Eating After Fitness Competitions: 7 Tips to Healing Your Relationship with Food

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This blog is directed for those of you who have competed in fitness & bodybuilding competitions. It doesn’t matter whether it was one show or 5 years of shows. The fact remains is that there is a conversation NOT taking place about eating after fitness competitions and how hard it is to transition back into simply eating healthy and exercising for the joy of it again. And let’s not to forget mentioning all the negative body image issues that can arise too, right? I’m 35 years old and my last show was 10 years ago as an IFBB Figure Pro (back when they still did the 2 piece rounds –> haha I’m old) and you better believe that I still strike a quarter turn pose on occasion in the mirror to simply judge how my body has changed….

The sport has so many amazing positive reasons to get involved:

  • To challenge and push oneself to the ultimate limit
  • To provide a sport and competitive arena for athletes post college
  • To condition the body to its best physique and conditioning year after year
  • To take our love for health & fitness to another level
  • And the list goes on….

Many of us find interest in the competing that stemmed from the joy of eating healthy and exercising. You meet a competitor in the gym, you read about it on bodybuilding.com or similar forums, it seems to be everywhere these days. This sport is TOUGH in many ways. It will challenge you and it can absolutely change you, it can change relationships you are involved in-hopefully for the better, however I’ve seen a lot of break-ups and divorces throughout the years amongst competitors.

But there are many, MANY competitors that come out of competing struggling to find their way back to simply loving healthy eating and exercising again without bingeing, anxiety about eating anything less that what was acceptable as an in season or off season competitor, or working out any differently that what was expected of you as a competitor. It’s hard to also accept our body when they are not in peak condition as they once were, causing us to feel “fat” which only fuels the cycle to want to be “good” with one’s eating. The transition to finding “normal eating” again after one concludes competing or who is taking a temporary pause from competing is really really tough. My friend and TNT colleague Tracy Sisson (also former competitor) have a saying that “if you go into competing for the first time without an eating disorder, you are likely to come out with one”. Sad but those of you who are reading this know that it is a bad problem.

Eating after fitness competitionTrust me, I went through this myself. This was where shit really hit the fan for me with food and body image and working out was when the shows were over. You’re so use to being so on point, like you’re training for the Olympics for 16 weeks, sacrificing everything to look your best come stage day that when you aren’t competing for a while or any longer, it’s hard to all of a sudden find that happy place with food. It’s hard to stay disciplined, which is crazy because you KNOW you are disciplined with food-you proved it when you went to the movie theatre and ate your 4 egg whites and asparagus half way through the movie. You become accustomed to only be allowed a few staple foods on your diet: oatmeal, chicken, fish, sweet potato, asparagus, steak, eggs, rice.

So after a show, if you’re like me, you never want to look at chicken ever again (or tuna!). But you still do because it’s protein, it will keep you from getting fat, or because you simply don’t know an alternative way. When I stopped competing, I still kept trying to keep up with my workouts I did when I competed. I felt lazy or weak if I did anything less. But the more I tried to keep up with the bland, rigid foods commonly found on competition plans and my competition training plan, the more unhappy I seemed to become. The less fulfilled I felt on a daily basis with my health and personal self worth. The more cheating and overeating that took place. And as I kept cheating and bingeing, that totally didn’t help my body image, and the cycle continued to refuel itself.

First off, finding balance and stability with food and exercise is not just happening inside the industry, it’s happening outside the industry too. I am so passionate to help people renew their relationship with food on a day to day basis in my Diet Freedom program, changing people’s mindset about diet and food and helping people escape a lifetime of struggling with food and weight. My passion lies here. My competitive drive is now put into this area of my life versus the stage life. And it all stemmed from my experiences as a competitor. But now it’s time to really time and important to start a conversation within the competitor community.

Why is healthy, stable eating after fitness competitions such a difficult task? Well, it’s a sport of rule following when it comes to food and working out. Coaches continuously are giving rigid meal plans and setting additional “cheat meal” rules or other daily intake rules they must follow. You’re constantly on a diet, in season or off season. Prepping your meals every night, lugging your 6 pack bags where ever you go, whether you’re flying domestic or abroad. I’ve seen some CRAZY eating and training regimens that basically starve competitors and over train them which completely crushes competitors mentally AND physically post show. I mean no wonder why it gets harder and harder to stay on your diet after you’ve been through the ultimate ringer!

Unfortunately over time, the reason behind WHY you eat is because someone else told you to do it, or because it’s what will help you win. You become a COMPLETE rule follower, macro counting expert, protein and carb intake follower because without these strict rules, you don’t trust yourself to not shove your face with Cold Stone ice cream or a jar of peanut butter. So over time, you stop listening to your body, your own needs and wants regarding food, and you don’t give yourself permission to add variety, moderation, or even think twice about what to eat outside of what you feel you “should” be eating as a competitor.

Once you lose that disconnect between you and your body and you keep going on meal plan after meal plan, food logging after food logging, things get dark. You become dependent. Unconsciously you don’t even realize how restrictive you are being. This restriction is what spirals many competitors to binge for large meal, sometimes it’s a whole day. And once that happens, you go back to the rigid “clean eating” diet, something not too far from a competitor diet. You return to your hard core competition training plans too perhaps.

But the spiral keeps happening with eating “clean”, and then overeating, cheating, and bingeing. Again. And again. And again. You label competitor friendly foods as “good” and you see other non-competition diet foods like fruit, bread, and pretty much everything else as “off the diet” or something you “shouldn’t” be having. Food is no longer just food that you intake to fuel your body which was perhaps it was at one time prior entering the competitive world. Your food becomes a passive check in the box for the day. You do it to regain that sense of “control” or  because you know it’s “good for you” and you “should” be eating it, or because it meets a goal of 40% macro intake your trainer set for you.

There’s no longer a deeper level of satisfaction you get from eating nutritious food. Food becomes passive, and just an empty non-fulfilling activity. So when the cookies, the “free meal” come along which actually DO interest you, and actually DO taste good, it’s like Yippee-ki-yay and you go to town and wake up with regret the next day, only to start with a rigid breakfast you “should” be eating.

I’ve worked with many competitors to help them find their way back to joy of healthy eating and working out, even if that means discovering that in the end, competing is just not the healthiest activity for them. Never is that my mission is to steer one from competing again, but it does happen. I personally could never enter the competitor world again because my food and my mental state becomes an absolute freaking train wreck and it’s not worth it to me. If you are struggling to find you way back to healthy eating and love for the gym again, here are 7 tips to help support your way back to healthy eating after fitness competitions:

Eating after fitness competitionsEating After Fitness Competitions #1: Stay Off of Social Media

You cannot deny what triggers you wants to continue to fuel the restrictive-overeating cycle. Competitor selfies and conversations about competitor meal prep, macro counting, the latest and greatest supplement or workout to get shredded serve as distractions when you’re trying to find your way back. We all have phones, so keep an inner circle of those who you may need for support close by and communicate by phone or text only until you feel comfortable returning to social media. You could also simply block or unfollow special people or groups. I had one of my competitors unfollow Figure Olympian Nicole Wilkins due to the messaging that was being sent to her in this group. Do what you need to do.

eating after fitness competitionsEating After Fitness Competitions #2: Stop Food Logging for 2 Weeks

The only way to learn how to trust yourself again is to practice without depending on a person or application. You were born with innate abilities to know when you’re  hungry and when your body no longer needs food, we call this intuitive eating. It just needs a little dusting off.

Your goal with this recommendation is to NOT aim to hit daily intake goals such as carbohydrates, protein, macros. Instead, your goal with this exercise is to simply start listening to your body again, trying to fuel it when it’s hungry, to listen to what foods you may actually WANT to eat, nutrient dense or not. You’re going to consume some things you maybe wouldn’t while following a strict regimen so don’t panic, it doesn’t mean you are going to go off the deep end. When you’re not being told what NOT to eat and instead, you’re in charge and it’s up to you to CHOOSE what you feel is best for you, it’s usually a different outcome.

eating after fitness competitionsEating After Fitness Competitions #3: Read Up on Mindful Eating

Get introduced to mindful eating. There are great books out there to help you get introduced to mindful eating. A book is a great start, it may not resolve all the issues but it’s a great step! I’m also here as a resource, I do intensive consulting so know that you’re not alone, there is a way out, and it’s not through following another one of your coach’s meal plans.

eating after fitness competitionsEating After Fitness Competitions #4: Exercise Your Way

Take a week and drop all that you know about how to build your front delts that need to pop more for your next show. What do you WANT to do? Whether it’s something that competitors do or don’t do doesn’t matter. What do you want to take a break from? If you want to just go for walks outside for a week because that’s what you feel like doing, do it. If you want to take a group X class you haven’t taken in a few months or years, do it! If you want to do a full body workout, your way, for the time and duration of your choosing, DO IT.

I remember when I got to this point where I realized how unhappy I was in the gym doing my typical split training, I was in between sets for leg extensions. I had tears in my eyes. I texted my husband Adam “I just can’t be here anymore” and he replied with “then leave”. So I did. And that was the day I made a promise to myself that I am only going to move my body MY way.

I had to swallow the possibility my IFBB Pro Figure look my not be as sharp, ever again. I had to find my joy again with exercise again, I mean this was really fussing with  my personal happiness! I started walking with my dogs, I did yoga in my living room, nothing structured really, I just gave myself the space to decide what I felt like doing that day. As I evolved to find happiness with movement again, today’s working out looks pretty different. I walk, I jog, I lift twice a week, but I do it for me.  I go in the gym and sometimes I have more aggression than other days. Some days I’m just glad I made it and do what I feel like doing. I exercise now for my own reasons, it’s now my time and space.

eating after fitness competitionsEating After Fitness Competitions #5: Watch Your Food Labeling Verbatim

Unconsciously you may not be aware of how your talk or refer to food. Restrictive undertones such as good, bad, clean, should, shouldn’t actually fuel your restrictive eating cycle. Also, watch for phrases such as ‘that will make me fat’ or ‘that’s against my macro goals’. Let it go. Right now, all foods fit when it comes to eating after fitness competitions. Really embrace that and drop the judgement. You’ll find your way back, it won’t be overnight, but you HAVE to let go of what is “good” and what is “bad” when it comes to food right now.

You may also find others you’ve been hanging around with (including your coach or trainer) may unintentionally fuel the food labeling war. Be kind and respectful if you  need to have a conversation. He or she probably has a clue that their words are having a negative reaction within you, so help them help you better by having a discussion. The point here is, you need more positive talk that supports the notion that “all foods fit” into your life and less negative food labeling, so stay alert.

Eating After Fitness Competitions #6: Only Positive Body Image Talk

You feel what you think. If you look in the mirror every morning and think “ugh, look at that gut…” do you think you’re going to feel confident and empowered for the day? Do you think that helps you accept and respect your body? It’s like telling yourself you’re a bad person, over and over, to the point where you actually start believing it. So stop it. Only permit positive self talk after looking in the mirror. What are you thankful for? Also, make a commitment to lessen the amount of times you stop to look in the mirror during the day, as hard as that may be.

Eating After Fitness Competitions #7: Explore Other Unmet Needs

Competing involves a lot of sacrifice. To the point where we stop listening to other needs and wants because we have ultimate tunnel vision about competing, winning, food, and our physique. These unmet needs are big time triggers for why you may be overeating and/or bingeing. Have you missed out on precious family time? Do you need to pick up date night again between you and the hubby? Hang out with friends more? Get involved in other activities? Church groups? Don’t lose who YOU are. You are not ONLY a competitor. You are you’re own person, with your own kinds of interests and needs.

This was a BIG problem for me. I threw myself into competing 100%. I was so focused on getting to the top in my early twenties that I didn’t even pay attention to anything else. And I made it, a very young IFBB pro, but it came at a great cost. I completely lost who I was. That, combined with a divorce, lead my ass to therapy years later, which is where I feel my life finally began again.

I truly hopes this helps open a conversation and helps bring peace to eating after fitness competitions. Share it with those who you know may be struggling with their eating after fitness competitions, whether they have voiced it or not. Private message me on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/shelby.mcdaniel.77, do you feel this is a silent conversation we need to create a movement towards fixing? Do you see this as a big problem in the industry too? We support each other in so many ways in this sport, this area is past due its need for support, let’s step up and start a conversation.