Catch you on the rebound.
So you’re about to enter your first competition. You’ve researched it, talked to everyone you know that’s ever even thought about doing one and paid a fortune for a “customized” contest diet and training program. You’ve pored over which song to use and practiced your posing in high heels until you’re sure you could play tennis in them if you had to. Protein is the main part of your diet and you’ve eaten so many green beans and spinach that you swear you might turn green yourself one day. The stair mill and you are so closely linked that you’re thinking of asking it to your cousins wedding as your plus one. You’re as ready as you will ever be both physically and mentally. (ok maybe just physically).. And you are focused on taking home the prize.
But what about after…
There is a little secret associated with fitness competitions that before now hasn’t been discussed too often — the virtually universal post-contest rebound effect. Even bodybuilding champions will gain weight after they stop the highly restrictive diets that are required to achieve the extremely low body fat levels they need to be competitive. It is something that is rarely talked about to new competitors, and therefore, rarely anticipated by them. Strict competition diets and training programs work, even for non-competitors. But the extreme results cannot — and should not— last forever. Anyone who is considering entering a competition should be prepared to deal with the physical and, more importantly, the emotional impact of returning to more normal eating.
The goal of these ultra strict pre-contest diets is to lose as much fat as possible, and for most competitors they have to do a highly restricted eating and exercise plan for 12 to 16 weeks before a competition. As the macro balance shifts towards a higher and higher protein content, carbs and fats take a back seat during this process. As the calories, carbs and fats drop off the competitor starts thinking about all the delicious foods that she/he can’t wait to eat when the show is over. I’ve even seen competitors collect massive quantities of different junk foods to eat after the show is over. Most athletes want to celebrate, or “reward” months of sacrifice by basically gorging right after the competition. Most have good intentions of keeping their eating clean post contest but few actually do. Lots of competitors also stop taking the fat burners that helped them get through the carb deprived workouts and cardio sessions, cut back on the volume of cardio or stop altogether, and decrease the intensity of their weight training sessions. They basically “take a break.” The problem is that such an abrupt change in eating patterns and workout schedules will cause the body to rebound. While in pre contest mode a competitor’s body tends to go into a starvation-survival mode, which will cause their metabolism to slow down. Then when they start to eat a few more calories, their body will store them as fat, basically stocking up for the next “famine”. Once the water starts being pulled into the muscles along with the glycogen the bodies hard, lean appearance will start smoothing out. After even just one week of less controlled eating and drastic reductions in training intensity, they will start to regain body fat. This is a classic example of yo-yo dieting. Something we associate with out of shape/overweight people, not elite athletes.
The mental game…
The biggest impact on a competitor is the psychological one. To them this kind of rebound can be emotionally devastating. they may only rebound 10-15 pounds but to someone who has been in the single body fat digits, that small increase may make them feel like an enormous failure. One day, the competitor is onstage presenting their perfectly sculpted and lean body, and a few weeks later, they feel fat, bloated, and self-conscious. Their six pack is gone, all the sexy new clothes they bought while super lean no longer fit and they feel embarrassed around all the people who have seen them lose that extreme amount of body fat. They are more critical of themselves now than any judge will ever be. When you start your diet at 20% body fat and get to 15%, you’re in heaven; from 15% to 12%, you feel like wearing a bikini all day; once you hit single digits you can’t believe the lean condition you’re in. But chances are once you begin to rebound, you feel as fat at 10% as you did at 20%.
You must understand that your standards for your body now are completely unrealistic. It’s the same as when an anorexic looks in the mirror. They do not see the truth, only a corrupted version of it. Rebounding is the reality. It is normal. And it is a mistake to believe that you can achieve and then sustain that competition look year-round. Did you know that most of the photos in fitness magazines are taken at competition time, and are not a true look at how even champion competitors look in the off-season. Competition shape is totally unnatural. Period.
For a lot of people, the only way to reverse the sense of failure they feel is to begin another competition diet. In the beginning winning, placing or simply entering a contest used to be the goal, now they are chasing an unattainable goal — physical perfection. The result can be ever increasing rebounds that act like a pendulum. Larger weight gains after followed by stricter, longer cut periods. I rarely hear about how the next competition prep was easier. It’s usually comments like “I can’t shake the fat as easy this time”. Of course in response their coach will usually make their program even more restrictive for the next show. Which simply increases that pendulum swing. It can become a vicious cycle with the competitors emotional health suffering for it.
So how can you avoid this emotional and physical rollercoaster? For one you must have a more realistic, accepting view of your body, You need to realize that 12% body fat is totally acceptable, hell most people would kill for that. Second, you must go into a competition knowing that you are trying to achieve a TEMPORARY condition of leanness, and understand that your body fat will return to a more natural level. Third, if it took you 12 weeks to get into contest shape, allow at least 8 weeks to return to an eating program that you can maintain for life, slowly adding back small portions of “normal” food. If your coach doesn’t have a post contest program for both food intake and exercise get another coach. One that understands the importance of these things.
On that note, good luck at show time, enjoy yourselves and for the love of all things holy do not eat a whole pizza after the show.