What They Don't Tell You About Bikini Competition Prep
It was January 2015 and I was itching for a new challenge. Allan and I were in a pretty good place with our eating habits and were working out pretty consistently, and we had a bit of free time and mental space since both of our jobs were chugging along business-as-usual. So, having always wanted to see what my bod was actually capable of if I put the time and energy into it, I decided to hire a personal trainer and nutritionist and complete an 8-week bikini competition prep program. (Because I mean, why not?) And because Allan's the great sport that he is - and more importantly, because he competed in bodybuilding for awhile and knew what I was getting myself into - he did his variation of the competition prep right beside me. What a guy.
For some background: Living in San Diego, you come across a lot - and I mean, a LOT - of women prepping for a bikini or figure competition. The culture of healthy eating and fitness runs rampant here, so it makes sense that competing feels like the logical next step for some. But with as many blog posts and Instagrams as I saw on a daily basis, there were a few things that I definitely didn't expect from the prep, and a lot of things that I'd wish I'd known going into it.
By the way, while I completed the entire 8-week prep cycle, I didn't register for a competition or compete at the end, nor did I intend to from the beginning. There's just something about the business that rubs me the wrong way... that's just me though! I think it's rad if you wanna do one.
So whether you're thinking about completing any new fitness + diet program, have already done one, or are just curious about the process - hopefully these tips come in handy for ya! Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, a nutritionist, or qualified in any way to tell you how to eat, work out or live your life. This is just what worked for me. You do you.
first things first:
My Program Details
I weight trained 5 days a week for 1 hour, and doubled up on 3 of those days with an additional 30 minutes/250 calories of cardio (walking uphill on the treadmill at its highest incline, flipping my speed back and forth between 3.0 and 6.0).
I used a flexible meal plan (macros-based) of 1402 calories/day. Towards the end of the program when my metabolism was just scorching through every single thing I ate, clean carbs like rice cakes were added in for energy as needed.
Before & After's
I didn't want to shock you with my glowing fluorescent white skin as soon as you opened this blog post, so I stored my before & after photos over here instead.
Now, without further ado...
my tips for competition prep
(OR REALLY ANY FITNESS PROGRAM)
1. Nothing beats homecooked meals… but please eat out once in awhile.
At home, you can control how your food is made and everything that goes into it - I’m not denying the value in that. But the week-after-week cycle of prepping-cooking-eating–doing the dishes–repeat can get mentally exhausting. So when you need a break, have a few healthy places in your back pocket. Chipotle is a great example of a place where you can get what you want, pretty close to how you want it (minus that whole food poisoning thing.) And speaking of “getting it how you want it”…
2. Ask for it how you need it.
Don’t be embarrassed to make requests when you’re out to eat. This is the only body you’ve got, and it matters what you put in it. Most places will be happy to accommodate your requests if you’re polite! Just make sure to be gracious when someone takes the time to make it happen for you. Allan always says, “The Starbucks line would go so much faster if everyone would stop ordering milkshakes and just get normal coffee.” Maybe he’s right about the line going faster, but that doesn’t mean we should stop asking for our drinks the way we want them. Just realize that it does often take extra time at the coffee shop or restaurant to accommodate your requests, so don’t take it for granted. Eye contact and a sincere “thank you” go a long way.
3. ...But at the same time – don’t throw a fit if they aren’t able to make it happen.
Especially when it’s busy. Every kitchen won’t be able to accommodate every request during peak hours (like busy Saturday nights or Sunday morning brunches.) Have a backup plan just in case.
4. “Snack” consciously.
In the past I’d always been quick to tell people that I was a “snacker” and that I didn’t really eat defined meals, thinking I was keeping my metabolism up by eating small amounts continuously. It wasn’t until these 8 weeks that I realized that the snacking I'd been doing wasn't balanced at all. Sure, I was chowing on “healthy” snacks like trail mix or an apple, but they were low in protein, and I would end up eating a ton of fat (albeit healthy fats) or sugar (albeit fruit-derived) every day, which makes it tricky to manage your macros. My point: Things like apples and almonds are awesome parts of a balanced diet if they’re consumed intelligently instead of randomly. I’d even go as far as to say this: “Snacking” is often just a more PC way to say “random, haphazard eating.” It usually happens whenever you feel like it. Instead, I might suggest planning even these snacks into your day and considering them meals themselves. I ate 4-6 meals a day and considered every one of them a meal, even if it was just half an apple and a hard-boiled egg as a post-workout.
Am I saying not to snack healthy? Absolutely not. Just be conscious of how much, and what, you’re chowing down on. Avocado, hummus, almonds and trail mix add up to a lot of fat, carbs and sugar that you might not have planned into your diet.
5. Measure your meals.
I measured every quantity I ate for seven solid weeks until I felt that my eye was good enough to judge 4 ounces of meat or a quarter cup of rice without measuring it out. I was blown away during that first week by how much I had been overeating, assuming I’d needed to eat larger portions at every meal to keep my energy up. I actually felt much better eating smaller meals, and eating them more frequently.
6. mindful mechanics.
During those 8 weeks, I spent a lot of time in the gym. It was actually hard for me to wrap my head around at first: like, "Almost 10 hours in the gym a week? Do you KNOW what else I could be doing with those 10 hours?!" But since health and fitness are important to me, and this was something I'd committed to, I figured that if I was going to spend this kind of time in the gym, I wanted to make sure it counted.
Here's what I mean by that: It’s easy to get caught up in the grind of mundane workouts every single day, but instead of mindlessly going through the motions just to get through the hour, s l o w d o w n. Instead of thinking of a set of squats as 15 squats, think of each squat as its own individual thing. Put 100% of your focus into each one - feel the muscles contract, grow taught, burn, release. Think about your breathing. Focus your attention on posture, footing, alignment.
It seems counterintuitive, but when you apply mindfulness to whatever you're doing - meaning, when you notice deeply exactly what you're doing in that particular moment - the time seems to fly by. And even better: By really focusing on the individual muscles that you're using for the movement, you're working them more intensely. Get ready for some serious next-day soreness.
7. Don’t reward yourself with food.
So you stuck to your prep plan perfectly for an entire week? You made new strides toward a back squat PR? Awesome. Then reward yourself with sneakers. Or new gym clothes. Or that new rad heart rate monitor you’ve been eyeing. But rewarding yourself with a big hunk of chocolate cake? That might seem great in the moment, but will you really feel awesome afterwards? Probably not. So stick with rewards that are aligned with your goals. It's literally a win-win.
(Though, I'll be the first to say that it's important to treat yourself to a cheat meal every once in awhile along the way - just don't go overboard.)
8. Your happiness is more inspiring than your abs.
Oh, Instagram. It's our ego's best friend and its worst enemy. Here's the thing: Your social media following wants to support you. They want to follow your journey and watch how you incorporate fitness into a healthy, balanced lifestyle. But remember that the joy fitness gives you is so much more inspiring than the body fitness gives you, and happiness is much easier for your audience to relate to and get on board with. So take it easy with those headless 6-pack selfies, and show us all the deeper reason you take care of your body: Happiness. Wholeness. Health. Peace of mind.
9. Ground cauliflower makes a great rice substitute.
Add some lime, cilantro, and a dash of sea salt and you've got yourself a bangin' side dish.
10. Oh hey, by the way: It gets easier.
Man, I wish someone had told me during that first week or two that I’d start to crave clean foods. That I’d stop craving bread. That I’d get used to eating twice as much per day as my stomach was used to. That every workout wouldn’t feel like that first workout. It would have made those first few weeks MUCH easier to manage mentally. Eventually, after several weeks of having chicken/fish + rice + veggies every single night, it was my favorite meal of the day. I felt so awesome during the meal & afterwards that I couldn’t wait for dinner!
11. Seasoning is everything.
When you’re having chicken for the 6th time in one week because that's the only protein you have left in the fridge because you're a terrible weekend meal prepper, you need all the variety you can get. Cilantro, basil, and pepper became my best friends. Same with condiments: Mustard and sriracha could change my whole day.
12. Address the type and purpose of your hunger.
Feeling hungry is a signal from your body that adjustments need to be made. When I started the program, I was uncomfortably full for the first 2 weeks. It was really difficult for me to eat 5 meals a day that were so high in protein. But after 2 weeks of eating the same exact diet, my metabolism picked up and I’d start to get hungry between meals. Luckily, my nutritionist knew not to leave me hanging with my hunger, and instead bumped up my carb intake to give my body the fuel it was asking for. You can’t perform at your best level when you’re hungry! Like a machine without oil, the body grinds to a halt. So feed the fire, and feed it with what your body's asking for.
13. Cultivate mindfulness in routine.
When you’re so used to routine, mindfulness becomes even more important. I became so used to my daily routine that if anything changed, it would completely throw me off. For example: Every day I’d pull my overnight oats from the fridge, take them to work, and eat them by 8am. One morning I worked from home and because I wasn’t making the drive to work, I completely forgot to eat this meal. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but missing a meal can throw off your day when your body is expecting it! Little things like this were a reminder for me of how important mindfulness is, to avoid going into autopilot. Mindfulness would help me notice that my body was getting hungry before I completely missed the meal, instead of relying on habit.
(Psst... for more on mindful eating, check out this post.)
14. Balance is key.
You’ve heard the word “balance” over and over, and I’m realizing now that I’ve taken it for granted. During the 8 week training program, I was 100% committed so I was “fine” with not having balance – 10+ hours a week in the gym, 6 hours a week cooking meals, 2-3 hours a week prepping meals. But when the program was over and there was no longer an “end date,” to look forward to, I found it really challenging to find a balance between maintaining the work that I did and continuing my progress, while also finding time to live the rest of my life that I had put on hold during the program. How was I supposed to make it to the gym 5 times a week when I had a meditation class to teach? How can I grab a glass of wine with a girlfriend after work on a weekday, when I hadn’t planned a cheat-drink into my diet until the weekend? It's only now, over a year later, that I'm discovering balance. I still work out 4-5 times a week, but I'm not as strict with it. If I have to miss a day, I make it up another time. Or I skip it! (Gasp.) And my diet has gotten a lot easier to manage (thanks to Freshly). Probably my biggest challenge during the program was that I was thinking about food so much. It was constant - when will my next meal come, what will it be, make sure to have everything I need in the fridge at all times, make sure all my meals are ready in the morning, make sure every restaurant we visit can accommodate my diet, etc. I can't even TELL you how nice it is to not have to think about food like that anymore. The healthy stuff is in my fridge when I need it, period.
By the way, I don’t claim to have all the answers, and this journey to finding balance is a place where I’m definitely still learning. (And I’d love to hear any tips from you, too!) Which brings me to one last thing I learned:
15. Time is the most valuable, powerful resource you have.
Time management is one of the most, if not the most, telling factor in whether you’ll achieve your goals. It's simply a non-negotiable: No matter how badly you wish for more time to do everything you want, the clock doesn't lie. Twenty-four hours are twenty-four hours. Once we're willing to accept this, then the sky's the limit when it comes to how we spend those 24 hours. (Because after all, you have the same 24 hours that Beyoncé has. And I hear she just started a new fitness wear line.)
So, how are you spending your next 24 hours? Eight weeks? 365 days? Tell me your goals and what you've learned along the way!
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PS: You’ve probably noticed that not a lot of this list is about the actual workouts. That’s because, for me, nothing really changed with my workouts. I always enjoyed weight training so I just kept doing what I enjoyed, and luckily my trainer kept the workouts interesting and challenging week after week. For me, diet was the key to change, and I believe that it is for a lot of other people too. Ironically, controlling our diets is also usually the most challenging part of any healthy lifestyle regimen. That’s where mindfulness and presence come into play. Simply eating healthy for the sake of eating healthy just isn’t going to cut it long term. But when you start truly caring about and loving your body enough to nourish it with what makes it feel good, change happens naturally.