Many who haven't competed or don't understand the sport, would assume that when one works and diets that hard for that many weeks to achieve that level of a physique and look THAT good, that it would be easy to stay in shape even if one was to "binge" or eat a bunch of crap after a contest. The idea behind this is completely false however. You would think that eating whatever you wanted for two, three, four days - even a week wouldn't do that much damage to someone who is in that good of shape.
The misconception here is that people assume competitors won't gain that much weight and even if they do - they won’t get "fat" because they are so lean. However, many don't realize that it is actually easier for a competitor to get out of shape at an exponential rate and quicker than it would be for someone who had never been on a diet, to gain additional weight. The reason being is that with additional exercise, especially cardio, and strict dieting, often times people actually see a decrease in their resting metabolic rate-aka- how many calories they burn on average daily. Our bodies have learned to adapt to additional output or expenditure and therefor can become a bit more dependent on that expenditure to maintain weight. Along with this, our bodies are so used to eating clean food and often a restricted/lowered amount of carbohydrates and/or fats that excess carbs, sugars, and fats will only put weight on FASTER than we may have put it on in the past.
Water retention post show is normal as well. Most competitors restrict and cut water pre-competition and some go to the extremes of diuretics to flush most all water out of the system. When you cut water that hard and then drink water while eating carbs and crap- your body then acts like a sponge and retains and holds on to all the liquid put in the system. It is not uncommon for even a small framed female to be up in weight 5-12lbs in just a few days from the combination of this process. Along with this, most competitors get what I like to call the "competitor layer". Its a layer of excess water held under the skin that feels very "squishy" or "jelly" like and looks very "soft" aesthetically. It is very sensitive and uncomfortable to the touch typically. And often times very disturbing to someone who doesn't understand it. All these physical reactions 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 key here is, it isn't ruined- yet.
The hardest part comes when trying to go back to a balanced lifestyle after the immediate binge eating days have been fulfilled. If a competitor is able and strong enough mentally to get back on a post contest reverse diet eating schedule and continues to work out, it is possible for them to see their body bounce back to close to show condition within a week or two regardless of the damage done and physical changes they had seen that first week. However, if the cycle of binge eating continues and they continue to have "refeeding" cycles, the damage can be drastic, devastating, and semi-permanent. When I say semi-permanent I mean that obviously you will not have gained this excess weight forever. However, this excess weight will become "real weight" instead of a post contest reaction of what I like to call "fake weight" or the combination of what I described above- which is mostly water weight.
So seems like after weeks and weeks of eating clean, someone would be able to just jump back on eating clean again and maintain their show shape right? Wrong. This is where the mental fight and post competition "dark place" happens. Most competitors who don't understand what I described above have already fallen into a deep depression regarding the way they look. Asking themselves, "How is it possible that i cannot see my abs anymore after only 3 days?" And feeling so ashamed and embarrassed that their clothes are already tight and they feel so disgusting about what they have done to themselves; so most will TRY to eat clean again. However, being deprived from food for so long can actually change brain functionality and cause someone to turn off the trigger in the brain that tells them when they are full. This is because when the body drops to a certain point of body fat, it actually tries to react in a way that will slow this process down by turning off the full feeling which allows someone to overeat much easier than before. 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, a hyper-sensitivity to food 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.
So even when a competitor gets back to clean eating and tells themselves, "today will be different- I am going to eat clean all day" they typically find themselves making extreme decisions in one way or another. For example, breakfast will start the day off well- they may have their standard oatmeal and egg whites and feel content with the decision and move on. Or they may not even get that far. They may say - well a little peanut butter with my oatmeal sounds good. But then a little peanut butter turns into a few tablespoons, and that will already start the day with a feeling of failure because it is not something they would have done in prep. But lets say they do get through breakfast without "failing". And the next meal they may have a snack of a quest bar or protein bar or something that in others eyes may look "clean" but then the competitor brain will start questioning this decision as well, saying things like "Well that wasn't really a "clean" source" and already giving themselves a little bit of a belief that they failed because this choice wasn't something that they would have eaten pre-show and therefor wasn't going to get them lean again. Once this little belief of failure enters the brain, typically the competitor is in a mind-fuck (excuse my language) once again. They will either say, "Well I already failed so I might as well..." or they will have cravings for something else off plan that hasn't been checked off their "post-competition eating bucket list". And believe me- this is typically a very on-going, long mental list for most. They then tend to eat "poorly" AGAIN, or feel they have overeaten AGAIN, and the cycle repeats itself. Another day of failure and being and feeling "fat".
Along with this, many of us get what I call "stuck in the gym" post competition. See when you are in prep- you can accept that you may be "living at the gym". And you will tell yourself things like, "I will have a social life again when I am done competing" or "I will make time for that after the show". However, now you are battling feeling fat and you even more so feel you need to do additional cardio or lifting in order to fight the damage you have done. So once again, you miss out on social events (however you are typically too embarrassed and ashamed to even show your face socially at this point anyways). This cycle happens to some as well, and it is a feeling of being "trapped" and plays hand in hand with a post competition depression I like to call the "dark place".
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 you know all of this? Some of you might be thinking- "OMG, thats EXACTLY how I have felt or what I have been battling". I know because I have been here MANY times. And as I stated in my previous post, I still even today am trying to find balance in this lifestyle. Some people may assume I am genetically gifted and just stay in shape and its all easy and looks so glamorous from the outside. But this is all FALSE. I fight more battles each day then most will ever know, understand, or believe. I have been in very "dark places" in and out of prep for the last three years. Struggling with every decision throughout the day. Knowing so much about nutrition is a blessing and a curse. I feel blessed to have the education I do to make good decisions and understand how foods will affect my body. But does that mean I always am super-human and don't want the immediate gratification that comes with eating half a bag of birthday cake Oreos and a few glasses of milk? No. (And yes I really did this). I know Oreos are all chemicals. I know they offer my body NO nutritional anything- hell I know exactly how they affect my insulin levels and how my body gets absolutely not a single benefit from the saturated fat and toxins I am ingesting. But have I still consumed them, yep. Why? Because I am human and I also make poor decisions when I have nothing keeping me accountable.
I often ask myself if "I will ever live a normal day again". And what I mean by that is, will I ever be able to go through a day without looking at a plate of food and immediately breaking it down into macronutrients in my head and thinking about the way it will affect my body. Fats, proteins, carbs- it’s an immediate reaction and thought to every piece of food I look at. It’s consuming each and every day. I have an ongoing calculation of macros in my head at all times. I know where my carbs are at, how much protein I need, have had, will have. I pre-think about what I will eat next, how my day will go nutrition wise. I stare at foods and ponder eating them. I smell things that I know I won’t eat just to get some sort of satisfaction out of them. I buy foods I wouldn't eat for other people to vicariously live through them. I tell myself everyday wether it will be a high carb, moderate carb, or low carb day when I wake up, regardless of if I am in prep for a show or not. I read menus; I look at nutrition labels- taking mental photographs in my head so I know what foods are comprised of (helps when I am asked by clients). I look in peoples refrigerators,, just to see what "type" of person they are. Yes, nutrition has become my life- my every thought, my addiction.
I remember the days when I used to wake up in the morning, eat whatever the hell I felt like eating, and go on with my day. When I felt hungry I would eat again, not think twice about any of it and just live life. I do not believe I will ever experience a day like that again. EVER. No matter how hard I try to "just not care" even post contest, I know too much about nutrition and am way too pre-programmed now to be able to live a "normal day" ever again. This is the curse of what I do. Its a blessing because it has changed my life in so many positive ways as well, however. I make better decisions the majority of the time just because I am this way. I crave healthier foods because I have eaten them so much and grown accustomed to them. I love foods I never would have touched a couple years ago. I appreciate food like never before. I get satisfaction out of the small things. Like oatmeal. Some people wouldn't think twice about a bowl of oatmeal, but I savor every minute with that bowl. I LOVE that bowl of food. Its an appreciation most will never understand. I also am blessed to be able to share my knowledge of nutrition with others and have seen so many people benefit from my ability to give them a piece of my educations- which is hands down the most rewarding. Seeing clients go from diabetic to diabetic free. Seeing clients pain free, happy, healthy, active, loving life again. All those things make every ounce of this "curse" worth the blessing.
At the end of it all, the key in everyones life - regardless of what you do is balance. It can be the hardest thing you will ever try to find but it is something worth the effort. Post competition balance in my opinion is EXTREMELY tough-due to the physical and mental battles associated. Like I stated before, I am just now finding true balance in my life. Making more of an effort to spend time with people I have neglected due to my imbalance in life the last couple years. I think sometimes people who struggle don't necessarily need a solution, rather need to know they are not abnormal and need to be told "things will be okay". 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. But I know if I was to read 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 - maybe they would find hope that things can change. Find light in the dark. Find a reason to not give up on themselves and know everything will be okay.
So my suggestions to those of you who need help and may currently be in this dark place are this:
Written by By: Amber Orton
Amber's Facebook Fan page: www.facebook.com//Amber-Dawn-Orton