Pre vs. Post Show: Finding Balance
Many who have never competed in fitness would assume that, when one trains and diets that hard for that many weeks and looks THAT good, it is easy to stay in shape even if they eat anything and everything for two, three, four days- even a week- after their show. This is, unfortunately, a destructive misconception.
What people often don’t realize is that it is actually easier for a competitor to gain body fat at an exponential rate than it is for someone who has never dieted. With additional exercise, especially cardio, in combination with strict dieting, people typically experience a decrease in their resting metabolic rate-aka- how many calories they burn on average daily. The body adapts to the additional caloric output and becomes dependent on that expenditure to maintain weight. Water retention post show is normal as well. When a competitor cuts fluids in the final week leading to a show and then drinks water while eating more carbs and sodium-rich foods following the contest, their body acts like a sponge- retaining all of the liquids put in the system to compensate for the low fluid levels. It is not uncommon for even a small-framed female to be up 5-12lbs in just a few days from water weight alone. The drastic physical changes often experienced post-contest, combined with the mental thought of being in “the best shape of your life” and then ruining months of work in a matter of days, can be devastating.
The hardest part of the competition cycle is trying to go back to a balanced lifestyle after the immediate binge-eating days have been fulfilled. If a competitor can find the mental strength to follow a post-contest reverse diet while continuing to work out, it is possible for them to see their body bounce back to close-to-show condition. However, if the cycle of binge eating continues, the damage can be drastic and semi-permanent. When I say semi-permanent I mean that this excess weight will become “real weight” instead of a post contest reaction of what I like to call “fake weight”- which is mostly retained water.
So after weeks of eating clean, a competitor should be able to just jump back to eating clean again to maintain their show shape, right? Wrong. This is where the mental fight and post competition “dark place” happens. Many competitors will TRY to eat clean again because they feel disgusted about what they have done to their bodies. However, being deprived for so long can actually change brain functionality and lower levels of leptin, the satiety signal responsible for telling you when to stop eating. As leptin levels positively correlate with body fat, competitors with extremely low body fat lose the ability to feel full and are consequently more susceptible to overeating. So now you have someone, who has been mentally incapable of thinking about anything but eating every three hours, struggling with depression, an inability to feel full and a hypersensitivity to foods they couldn’t have before, trying to diet and stay accountable with no goal in mind. Unless you have been in this position, it is indescribable and hands-down one of the hardest places to bounce back from physically and mentally.
Most people don’t talk about these things nor do they want to acknowledge this side of the sport. So you may wonder, how do I know all of this? I know because I have been here MANY times.
Post competition balance in my opinion is EXTREMELY tough due to the physical and mental battles associated with competing. I personally am just now finding true balance in my life- making more of an effort to spend time with people I have neglected in the last couple of years, open the doors to dating and find love again, and live outside of the gym- not just inside it.
Many competitors feel so lost post show- alone, depressed, isolated, embarrassed, closed off. Nobody writes about this stuff- at least I have yet to really come across it. I think just knowing someone out there understood, someone could relate, someone who looked so “put together” in the public eye had been there too- gives hope to competitors that things can change.
So my suggestions to those of you who need help and may currently be in this dark place are the following:
–Don’t feel the need to rush into competing again. You’re not going to “get back to show condition” without actually prepping for another show but, in my opinion, getting competition ready isn’t the best goal to set. The addiction to contest prep can be more harmful than good, especially physically. If you haven’t found balance post show yet, what makes you think next time will be different? Trust me, it will be just as hard.
–Set a realistic goal that will hold you accountable- something you cannot push aside and will keep you from eating that ENTIRE plate of brownies. Perhaps book a photo shoot? A financial goal is usually a good one. Paying money for something typically makes that goal more important to most than something not financially connected. So pay someone to make you a custom bikini, a custom dress, whatever- something that you know you don’t want to “waste”. Plan a social event- knowing that it’s coming, who will be there and what kind of image you would like to present can give you the extra motivation you need to stay on track. Think about how badly you want to feel GOOD again- alive, comfortable in your clothes, confident. Plan to go to your high school reunion or plan a date-anything that will hold you accountable. Everyone is different, but everyone needs goals.
–Continue exercising. Don’t misinterpret this- there is no need to go overboard and do hours of cardio because you ate something bad. Remember, long duration cardio can actually just slow down your resting metabolic rate over time, so don’t spend hours in the gym. You will end up resenting the gym and it will no longer be a “happy place”. Use exercise as your release and take advantage of the endorphins as they will only help in pulling you out of your depression or dark place.
–Continue taking your supplements and following a nutrition plan. If your coach has given you no direction post show, you should not even consider working with them again. Reach out to someone who can relate; tell them your struggles and they may be able to help you find your way back to health.
–Remember you are not alone. This struggle is more common than you know. Even if people don’t want to admit it or talk about it, it happens to the best of us.
At the end of it all, the key in life-regardless of what you do- is balance. It can be the hardest thing you will ever try to find, but it is definitely worth the effort.
Amber Dawn Orton
National-level Bikini Athlete