Competition Reflection: Part VIII- Why I'm Not Reverse Dieting
<-- May VS. June --> ;)
Here’s a fun little visual for you: As I’m typing this, I’m sitting next to some sugary, frozen coffee creation, a few remaining bites of the baguette from my "you-pick-two" lunch, and the empty wrapper from a Reese’s peanut butter egg-- previously stashed in the freezer to enjoy after prep.
Life is good ;)
Just about 6 weeks ago, freely enjoying sugar-packed frozen coffees, baguettes, and chocolate Easter eggs were but a dream! That’s because, 6 weeks ago, I was stepping on stage for my figure debut.
It was my first competition in about 2 years and an awesome experience! I got to not only try my hand at a new category, but I was able to do the entire competing process with my hubby (a first-timer)!
In the end, we both had a blast together and got to take home some hardware. He placed 3rd in his class of jacked-and-tan dudes, and I surprised myself by placing 3rd in my class of beautifully strong ladies!
I say I surprised myself because this was, admittedly, not my best prep. I was much more lenient than I usually am. I guesstimated portions of food deeper into prep than I probably should have, I went untracked for some things and debated a few times whether or not I actually wanted to compete. While my training was always on-point and I practiced posing regularly, I would still say I was about 80-90% ‘in’ on the entire process, as opposed to my usual 100%.
Regardless, I did truly enjoy my competition prep and was sad to see it end. In what felt like no time, the preparation wrapped up, show day came and went, and then it was back to the real world-- a sometimes scary place for competitors post-show...
What is the real world?
The “real world” post-show has different meanings for different people, but for me, it meant not reverse-dieting. Instead, it meant carefully, and in a balanced/smart manner, going back to normal.
I know, I know, I can hear all you bikini girls yelling “blasphemy!” right now. No reverse diet? What am I thinking?? Allow me to explain.
After my first show in 2017, I tried the whole “reverse dieting” thing, it didn’t go well.
More deeply described here, I found myself struggling with trying to be strict and regimented and wanting to let-up a bit and simply just “be”. As a result, I was losing control over my eating-- something I never struggled with before. I felt confused and lost and couldn’t figure out why I was doing the things I was doing, and it scared me. About 2 weeks into my first “reverse”, after numerous days of feeling lost and out of control, I realized I had to stop. I had to take the imaginary rules and restrictions of this “reverse dieting” thing off of myself. I pushed the food scale away, I ate what I wanted when I wanted, I exercised balance and portion control, and the fog finally lifted from my brain.
In the end, I did not rebound and I did not experience any unhealthy relationships with food or exercise. However, I did increase my strength, increase my daily caloric consumption, and put healthy levels of fat and muscle back on.
The purpose of today’s post isn’t to tell you to do the same, it isn’t to shame the entire concept of reverse dieting, it’s to let you know there are other approaches out there. One size doesn’t fit all for post-comp strategies. Hopefully, I can help other athletes by providing an alternative way to go about things if the “norm” (reversing) isn’t sitting well for you either.
What is “reverse dieting”?
“Reverse dieting” refers to the process of slowly increasing calories after a prolonged period of low calories (such as a competition prep). The overall goal of this is to achieve a higher maintenance intake. This will then allow for higher calorie consumption and/or lower cardio requirements on a daily basis. In turn, competitors can potentially prep on higher calories than before when it comes time to diet down again.
All of this sounds simple enough, right? Yes. On paper, it’s pretty darn simple --slowly bring up your calories until you’re back to normal--, but what isn’t taken into play on paper is the mental toll reverse dieting takes on you.
Behind closed doors
I gave you a little peek into my 2-week experiment with reverse dieting, and my story of struggle and confusion isn’t much different than most competitors, though you wouldn’t know it.
While many may appear to be having a successful reverse-- increasing their calories, regaining strength, etc.-- they are often failing behind closed doors. They are hungry, they are goal-less, and they are lost in their heads. I say this based off of personal experience, based off of many talks with fellow competitors, friends, and clients, and based off of readings.
Briefly mentioned in my Post-Show Struggles post, trying to stay regimented and strict with no real end-goal in the near future is tough-- especially after so many weeks of doing it with a tangible goal (show day) in front of you.
On top of that, you’re likely hungry after coming out of your prep on lower-than-ideal calories, you know in the back of your mind that you won’t have to be parading around a stage in a bikini anytime soon, and you now have free reign of all the foods you avoided during your competition prep.
Take allll of those factors and now try and tell yourself you’re only “allowed” to have a few more calories than what you were just consuming when you were a couple of weeks out from your show. How do you think that is going to go over?
Unless you are a robot, the chances of you adhering to that plan day-in and day-out are slim to none.
With all of those components in play, trying to stick to a strict diet plan is next to impossible. In many cases, competitors start out strong for a few days, begin craving “off plan” food or macros, give in and enter binge-city.
Following that, in sets the guilt, up goes the cardio, and down goes the calories the next few days. Then all of a sudden, they are burnt out and hungry again. Guess what happens next…
It can be a vicious cycle and it grabs hold of many competitors, but few freely talk about it. Instead, they hide behind posts about how perfect their reverses are going, leaving others out there who are struggling, beating themselves up and wondering what the heck is wrong with them-- “she can do it, why can’t I seem to??”
If you’re feeling this way, if you’re struggling post-show, know that it’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with you for struggling. It can be a tough transition and, even though they aren’t publicizing the tough parts, others are feeling it, too. Also know that there are better ways to approach post-show with less struggle!
How should your diet look post-show?
In my opinion, it should be balanced.
The focus shouldn’t be on continuing restriction and excluding certain foods, but rather, it should be on taking in a variety of macro and micronutrients, experiencing different foods/tastes/textures, listening to your cravings while still focusing on your health, and being present in social experiences. It should be a practice of good nutritional balance involving salads, involving pizza, involving ice cream, involving tilapia… involving all foods!
The thought process of “I’m only going to give myself these *bad* foods for x-amount of days post-show, then it’s back on a plan!” is so completely misguided. What makes you think that after 48 or 72 hours, you’ll have lived out everyfood craving you’ve ever had from the past 12-or-so weeks of prep? How is it that, in just a few days, you’ll have satisfied your cravings for any type of sweet or less nutrient-dense food from that point forward, and you’re good go back to steamed broccoli and chicken breast for every meal again?
Newsflash: it doesn’t work like that.
Many people that try to make that approach a reality fail. They fall victim to an unhealthy cycle of being on track for a few days, having a craving, giving in to that craving, giving in to EVERY craving because they’ve already given into one so, “eff it…”, mentally beating themselves up after, following it up with a, “I’m back on track tomorrow.” ...and round and round they go.
Do yourself a favor: don’t even begin to step foot on that merry-go-round after your show! It is not going to do you any favors physically or mentally. Instead, simplify things.
Go ahead and celebrate. Enjoy your treats after your show:
Eat your cookies!
Drink your drinks!!
Rejoice in your burgers!!!
But don’t think of it all like your “last meal”.
It’s okay to indulge, and definitely enjoy, but also remember that those foods aren’t going anywhere. There is no expiration or magic “Cinderella” rule on them! They’ll still be there the next day, and the next week, and the next month, and you can treat yourself to them whenever. There is no need to eat as though you’ll never see a slice of pizza again ;)
Do not place imaginary, strict rules on yourself for that meal and all the meals the next few days after. Rather, start out by setting a simple, balanced tone for your post-show season-- have your treats, but still, have your water. Eat your french fries, but be sure to get in some protein. Taste things you haven’t had in weeks, but remember that you don’t need to clear every plate yourself.
When tomorrow rolls around, you’ll be thankful that you can pop out of bed without feeling sick or weighed down by over-consumption...or by guilt!
Carrying that process out
Like I said, use your post-show moments and next few days after to set the tone for your offseason. Be balanced and don’t overcomplicate things.
Break as free as you can from your food scales and tracking apps (if you don’t feel comfortable breaking completely free yet, then start by loosely tracking some things while eyeballing and intuitively eating others), listen to your body, and be mindful of your choices.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve been doing this “fitness” thing for a while. You can easily look at a piece of meat and guesstimate how many ounces it is. You know roughly what one cup of oats looks like. You can eyeball a serving of fruits or vegetables. Use that knowledge to help you make smart choices! Keep an eye on what you’re taking in, have a rough idea of where your calories are (remember, they should be much higher than where they were during your last few stages of prep to help you recover!), know what you probably need more or less of, and do your best to get as many varied nutrients in as you can.
Don’t obsess over exact numbers, just eat to fuel and eat with intention. Listen to what your body/hunger cues are telling you-- hungry? Then eat! No longer hungry? Then stop!
I know it sounds simple and I understand that, if you’re walking around with zero trust in yourself and a poor relationship with food, it isn’t always so, but practice makes perfect. Eventually, you'll see the simplicity in eating again.
What I’m doing
Well, for starters...
Just kidding. While there is some of that, I'm basically doing a whole lot of what I just talked about!
I’m being consistently inconsistent-- routinely taking in healthy options, but not being afraid to have “unhealthy” ones. I’m also paying attention to how many calories I’m consuming and aiming to increase them more and more every week or so.
My only focus has been to feel good physically and mentally. I want to feel strong and fueled in the gym. I want to feel satisfied, but not overly-stuffed, after every meal. I want to still be able to make memories! I want nourishing dinners at home with my husband, a big ole salad from Whole Foods for lunch with coworkers, tapas with my friends, my dad’s stuffed shells and my mom’s banana cream pie, some ice cream on the boardwalk... I want to feel nourished, I want to feel relaxed, and I want to continuously trust myself.
I share all of this to serve as an example of how things could be done-- not how they absolutely should. I want to talk about my experience and my approach in the hopes that some people can learn from them and maybe give something similar a try themselves.
How should you do it?
Let me start out by saying that this approach is NOT for everyone, and I get that! I understand that not everyone has the same relationship with food or knowledge of nutrition as I do. Personally, I know what macro/micronutrients I need and where to get them from. I have trust in myself to eat to support my focus and goals but also to not undereat (let’s be honest, “undereating” has NEVER been a problem for me…).
If you do not have a strong relationship with food or knowledge of food groups and macronutrient compositions, then I don’t recommend you jump right into my “anti-reverse” approach.
Instead, I suggest you still carry out some form of a structured reverse, but also:
1- Don’t restrict. If you have a set amount of calories you’re reversing with, then keep going for that, but don’t live hard and fast by them. If you’re hungry, then eat. If you could use a little more of something, then take a little more. Restricting yourself will likely just lead to binges. In the long run, you’re better off eating a few bigger meals than eating your regular meals and having multiple binges tacked on at the end of most nights!
2- Be loose with it. Either loosely track some meals, then cut it short and finish out the day intuitively, or eat your main meals based off of your meal plan and trust yourself to handle any snacks or small meals on your own. Take a more relaxed approach with your plans/macros.
3- Allow yourself a treat. If you are still going to loosely track, then add that cookie or ice cream cone into your macros and go from there.
If you’re taking a more intuitive approach, then just keep an eye on your serving and stop eating that treat when you’re satisfied. One slice of cake isn’t an issue-- an entire cake, plus large soda, plus 5 cookies because “screw it, I already ate the cake…” is.
4- If you’re going to indulge in something out-of-the-norm, do it with friends/family! Go to dinner, meet up for breakfast, do something so you’re making memories out of those extra macros! It beats hitting up the McDonald’s drive-thru and eating a Big Mac by yourself on your ride home…
5- Train hard, but not excessive. The calorie bump is intended to fuel you, so let it! Use the calories to train harder, lift heavier, and feel better. Don’t look at them as a reason to train longer and more aggressively in an attempt to “burn them off”.
If you are jumping into my post-show approach, then remember to:
1- Keep a focus on your calories. Again, you want them to go up and continue to climb from there-- make sure you’re doing this! As the weeks go on, add in more carbs, add in more fat, and make sure you’re getting adequate amounts of protein in.
Feel it out and see how your body is responding-- how are your energy levels? How is your strength? How is your sleep? How are you recovering? Yes, you will gain weight, no, that does not mean it’s time to stop adding food in! Weight gain is necessary post-show, you need to come out of your caloric deficit and balance everything out within your body! Those points just mentioned (energy, strength, sleep…) will tell you how you’re responding better than your physical appearance will.
2- I’ve said it a million times before and I’ll say it again: pick and choose your battles. If you want something less nutrient-dense, then make sure you’re still getting nutritious options in elsewhere. If you have a weekend packed with social events and outings coming up, then be as consistent and on-point as you can the few days leading up to it. Consistently make healthy options, even on the days where you’re eating is more inconsistent.
3- Remember that this isn’t a free-for-all. Just because you have no strict rules on what you can or can’t eat, or how much you can or can’t eat, doesn’t mean you can run around like a kid in a candy store. The point is to eat an appropriate amount of calories (and nutritious ones at that), not to pig-out on junk everyday because “you can”. Exercise self control.
4- Understand that you will still have days where you may have poor body image, feel some food anxiety, or experience a little bit of the “post show blues”. You just spent a solid chunk of time training your brain to think one way, it’s going to take a little while to “un-train” it. You can’t expect yourself to mentally jump right back to typical patterns of thinking, it will take some time. In the meantime, don’t harp on any negative emotions that may pop up-- be kind to yourself and let things gently settle back to normal.
5- This one goes for you, too: train hard, but not excessive. Use all the calories to lift heavier and perform better, do not try and burn them off.
At the end of the day, the goal of any post-season diet is happiness.
What is going to make you the happiest? Skipping out on social events, fearing a “free meal” but being able to say you’ve followed your reverse diet perfectly (even though you probably didn’t…) or experiencing life, exhibiting balance, and making memories?