Something that is often underestimated by people is the mental toughness required to compete in a physique competition. Following a strict diet and training for hours a day seems undoubtedly physically demanding, but the real challenge – for me anyway – is the ongoing battle that occurs between your ears.
A few months ago I read a post on Christine’s blog that really hit me hard. Her blog is one of my favourites because it is so honest and motivational, but when she said that 90 per cent of competitors suffer from eating disorders I thought she was being a little extreme.
However, my confidence was during my muscle-building stage when my diet was fairly relaxed. Ever since I began training seriously, I’ve always had a coach to create my workout and nutrition programs. He tells me exactly what to eat and when, so I never had to worry about counting up my calories or macronutrients – which would drive me crazy and become too obsessive for my liking.
I’ve always followed a fairly clean diet, so the only real drastic change was eating more food. I typically followed the diet exactly during the week and on the weekends I often ate a greater variety of foods still within my general macro requirements.
But when I started my cut about five weeks ago, my diet changed dramatically. I could no longer eat an off-plan meal and simply fit it into my macros. I didn’t want to deviate from my diet at all, because I knew how important this lean out is to see how my body responds to a competition diet.
To begin with, I followed the diet to the letter. My body generally responds quickly to a drop in carbs, so I became discouraged when I didn’t see any real changes in the first couple of weeks. On one memorable evening I had a mini break down and asked my husband why on earth I was putting my body through this.
Since then I have lost 4 kilograms, so the diet is working. Yet in the past couple of weeks I haven’t been so strict (I will discuss why in my next post): I’ve had a couple of non-sweet potato carbs per week, which I think has actually caused a positive response in my body. But now I can now completely understand where Christine was coming from in saying that so many competitors have unhealthy relationships with food.
This week, I watched the following video from Nicole Wilkins. When it comes to being hardcore, Nicole is pretty high up there – but given she is Ms Figure Olympia, she has to be. While a lot of her posts are designed to be motivational, I also worry that they could inspire eating disorders among her fans.
In the video she explains how she packs 24 meals with her for a four-day vacation. She talks about ways to get certain foods through security and she even brings her own cooler in case the hotel doesn’t have a fridge. Even in the off-season she’ll pre-pack 20 meals. Recently, she also posted about how to stay strict during Halloween and other holidays. While I don’t think you ever need to gorge yourself on food, I don’t think one piece of chocolate will kill you. In my opinion, being that restrictive all the time is not a very fun way to live your life.
Of course Rob’s response to the video was that we aren’t serious enough and we’re never going to be successful bodybuilders. Personally, I’d rather know that I lived my life being fit and healthy 90 per cent of the time, but was never afraid to enjoy a scoop of ice cream on a hot day or a dinner out on holiday.
A competition diet is not for the faint of heart. You quickly become obsessed with food: weighing every gram of vegetable, thinking about your next meal, dreaming of oatmeal, feeling incredibly guilty if you eat 5 extra grams of sweet potato because you were starving… As someone who has experienced disordered eating behaviours in the past, I know how to recognise these feelings and put a stop to them quickly.
I still feel guilty over certain foods and I don’t know if that will ever go away. However, I’m much better now at controlling the negative thoughts as soon as they rear their ugly heads. At the end of the day, everything I do is self-inflicted. I choose to lift weights because I love it. I want to compete because I would love to see my body in peak physical condition. I am willing to stick to a strict diet for 12 to 16 weeks when I see the end goal in sight, but if I ever felt like my eating was becoming disordered I absolutely trust myself to stop. Competing is important to me, but being mentally healthy is even more so.
How have you dealt with the mental battle of following a strict diet?