By Autumn Cleveland
You’ve invested months preparing for about 10 minutes on that stage. You’ve spent countless hours obsessing about it, testing your abilities to perform and disciplining yourself to stay on track. You ate the same thing every day. You’ve practiced your posing until you were dizzy. You, your friends, and family have all suffered and sacrificed. At some point, you were miserable.
Yet somehow, after that one day of limelight is over, we miss it. We crash and burn, emotionally, mentally, and physically. We have trouble accepting that our six packs and veins are slowly going back into hibernation, while we eat all of the foods we dreamed about. Or, we plan the very next show and start obsessing all over again.
There is a danger in the wrong mindset post-competition. More often than not, I hear athletes that lose their grip, and their whole lives fall apart, because they no longer have structure in their lives. As a competitor and a prep coach myself, I’ve made past mistakes that have created more problems for myself that I wouldn’t have if I would have just planned better, and I’ve learned from them to help myself and my athletes. This is a guide to help keep a healthy mentality and game plan from the moment you step on stage, into your off season.
DAY OF COMPETITION
Accept your placing.
The thing about competing is that you work your ass off for a look you and/or your coach believes to be what the judges want. However, this is a very subjective sport, and it all depends on who is standing up there next to you. You can bring your best, but someone may have come in better. The judges have specified criteria for the look they want to represent each division, and even if you are lean enough, and muscular enough, you just may not have the genetic structure. It’s frustrating and it hurts to put in the work, and not reap the reward that you trained for, but sometimes it just doesn’t pan out. That’s real life. Accept your placing gracefully, until your feet leave that venue. You can go through your emotions later in private, but people will remember if you were a good sport or a sore loser.
Only you know how much you’ve truly grown from the process of preparing for your contest. It seems to get lost in all of the excitement of the show itself, but don’t forget what an achievement it is that you made a commitment to do something, from start to finish, and that you did not quit. In my opinion, that is more a more valuable feat than winning a show. You deserve to take a moment for yourself, and take pride in what you’ve created. Even if you got last place, you still accomplished something that most people only talk about doing.
Don’t leave in such a hurry that you forget to take pictures. You may have made a new friend back stage, or your family may have come out to support you. This is a life event that you will never forget, so don’t pass up the opportunity to capture moments with people who were a part of it with you. Grab your friends, family, your coach, fellow competitors, and snap a photo. It only takes 2 seconds, and you’ll be glad that you did.
Listen to your body.
The entire week leading up to the show, I see competitors posting photos of all of the borderline diabetes causing, insulin-shocking sugary, sodium injected, fat filled food that they want to eat as soon as they step off stage. I’m not here to judge. However, keep in mind what your body just went through. Some of you may have loaded or depleted carbs, sodium, and water for whatever reason, and now you’re going to wreak havoc on your digestive system, electrolytes, and hormones. I get it, as I used to do this myself. But I guarantee all that you will want to do afterward is get in your pjs and sleep in your miserable carb coma. If you intend to go out and drink, remember that you may be dehydrated and your electrolytes will be out of balance, and that you will get drunk a LOT faster than you think. Use caution, rehydrate, eat a decent meal, and possibly drink some Pedialyte before you even touch alcohol. Last year when I stepped off stage from Junior Nationals after dieting for 23 weeks, all I thought I wanted was a burger and a beer. I ordered it, it arrived in front of me, and I pulled out a protein bar from my purse instead. Probably one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done post contest, but I didn’t want to force something that my body didn’t want. If something doesn’t feel right when you step off stage, LISTEN to that! I’ve heard of several competitors passing out when they get off stage from exhaustion, or having to go to the hospital for kidney issues after abusing diuretics and cutting water for days. Don’t let anything or anyone pressure you out of listening to what your body needs. Rather than hoarding a bunch of food for post contest and pressuring yourself to inhale ALL of it like it's a personal competition, it would be better to plan a mild cheat meal that night, or “breakfast” the next morning, when your body has gotten a chance to rest and recover.
THE WEEK AFTER
Find the balance.
I encourage two things to my competitors the week after a competition: Take a BREAK, and have a PLAN. Give yourself a few days to rest from cardio and lifting, and relax. However, I also strongly encourage that your meal prep game still be strong. Even if you prep your meals and have an unplanned cheat or two the week after, if you have meals prepped, you will be less likely to reach for whatever junk is available because you didn’t have anything ready to eat. Give your body a break from processing a million supplements, especially for fat loss. Plan to get back in the gym 3-7 days after your contest, depending on how your body feels and your motivation level.
Most shows now have assigned judges to give feedback for certain divisions, to contact after the show. If you get a chance during the contest, introduce yourself to the judges, but keep in mind that they have to judge the entire show all the way through, and you may not get to speak with them that day. Within the next week or two, contact at least one judge for feedback by sending a high quality photo of your front and back pose from the contest to their email or on facebook. Be patient, as they are probably being bombarded with questions from other competitors. Whether you got first place or last place, you can always strive to improve, and feedback will only help pinpoint exactly what you need to change.
WEEKS AND MONTHS AFTER
Keep some structure.
I would say that most of the struggle post competition comes from the lack of structure. It’s nice to know EXACTLY what you are supposed to do, and to only carry out a specific plan. Your whole life and schedule is more organized with planning and prepping. But what happens when you are not required to measure out chicken and sweet potatoes? How much cardio should you do? There is a lot of freedom when you don’t have to report to your coach, and that can be a slippery slope. My advice is to get back to what you know. Maybe you’re not watching portions or calories, but you know that chicken is better than Reese’s. You know about how many meals you should take in, and that you probably should slowly decrease cardio rather than stop abruptly. If you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything drastic; just get back to neutral until you can make a plan.
The Elusive Off Season.
This is something I STILL struggle with, after all of the years I’ve been competing. Post contest, you feel like you have so much time. Then somehow you gain 10 + pounds in 2 weeks, and it isn’t muscle. You lose your abs, and your pants fit a little tighter. Then 6 months later, you feel like a sausage being smashed into a plastic wrapper about to bust the seams. A year later, your weight and bodyfat is up, and you’ve only gained a pound of muscle. How did this happen? You didn’t PLAN and EXECUTE your off season properly. Many competitors can benefit from reverse dieting, or taking advantage of lifting heavier while gradually increasing calories with cheat meals. I promise that you will not benefit from half-assing your workouts and have a cheat meal every night. It kills me when I see competitors shoving food in their noticeably puffier face and too much extra bodyfat for the fifth time that week, but justifying it with “bulking season!” or "Bout to hit these legs and use this cake for fuel!" Your off season is not a free-for-all, if you are at all a serious athlete. I like the newer term being used “improvement season.” Adding muscle and keeping bodyfat relatively under control takes just as much dedication as leaning out for a contest, and it is not any less work or commitment. The only difference is that your goals change. I have prepped my meals EVERY single week for the past 4 years. Do I have cheats? Hell yea. Do I enjoy some beers? Yep. Do I take time off from the gym? Occasionally. But I still get my bodyfat checked each month, prep and off season, and I still try to lift as heavily as I possibly can year round, and eat clean 6 days a week. If you don’t know what to do, contact your coach and set up an off season plan as not to waste time and take advantage of the opportunity for to become better.
On the other end of the spectrum, do not start obsessing about another show after show after show. If you want to do multiple shows in a year, great! But plan wisely, as restricting calories and keeping cardio too high for too long can cause issues later down the road. Allow yourself to soften up a bit if that will help you grow, but understand that you may have to temporarily make peace with the fact that you may not be shredded to the bone your entire life. Your abs will still be under there later. I promise.
Maybe you need a break from the competition life completely. Maybe your FAMILY needs you to take a break. Don’t leave out the people that helped you get where you are, with selfishness. Discuss with people in your life your next plan, and more than likely, they will support you. But there are other areas of your life the need to come back up to the surface of priority, just as your contest did, to keep the balance of being a normal human.