The Real Cost of Bodybuilding Competitions: Why I Quit
The popularity and culture of health and fitness today is something that makes me wildly content. Many people are now spending weekends in the gym, grocery shopping, meal prepping and maintaining a good sleep cycle. You're now looked at as a revered peer for leaving the party early to hit the sack as opposed to being the old prudish fart. Along with this craze, it seems the natural and ultimate route people take when building a healthier lifestyle is to compete in a fitness competition.
The summer of 2016 I wanted to compete in a fitness competition for many poorly motivated reasons. As a trainer, I thought I needed to compete in order to prove my worth, as a desire to gain more peer trust, a way to feel better as a Christian about posting booty pictures on the gram, and as revenge for a previous relationship that hurt me.
In spite of these tragic motives, it wasn't all poorly motivated. My history in athletics made competing extremely appealing as a means to feed my competitive drive. I still want to compete one day, simply because I know I can and love a cool challenge. For now, I'm chasing endorphins, and love pushing my body more athletically.
When I decided to compete, I was already a lean, healthy vegan. My metabolism was great, my skin was clear, my body fat was sitting a little under 14%, I had a great relationship with food and was confident in myself. My diet at this point was composed of predominantly fruits, vegetables, oatmeal, vegan protein and some treats here and there. I trained almost everyday because I LOVED training. I was in a state, I would say, of great health mentally, physically, emotionally AND spiritually–or so I thought. Unfortunately, almost all of this changed when I began preparation for my first competition.
I was nearly seven weeks into prep when my mom sat me down after a 're-feed' meal expressing her deep concern. She had witnessed me the day before come home with a pineapple, mangoes, grapes, berries, apples and bananas, and chop them up into a huge bowl of fruit salad. I also bought pumpernickel bagels, avocado and eggs and made 2 huge sandwiches. I sat down in the living room, ate one bagel, was stuffed, then ate another bagel, even more stuffed.
For some reason I proceeded to eat a GIGANTIC bowl of fruit. I wasn't even enjoying the food. I was merely taking advantage of the opportunity to eat what I knew was good for my HEALTH. Looking back on this, it could have been a catastrophic beginning to a binge eating disorder. Fortunately, this incident alarmed me to realize I was developing an unhealthy relationship with food.
Cost #1- Food is not friend
Once I decided to stop prepping, I reverted from my diet entirely and ended up feeling helpless to food, various cravings and the urge to eat incessantly. This was the meal plan my coach at the time gave me:
Meal one: 40 g oatmeal 3/4 cups egg whites
Meal two: 1 rice cake, 1 tbsp peanut butter, 2 egg whites and a shake: 3 cherries, almond milk whey isolate protein
Meal three: 1 cup rice, 4 oz. fish, 1 cup peas
Meal four: 1 rice cake, 1 tbsp peanut butter, 2 egg whites and a shake: 3 cherries, almond milk whey isolate protein
Meal five: 1 cup potatoes, 1 cup broccoli, 4 oz. fish
Meal six: shake: 3 cherries, almond milk whey isolate protein
Don't get me wrong, it was enough food to sustain me; however, the problem was the diet's restrictiveness and lack of nutrients. Not to mention it was a complete change to the way I was previously eating, (i.e. eating MEAT).
When I decided to stop, I ate e v e r y t h i n g. I didn't return to my vegan diet, and I certainly was not concerned with being healthy. My aim was to restore a healthy relationship with food by merely eating when I was hungry, and tried to enjoy food instead of looking at it with restrictive all or nothing eyes. I gained weight, but that was mostly due to the stress put on my metabolism and the abrupt changes in my diet. I went from vegan → bodybuilding pescatarian → unhealthy binging → healthy intuitive eating all within 3 months and finally landed on → predominantly vegan intuitive eating.
Cost #2 - Overtrained and drained
During preparation for a show, you put your body under extreme stress. While exercise is absolutely beneficial to our health, overtraining is a very real problem. The excessive amount of stress put on our bodies is harmful to our hormones, our metabolism, immune system and and mental/cognitive ability to function optimally. When we enter a situation of perpetuating stress, our brains recruit other tools to cope. This ultimately means shutting down other functions such as our immune system.
At this point, training was becoming a chore, a job and the thrill and excitement of training in various styles and form was slowly depreciating. The stress I was undergoing by overtraining, excessive caffeine, mental and spiritual plights, also caused adrenal exhaustion and in result; I was fatigued and weaker than I was before beginning prep.
These are some signs and symptoms of over-training I encountered:
- Lack of mental concentration
- Loss of bodyweight
- Irritable, restless, and anxious
- Extreme fatigue and lethargy
- Decreased physical performance
- Extreme changes in mood
Cost #3 - Body image
The nature of competing involves critically analyzing your body. I knew this going in, and I had no problem because training and eating well was easy for me. Considering this, it was strange when I found my body looking WORSE than before. I know now that this was all in my head.
Prepping for a competition made hyper-sensitive to the 'problem areas' of my body, and I scrutinized every detail, muscle and shape. In the photo below I remember waking up and thinking "oh my gosh I need to get to the gym."
Now, there is NOTHING wrong with wanting a great body. In m case, it became clear that training for the purpose of competition was damaging. Training because I HAD to look a certain way, because I would be judged, and because I HAVE to win; was exhausting my self-confidence.
How couldI l look the way I did and believe I 'looked bad.' This is a HORRIBLE mentality I know SO many women face whether or not we're trying to compete. It also made it clear to me that no matter the stage or size, you will never be satisfied until you are mentally well and fully confident in your body at EVERY stage. We cannot idolize being lean, or thick the way we do as a society. We have to propagate LOVE of self. LOVE of health and LOVE of not hurting yourself to look good. That's what I was doing–hurting my body and my mind.
There is no doubt to the fact that I was getting leaner. I felt amazing seeing the different muscle I've been building for years revealed. To be honest, I really liked the way I looked. But if only you we could physically see what our minds look like.
As physically appealing this body was, the costs outweighed the benefit of being successful in a competition or looking 'hot.'
Cost #4 - Mental Health
Clearly, the ultimate cost was my mental health. My body image, my patterns of thinking and behaviour, my binging eating, the excessive mental and physical stress and its associated anxiety were costly to my happiness.
In this process of trying to be a competing bodybuilder, I was really building obsessive behaviours, restrictive-binge eating patterns, internalized self-doubt, low self-esteem and negative bodily associations. I was sacrificing my love for fitness, strength gains, and healthy vegan desserts for a purpose that was worsening my OVERALL health.
I know this story seems very negative, and I am by no means saying that participating in a fitness, physique or bikini competition is bad. What I really want to highlight is the essentiality in effectively preparing, considering and weighing the costs when choosing to compete.
As for myself, I know that total wellness is my priority. When I am mentally stronger I MAY compete–but only if I'm in a good state and my competitive drive is through the roof. Until then, I'll keep eating bananas, drinking kombucha and having vegan brownies.
Thank you for reading! I'd love to hear from you so comment or e-mail me your thoughts, perspectives and personal stories! Have you competed? What was your experience? What are some tips you can offer others?