on performance athletics that help you to build confidence in what your body can DO and not what it looks like. Focus on relationships that fuel your soul. Focus on doing things you love that will bring you joy and fulfillment that have zero to do with your looks.
Will I ever compete again? Maybe not. But what I do know is that I am so grateful for every experience I have ever had - - because through my experiences I learned to love myself outside of what any judge, competitor or person thinks. Had I never fallen in to the world of fitness competitions, I don't think I ever would have hit rock bottom with my body dysmorphia and poor relationships with food. I would never have gone through the painfully bittersweet and beautiful process of healing and I wouldn't have the privilege to help so many women through their own battles. For me the experience was priceless.