What it feels like to prepare for a physique competition

The last thing I wrote on this topic was before I started prep.  More on that here.   I’m currently 6 weeks out, (competition is June 17th) and have so many thoughts!

Why I wanted to compete in a physique competition:
– I’m fascinated with the process and science behind changing body composition and wanted to experience it rather than read about it
– I’m motivated by competition, and despite the subjective nature of judging, I needed the extra push to have a finite timeline and specific thing to prepare for
– I heard it was extremely difficult by people who had accomplished far more athletically than I have, so I was intrigued.  Basically, it was a challenge and I wanted to see if I could do it too
– Develop food knowledge.   I’ve a never been on a nutrition plan, and I wanted to dive head first into sports nutrition in the best way I know how.  To experience it, test things out.
– Improve food control.  Despite being relatively lean, I have felt that lack of willpower with food intake has impeded my athletic goals.  I can’t count how many times on this blog I swore that I was going to get leaner to better develop my pull-ups, or sometimes ate too much before going on a training run and made myself feel sick. Or just not food prepped in the way that I should.  But competition drives me to a higher standard and I needed that extra drive to help me with something related
– To try something new.  I’ve done a lot of different sports and trying to develop a training plan on my own initially for this led me to stay up late at night reading about protein intake, peak week, optimal training programs for muscle hypertrophy,  and feeling so excited about the idea that I had no idea what I was doing but I wanted to learn and experience this thing that seemed like a mathematical puzzle that I couldn’t figure out.
– Last but not least, I wanted to experience something on a personal level that I would be helping others out as a personal trainer.  If I was helping people lose weight, I wanted to experience this, although for me, that usually means more of an extreme level.  If I’m helping someone run a 5k, I want to be able to run a 50 miler. (box checked!)  If I’m helping someone lose weight and get healthy, I want to know what it feels like to struggle on a diet to achieve your body composition goals.

Main takeaways and things I’ve learned:
– Better understand my metabolism, cravings, and how my body responds to certain foods
– To experience a well setup training and nutritional program has been so beneficial and I will be able to use this knowledge to apply to all my future athletic goals.
– To experience different coaching styles which has been invaluable to me to improve as a coach myself
– Awareness of stress, and how I manage it under different circumstances
– Finding enjoyment through training with different metrics, like a focus on mobility, technique and adherence to the program
– ability to food prep like a boss, better understanding of portion sizes and macronutrient ratio intake that works well for me

Step 1: Getting a coach
It was pretty apparent to me I didn’t know how to go about this.  So I was on the hunt for a coach last summer, and had set a target date of competing in a year.  In the meantime, I would just play around with my nutrition and training as an experiment and see how far it was off.  Even if I did kind of know, having coaches has been such a wonderful experience f for me and takes my athletic abilities to the next level. Going forward, I will have coaching for everything I do, if I can afford it. In addition, restricting calories and getting stage lean was something that I felt like I could have negative health repercussions if I attempted on my own.  During my own experimentation, I was trying to bulk, not cut.  Clinging onto food as long as I could.   I found a great coaching group, 3DMJ by listening to podcasts! I did a lot of research and applied, and feel lucky to be accepted and coached by Brad Loomis.  It was important to me to find a coach that approached training in a holistic way, and that I respect as a human being in addition to be super knowledgeable. Brad has been great.  He’s pushed me just hard to enough, and is attentive to my reasoning behind why I want to do this.  The training / nutrition plan has evolved numerous times to better help me cope with adherence.

What this has felt like: The struggle to be normal
This next part is going to be a brain dump because creating too much structure is going to hamper my thought process.  So apologies in advance if its difficult to follow.  I’m going to start backwards and what I feel like right now, and how I got here.  This process has been a mind fuck.  I don’t know how to describe it in any other way.  I don’t know how people do this as a career.   In my category for bikini, I don’t have to get as lean as the other categories, although I’m still attempting to get as lean as my willpower and timeline allows.  The weeks I have the most success is when I’m able to just be as normal as possible.  What this means is.. to stop trying to figure out gimmicks to feel full.  Or eating things I wouldn’t normally eat.  Not doing activities because I was trying to conserve energy.  Or isolating myself and staying away from friends because I don’t feel like I have the self-control to be around people and to not go off my diet.  Maybe I don’t completely have this figured out yet, but I’m committed to figuring that out and trying to live life as normal as possible because it is emotionally healthy to be normal.

Getting lean means that most of the work is done not in the gym.  I still have a rigorous training schedule, but if my diet goes off the rails, I likely will get stronger, but not getting leaner.  This is completely opposite of every other sport I’ve done.  It matters more what I do outside of training than training itself.  Instead of having to focus for a few hours, or even for very time intensive training, like for my 50 mile ultra, I could still have ‘off hours’ in which I could then not have to think about training and eat a celebratory meal and be detached for a bit.  But now I have to be on point at all hours. So that means when I’m tired, stressed, angry, I need to stay focused.  Not to mention that being in a caloric restriction induces stress and can make me tired to due to insomnia.  It feels kind of like my mobility / flexibility training.  That the harder you want to push things and force your muscles to stretch is actually counterproductive.  The muscles need to relax, not tense up.  Working at being happy, content and less stressed enables me to better adhere to my diet.   I tell myself often.. just be normal. What would normal me do.  Although even that aspect I can’t truly be normal me.  Because normally when I’m stressed I work out.  But I don’t want to be counter productive to my gainz and mess with my training program so I refrain.   I do mobility work instead.  Or bear crawls.  Lightweight stuff that’s not too taxing.  I also don’t have the energy. My workouts often like a struggle most of the time rather than a stress outlet.  I have to be very strategic about what days I train and when I eat to make the most out of them.  Somedays are better than others.  I am often yawning in between sets or space out because I’m mentally unfocused. By the evening I’m in a mental fog and have a hard time concentrating.  I do all my work in the morning.  Capoeira, which normally I really enjoy is in the evening, which means its mentally taxing.  We did up my cardio recently which ironically has made me happier.  Running is the one thing that I can do that doesn’t take a whole lot of brain power that I can do on autopilot, and makes me feel good.  So when I’m tired, I run.

Food Focused
My typical day usually is that I wake up with a ton of energy.  I drink coffee and read and work from home.  I avoid eating much for breakfast so that I can eat more later in the day. I like eating in the evening.  Eating also spurs my appetite for more eating.  So the longer I can delay that, the better.  I’m figuring out so many interesting things about myself.  Like what foods make me full, what are my triggers, what foods I’m low key allergic to.  Eggs fill me up.  I often eat an egg in the morning and in the evening.  I do better on a high carb intake.  Sugar, honey, and peanut butter are triggers for binge eating.  I’ve never eaten sweeteners before, but I resorted to that recently because it helps me curb my cravings.  I get a lot of stomach pain from various things.  Such as too much fiber – both soluble / insoluble. I try to balance eating foods that make me feel full, like pumpkin and mushrooms, with not eating too much so that its hard to digest.  This is a never ending process in figuring out that optimal amount.  Carbonated water I had to cut out, even though it helps me stay hydrated, because there’s that pesky stomach pain again.  The lower calorie I get, the more food variety upsets my stomach.  I initially was enjoying elaborate food prep Sundays and cooking and having so much fun with it.  Then I not only started running out of energy, but also often things I was making did not make me feel good.  Like turkey, beans, cauliflower, apple sausage, too much spinach… this list goes on.  So I’m back to yogurt, cottage cheese, chicken, eggs, plus veggies and fruit for what I eat all day errryday.  The only variety I have is with fruits and vegetables. Which most I can still handle just not in overdose.  I love bananas and blueberries and on my higher calorie days I go a little wild and eat a ton of fruit.   I make a lot of chicken, often eating it without any sides, and change only the sauce I make it in.  So different hot sauces, soy sauce, mustard, and spices.   Black beans make me extra sick.   I also get really weird cravings and have eaten strange things in order to manage it.  Things I have consumed:  bites of uncooked yam.  A jar of mustard.  spoonfuls of sugar.  I remember hearing on a podcast about sugar cravings that people don’t eat spoonfuls of just sugar or honey.  That it’s more about the flavor profile of a food like cookies or cake.  False.  I have held up a jug of honey and drank it.  It made me sad. Strategies I’ve had to employ to prevent binge eating include having to force myself out of the house to go for a walk, completely eliminating trigger foods, sometimes intentionally planning in large amounts of things I crave, like a tub of whipped cream.  I don’t do this a lot, but every once in awhile I get such intense cravings I have to make a plan to fit it into my meal plan – which is macro targets.  I can fit whatever I want into the targets, but 90% of the time I eat healthy, just because good food makes me feel full, and gives me the nutrients I need.  But then again.. sometimes eating a tub of whipped cream or carton of ice-cream is nice too.   I’ve also messed up a lot.  Which has been emotionally hard.  During my 50 miler and even for my training for this, I never missed a single workout. I train 5x a week, do capoeira 2-3times a week, and have now upper my cardio to run 10 ish miles a week (albeit slowly, cause ya know.. energy)  I have a 100% adherence rate and motivation for executing a training plan.  But tell me to eat less?  Hella hard.  I’ve sat in my car crying eating cake.  I’ve stood at the kitchen counter mindless eating 1500 calories in peanut butter, feeling angry the entire time.  I went on a downward spiral for awhile, afraid of losing control again.  Once I realized I was subconsciously sabotaging my progress after that by eating just a little bit more than I should each day, afraid of being hungry and losing control, it helped me be more aware.  Deal with things day my day, and stop anticipating the thing you are dreading.  As coach Brad says.. pop an amnesia pill and keep going.  I try to do that.  Forward focused, not backward.

Sleeping and Stress:
I feel like I have a much lower threshold for stress, which is also why it has become really important to learn to better manage things.  This might have flown under the radar before, but since I”m so sensitive to fluctuations now it has made me aware of things that bring me stress and how I handle it.   It’s hard to overstate how much I feel that being in an underfed state has changed my motivation, energy levels, sleep, willpower, and stress tolerance.  It’s been fascinating to discover this.  I would have considered myself prior to this extremely mentally strong.  When things are hard, you grind through it and get it done. Both for life in general, and with training. I consider myself a doer.  Which is why refraining from doing, refraining from eating, from moving, has been such a challenge.  I spend much less time training compared to what I am used to.  I spend a lot of time thinking about food, and my lack of it.  I’m often tired by 7pm and want to go to bed because my energy levels are crashing.  But then I get super focused and read until 1am and wake up at 6am.  My insomnia is getting better, and I think this has to do with stress. I had read that estrogen, which helps you sleep is stored in body fat.  So contest prep can mess with hormones and induce insomnia.  I had a few weeks where I was sleeping around 3-4 hours a night and losing my mind.  However, my body fat is lower than that now, but I’m sleeping again.  Maybe its because I quit my job spontaneously and am feeling happier.  Happier means less stress, more energy, and less food focused.  I strive to continue to enjoy my training even though I’m tired.  I work on my form, and surprisingly I have gotten quite strong, despite the caloric deficit.  I can bench 115lb now.  Putting on a 25lb plate used to intimidate me and I needed a spotter.  Yesterday I did 105 for reps on my own.  That’s a huge win for me and I think this speaks to the importance of a solid training program.  And while form has certainly improved how much weight I can lift, there are other metrics, like being able to do a weighted pull-up for the first time, that help show me I am getting newbie gainz while dieting.  I also hadn’t realized how newbie I was.  Going to the gym for a decade doesn’t count because I never had a plan.  Which excites me for going forward after this when I’m not dieting. Matching me with a strength plan AND high calories?  Imagine how strong I will be then.   Hoozah.

My perception going in was that all I would have to manage was being hungry a lot.  Which after being fed normal amounts, going a few weeks being hungry isn’t that hard.  But its more than being hungry, its lacking in energy that has been the hardest.  For months on end, it has started to chip away at me.  This is the number one reason why I doubt I will ever attempt to compete again in a physique sport, is that I feel like I have less zest for things that are important to me.  I have no doubt I have become stronger mentally through this process.  I have a newfound appreciation and respect for people that compete in this sport, especially those at a high level.  I’m a subpar novice competitor and struggling hard as fuck.  But ultimately, that is what I wanted to get out of this.  Even though you get judged against others, to me, I am trying to do the best I can. Which means, getting as lean and muscular as I can physically get, and psychologically handle in a 6 month prep.  I’ve considered quitting, and switching to powerlifting.  Or just quitting and not switching to anything.  Just.. being.  I had a heart to heart with myself at the gym thinking.. even though I started down this path I don’t have to finish it.  But my gut reaction against that thought helped me revive my motivation.  I want to see this through.  And in the words of one of the podcasts.. I’m also intrigued to see what my muscles look like.  I’ve been training different sports my entire life and I want to see what that looks like underneath it all.  Things that could not be fixed or changed with such a short training prep to try to even me out with muscular development.

Body perception and reactions
This post would not be complete without including the reaction of others.  Being super intrinsically self motivated, other’s approval has never been a driving factor for me or my goals especially when it comes to body type.  More than at any other time, I’ve come across both complements and mocking as I go through this process. It’s assumed almost always that my reasoning is to do it for personal appearance.  Which is interesting to me, because this is not the body that I feel that I look my best in.  I’m more comfortable at a higher weight and as I mentioned before, not having the energy to do the things I want has been a real struggle.  Even if this was the body that I felt that i look the best in, its not the one that I perform the best in for the activities I enjoy most, and that is most important to me.   I’ve been mocked for how much / little I eat, and comments that it’s shallow to want to get on stage in a bikini.  I try to engage in a conversation for my deeper reasoning, but feel like it is often misunderstood.

So, yes I will be getting on stage in a small piece of cloth, but what that is not showing is how mentally powerful I will feel to have conquered one of the hardest tests of willpower I’ve had to go through.  I hesitate to even try to compare it to running a 50 miler or doing an amateur boxing match in front of hundreds of people because.. its just different.  Instead of building myself up to be my strongest and fastest and most mentally prepared for a competition at the end of the season, it has happened in reverse.  I will be leaner, weaker, and mentally exhausted by the end.  Finding meaning in managing the journey through it is the point, and I look forward to training for a rim to rim to rim run in the Grand Canyon and getting certified as Kettlebell Instructor with SFG not only because it will be fun, but because it will be easier.


About Musings over Coffee

Fitness enthusiast. Love to travel, mess up recipes, ponder random things, get riled up about the news, all of which nearly always coinciding with one of my favorite things in the world: Coffee.
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