Editors Note: Rachel Mac is a commercial litigator in Chicago, Illinois, who lives a healthy lifestyle despite 12+ hours per day in the office. She has come up with a low-maintenance healthy lifestyle that allows her to eat well and hit the gym regularly, with a schedule that’s anything but consistent. Quest is happy to welcome Rachel Mac to our blog, where she will be a regular contributor. Find Rachel on Facebook and on Twitter.
I just finished my second NPC bikini competition, and I’ve been hearing from lots of people who are considering competing. Competing can be a fantastic way to test your limits, build discipline, and learn a lot about your body, but it is a commitment not to be taken lightly. When you decide to start training for a competition, many things in your life will change. It will be a struggle, and if you do it right, your life won’t ever be the same. From prep to the show day, let me walk you through what it’s like through ten things you need to know if you’re considering competing.
(1) Make sure you’re in the right place before you take on competition prep
The first and most important thing to consider when deciding whether to take on the long, rigorous process is whether you’re in the right place emotionally and physically to prepare for a competition. Competition diets can range from four weeks (if you are already very lean and stage-ready all the time) to twenty weeks plus. Twenty weeks is not enough time to lose a lot of fat gradually enough that you don’t lose muscle tissue along with it, so you have to have a body that looks almost competition ready before it makes sense to start preparing for a competition. It’s like training for a marathon: if you’re going for your first run ever and thinking about training for a marathon that’s four or six months away, it’s going to be really tough. But if you can already run a few miles at a time, comfortably, you’re in a better position to start training.
The other side of “being ready” is slightly more complicated and less concrete. Competing really takes a toll emotionally, between the constant critiquing of your physique, preparing to be judged on your physical attributes to the exclusion of (almost) everything else, and the rigid diet which has real effects on energy levels and mood at times. If you are not in a good place emotionally and don’t have a very positive, comfortable relationship with your body, competing may do you more harm than good. For people who have a positive body image, a strong sense of self, and a healthy dose of self-discipline, competing can be an exhilarating, rewarding experience. But for those with a more shaky body image, it can be a recipe for heartbreak and exhaustion. So be honest with yourself. Sit down and take some time and evaluate your physical and emotional state. Are you ready for this? If you think you are, read on!
(2) Your lifestyle is going to get rigid
Before I started preparing for my first competition, I had been eating very healthy for about a year. I weighed and measured all of my food, prepped and packed lunches and dinners to bring with me to the office, and usually ate clean. But I enjoyed weekend indulgences like wine and the occasional slice (or more) or pizza. When you start preparing for a competition (and especially toward the end of your time preparing) you will have to cut out those occasional indulgences that make healthy eating fit with a robust social life. Many competitors end up feeling isolated from their non-athlete friends (and family members) when they start avoiding restaurants and bars. Competition prep can be very lonely, depending on the interests of your friends and loved ones. And the hours you used to spend relaxing after work, or drinking a cup of coffee in the morning before heading out the door will be filled instead with hours in the gym. The results will be fantastic, and your hard work will pay off, but there are sacrifices to be made.
(3) Competing can be very expensive.
Coaches can cost $200 or more per month. A single session with a personal trainer can range from $40 to $100 or more. A semi-custom suit starts around $150, and the most expensive competition bikinis can range in the thousands of dollars. Your tan for the show will cost $50+, if you want your hair and make-up done that’s another $100. Shoes are $50ish, then you’ll need Bikini Bite and a variety of other products to help you get ready. Posing coaching is not a bad idea, and ranges from $20 to $50+ per hour. Supplements are not cheap, either.
There are ways to reduce these costs, though. Many suit companies will rent suits, and many competitors sell their old suits. If you build a network, you’ll be able to find a suit at a great price, or wear one off the rack. If you have friends who are personal trainers or have nutrition or competition backgrounds, they can help you come up with a nutrition plan and evaluate your progress pictures. Distance coaching can be a great idea, too. You don’t need to go with the flashiest local coach whose girls show up at every competition in matching track jackets! You can also do your own tan, hair, and makeup, or seek out less expensive tanning options (like the stand-up tanning machines at many tanning salons; if you do multiple layers of these tans, you can get as dark as the more expensive competition tanning companies can get you).
(4) Don’t do it just for the stage
You’ll hear this over and over again in competition prep, but I find it doesn’t sink in with most first-time competitors–myself included. I was (momentarily) very upset when I didn’t place at my first show, even though it was the Arnold Amateur, one of the largest bodybuilding competitions in the world! And I’ve met so many beautiful girls who stuck with it through prep, made amazing changes in their bodies, and were angry or devastated when they didn’t place or win their first competition. If you’re going to compete, you have to learn to love your body throughout the process, and appreciate the progress that you make without becoming fixated on the end goal. A very smart person recently told me: “You can only control efforts. Not outcomes.” Put in your best effort and learn to appreciate the results you get without worrying about how other people are judging you! My goal for the Arnold was to look like I fit in with the other girls on stage, and I think that’s the highest possible aspiration any first-time competitor should have. If you go in expecting nothing and do end up placing, it’ll be that much sweeter!
(5) Competitions are very public
One thing I didn’t know going in to my first competition was that it would change my Google results forever 🙂 When you enter a competition, your name ends up on lists that end up all over the internet, and there are photographers at most shows, in the pit, taking pictures of the competitors. Those pictures end up all over the internet, too, and let’s just say those bikinis you’ll wear on stage are tiny! If you are a parent, or have a sensitive job (I’m thinking about teachers, therapists, etc.) you have to take this into account. I know a lot of girls who compete using their first and middle names, and many girls change their names entirely for competitions. The same thing goes for the pictures you post on networking sites like Facebook.com or Bodyspace.com; those pictures never go away. And while competing will give you a more objective view of the human body, have discretion when you post progress pictures.
(6) Stay true to yourself
It’s important to know exactly what you want to get out of competing as you go in. There are a lot of people who take prep to extremes, and while many of them look absolutely fantastic on stage, there are certainly trade-offs. But there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Many people deplete carbs for two weeks or more and dehydrate themselves to dangerous levels to get lean for the stage. That’s not the only way to do it. There are thousands and thousands of supplements you can take, and most coaches will recommend one or more supplements to compliment your training. For the most part–pre-existing medical conditions aside–most of these supplements won’t hurt you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t clear your protocol with a doctor before you start taking fistfuls of pills in the name of competition prep.
On the other end of the spectrum, you will find that many competitors take illegal steroids to help them prepare for competition. There are a variety of steroids and other illegal substances that help people put on muscle quickly or lose fat easily. There are probably steroids that do a whole host of other things, too. I decided early on in the process that I would rather lose clean than win dirty, but it’s a personal choice everyone has to make. It is much easier to stick to your guns if you make a decision right off the bat and decide not to waiver. There are going to be times when prep is hard, and if you’re communicating with enough people who compete, you will be offered “a shortcut” at some point along the line. If you know that you’re going to say “no” if and when that time comes, it’s easier to stay true to yourself even when times are hard. And remember that this all starts with a focus on being fit and, most importantly, healthy. If you’re considering taking unregulated, illegal drugs in pursuit of that end, you may want to reconsider why you’re doing this in the first place. If winning is all that matters, there are much easier things to win. Download the Words with Friends app on your iPhone and play against strangers or a friend’s younger sibling. 🙂
(7) Resist the urge to tear yourself apart
The process of preparing for a competition can be a rollercoaster. Although I’m very happy with the progress I’ve made, I had many days where I wasn’t getting the kind of feedback I was expecting on the scale, or from my coach. There were times I didn’t think I was strong enough, lean enough, well-enough proportioned. I had to force myself to look for the positive in my body and myself many times during the process. It is all too easy to focus on the negative and ignore the positive. Taking progress pictures helps with this; as you watch your body shape up from week to week you’ll notice the improvements–like, “wow, my trouble spots are shaping up nicely” instead of “ugh, my legs still don’t look perfect.” Remember that nobody ever feels perfect, and you are no exception! If you are satisfied with nothing short of perfection, you will always be disappointed. Learn to appreciate progress and love yourself for the hard work you’ve put in so that you can get out of the process what you put in.
(8) Have fun at the show!
Having friends with common interests is a great source of motivation and inspiration as you go through the prep process. And while you may not know many people before the show, the show itself is a great time to meet a lot of friends who have similar goals and aspirations as you! Going backstage with a competitive or unfriendly attitude will just make your long day longer, and you’ll miss out on the opportunity to meet great people who can inspire you in the future. The first thing I do when I get backstage is look for my first friend. Having someone to commiserate with, to share prep strategies with, to complain about your diet with, gives you a sense of camaraderie that you probably missed when you were explaining to your friends and family for the tenth time why you were eating boiled chicken out of a plastic bag at lunch the other day.
Practice your posing and work it on stage, too! Looking self-conscious (even if you feel it!) doesn’t help at all, and if you decide to go out there and own it, you’re going to love the experience. It’s exhilarating to be up on stage, showing off your hard work, and if you’re well practiced with your posing, you’re going to feel much more comfortable out there. Once you come off stage, solicit feedback from the judges–respectfully!–this will really help if you want to compete again. It’s amazing how different we look from the judges’ perspective! But just know that looking good on stage isn’t the be-all, end-all. When I see the girls who beat me in competitions once they put on their street clothes, I am always surprised that we all look virtually indistinguishable from each other. Remember that by the time you get on stage to compete, you have completed something that most people would never even consider doing. You are in fantastic shape and have come a long way.You deserve to pat yourself on the back a little bit!
(9) Avoid post-competition rebound
If you stick faithfully to your diet, you probably won’t have had many treat meals in the months leading up to your show. You will lie awake at night dreaming of pizza, beer, nachos, cupcakes, Snickers bars, and other yummy “cheats.” You will spend hours strategizing your post-show meal. Have a cheat meal after the show, maybe have a cheat breakfast the next day. And loosen up on your diet once your show is over; super restrictive dieting can drive you crazy. But don’t fall completely off the wagon. After my first show, I ate sugar almost non-stop for a week and a half, and gained ten pounds. I had worked so hard to prepare for my competition, and I “rewarded” myself for finishing by setting myself back. Allow yourself to settle in to the great feeling of eating healthy food most of the time, and allow that to pull you through the first few days after the show so you can continue eating healthy. Many competitors add thirty or more pounds to their frames in the “off season,” which means that they are in a binge/starve cycle all year long. Find peace, and find stasis. It makes life much more enjoyable.
Don’t let the entire competition process go out the window once you’re done, even if you decide never to do another show again. Sit down and write out a list of things you know about yourself–physically and otherwise–that you didn’t know going in to the competition. Think about how your body reacted to certain types of food (like whether you felt more full eating chicken breasts vs. egg whites vs. whey powder). Think about what type of training worked best (maybe fasted-state cardio isn’t for you). When were your energy levels up? And when were they down? When did you feel the best and the worst? You don’t have to be practicing perfect healthy eating to benefit from healthy habits, and working what you’ve learned preparing for your competition in to your normal life will serve you well and make the process worthwhile.
Read over your list if you’re ever feeling down and think about how much you’ve changed. Every competitor goes through a metamorphosis of sorts that’s separate from the obvious physical transformation that contest prep brings. You’ll probably find that you’re more mature, better at resisting temptation, more appreciative of the sweet things in life (literally and otherwise), and more confident and self-assured about more than just the way that you look. I know that all these things are true for me since I’ve started competing, and the process continues on the longer (and harder) you train.