There is no denying that competing in your first bodybuilding or physique show is a huge achievement. You managed to make it through a grueling number of months to get down to your ideal physique, and you rocked that stage! If you’re lucky, you may have even walked away with a shiny trophy. It all happens in a flash though. You literally feel like it happened in the blink of an eye. All of a sudden, the curtains come down, the bright lights are turned off and the people in the audience go home. All of a sudden, you’re left in the dark with nothing but your ridiculous tan and a plastic trophy. You got what you came for… WHAT’S NEXT?
The problem of a post diet/post comp/post challenge depression is very real for almost every competitor, yet it’s a taboo subject. It’s practically unavoidable, and if not dealt with correctly, it’s almost impossible to cope with. Yet, it’s rarely talked about in the fitness and bodybuilding industry. So how can we overcome this problem?
What are some of the signs of “Post Comp Blues/Depression”?
Boredom, Lethargy, Mood swings, Anxiety, Poor Sleeping Patterns are just some of the signs along with the common symptoms of clinical depression. If you feel empty, lost, miserable or if you’re looking to fill a gap with seemingly meaningless activities (having difficulty with being alone is a common trait of depression), it’s possible that this applies to you.
It’s understandable too because for the longest time, you had a plan, a routine and a reason to stick to all of this.
So What’s missing?
Let’s look at some of the things you had driving your focus through your prep. As we mentioned above, for the most part you had been following a plan and a reasonably strict routine. Training six days a week, attending your posing practice and meal prepping is extremely time consuming and it was all ok to commit, because you had the stage to look forward to. Learning new ways to pose, diet and train is fun, but what happens when all that is done?
What most competitors overlook after they walk off the stage is their PURPOSE to continue. So why DO we train and diet? Why do we bother adhering to a plan and why do we stay consistent? For most people, it’s because they are looking to improve. They look to improve because they are in pursuit of happiness. They realize that happiness does not come as a destination, nor does it have an end point. If you measure success and happiness with an end point, one day, when you get there, it will end… and your success and happiness will end with it. If you allow yourself to be happy through the process of improvement, then you’ll have a greater chance of staying consistent. Find your purpose as to why you wish to improve, and learn to enjoy the grind. You will be more likely to have a better prep, which will most probably lead to a better outcome, and you will find it easier to continue improving after your competition is over.
Tips for Overcoming Post Contest Blues
Plan Ahead (and Plan EARLY)
While your calories are on the higher end of the scale and you’re not deep into your diet yet (ie. Before your brain leaves you), recognize that it’s a good time to plan for what you wish to do after your competition. Do you want to do a photo shoot? Perhaps you want to transition into a different hobby? On the other hand, if you wish to make this sport a lifestyle choice, then you should look to plan a solid off season. Take the time to outline your steps and your next goal.
Take the time out to be grateful
Gratitude is one of the most underrated emotions in contemporary society. Learn to appreciate what you’ve just gone through and be thankful for what you’ve just achieved. Chances are, by letting your light shine, you’ve given other people the permission to do the same. You’ve inspired people to do good things. Allow yourself time to appreciate this, and give yourself a pat on the back and take the time to reflect on your journey.
Allow yourself a free meal
Regardless of your preparation method, whether you choose to follow flexible dieting or strict dieting, you will need self-discipline, and that is exhausting. Immediately after your competition, it’s a good idea to have a free meal but it’s very important that you only eat until you’re physically full, not emotionally or mentally full. You may be tempted to ingest an unusually high amount of calories during this meal, but it’s a good idea to keep things in check. An untracked free meal will do you a world of good, a cheat binge will not.
Reverse or Recovery diet
When you diet for a competition, you take yourself well out of its comfort zone in almost every way. Your body fat percentage gets very low, and a drop in calories tends to accompany this, so you take yourself well away from your set point. This means that your slowing metabolism needs the time to improve and chances are, your body fat needs to increase a little bit (because believe it or not, it’s actually HEALTHY to have some body fat).
There is no point in hanging around in a deficit post competition. The main aim of a Recovery Diet is to get to a recovery point without having the insane food binges and experiencing the emotional roller coaster due to sudden unforseen and uncontrollable food binges.
Reverse dieting involves slowly increasing your calories and macronutrients (and micronutrients) over time while trying to minimize an increase in body fat. While this sounds ideal in theory, unfortunately for a lot of competitors, a slow reverse isn’t a good option as it keeps them in a deficit and many get stuck struggling with a binge guilt mentality. Although losing weight is not the primary goal of reverse dieting, it can occur in rare circumstances) for some athletes at the initial stages of the reverse diet.
Find a support network
There is nothing more beneficial that getting the right guidance in your time of need, and nothing more empowering than helping others through theirs. Find yourself a group either via social networks or your immediate network to keep yourself facing north.
If the above information isn’t enough to convince you that this struggle is real, we have included an account from Fran, a former competitor who followed a similar path and managed to keep her head above water and pull herself out of post comp depression.
If this sounds like common sense, it’s because it is. There is no reason to stop. So many people do though and it doesn’t help their metabolism recover at all. This is no different than watching an Olympic athlete suddenly stop their training and seeing them blow out in the public eye. Don’t stop training.
Set Short Term, Mid Term and Long Term Intrinsically Driven Goals
You’ve spent so long focusing on your body, it’s actually about time you shift your focus elsewhere. Even if you’re a physique athlete, it pays to have clear and definitive goals that aren’t subjective. Performance based goals that are conducive to building a more solid physique if you want it, but without the scrutiny. Strength and performance goals tie in well with building muscle. Perhaps you want to get stronger with certain compound movements? Perhaps you want to improve the skill or execution of a specific lift, or learn a new exercise. It might even be useful to do something that has nothing to do with physique building, depending on how fatigued you are from the whole process. The point is to shift into a growth mindset post competition. You’ve been so focused on taking away. It’s now time to shift in the other direction in a sensible manner.
Here is Fran’s Story:
Back in early December 2013, I was chosen to participate in a challenge sponsored and coached by Athletic IQ. Within the first week the results started kicking in, the change taking place before my eyes was phenomenal, centimeters were falling off whilst I was eating food I had almost forgotten about.
After a few weeks, I was encouraged to compete in a Physique Competition in Melbourne, (bikini masters). I walked around the house in disbelief, because until that phone call I had never even contemplated competing. I initially said no but the flame was lit. I eventually decided to give it a go, I was looking good, and so I thought “Why not?” So 5 weeks out, I went ahead & ordered the bikini.
I stepped up my training and let my coach do the magic with the macros. I had so many fears and so many doubts, the only thing that pushed me past that was the fact that I trusted the people who believed in me even though I didn’t feel like I believed in myself and knowing that I had a competition coming up. Then 2 weeks out from comp it all started coming together, the physical changes & the experience was growing from the posing practise which was building my confidence, & that’s when I knew I could do it. So I got out there & did my thing… I didn’t place but I looked like I belonged up there and I did it. That was the goal I had set out to achieve and I achieved it.
After my competition I had no idea what I would experience, I thought I would be ok. This was simple after all, I just had to stick to my macros & reverse diet back out from comp right? I wasn’t at all mentally prepared for the challenge I was about to embark on. There was so much focus on that one day and I had not even thought about being prepared for the emotional roller coaster or the aftermath of comp prep. I thought I would be fine and I didn’t really push for information of how to handle myself like I should have.
I just went about my day the first few days without following any plan thinking telling myself that I’m just having a little “break” somehow convincing myself that all was ok because I would get back on the bandwagon again soon, then something happened that I still can’t explain… I became INSANELY hungry, nothing could curb my appetite, I found myself hitting the bottom of a 2 litre ice cream container which I had only opened 3 days prior, eating Nutella like they weren’t making any more… and chocolate chip biscuits were my absolute obsession, I spiralled out of control & then the negative thoughts started creeping in.. I felt like a fake and a failure.. I had been named as the overall winner of the challenge and I felt ashamed, I felt I was letting everyone down that had got behind me, and with that mindset I just spiralled down even further, within 10 days had put on 5kgs, then I was so embarrassed I didn’t even want to be seen at my gym.
I was behind on all my “normal life” responsibilities due to being so focused on comp. My kitchen cupboards were a mess, bookwork was behind, kids were playing up as I had been “absent” for some time, emails from teachers saying my son hadn’t been doing his homework… I was so overwhelmed I hit rock bottom… but sometimes, you have to hit rock bottom before you start clawing your way back up.
I had a chat to the coaching and support staff who reassured me that this as normal, and encouraged me to get back on track. I started pulling myself out of the well. After all is said and done, it was one of the most amazing experience of my life and I can’t wait to do it all over again BUT the next time I will be READY to deal with the aftermath. I will make sure that everything is up to date before I start to drop my macros, I will have structure in place with the children for when I become “absent” again and most importantly I will have a plan with my post food.. there will be no “trigger foods” around. I will control the controllable. I will stay in direct contact with my coach and ask for help if I need it. I’m still expecting there will be low days from an emotional standpoint. Competing is such a high to come down from but I know now I will be mentally prepared & ready for the onslaught of emotions and hunger! I have found MY purpose. Bring it on!
If you need further help with Post Contest Recovery, there are some very good resources available from various credible coaches. 3DMJ has some fantastic literature and even a free course on Post Contest Recovery available for the public. Click here to see the course.
It’s also very important to note that in the event of a crisis, there are many organisations ready to help you. Click here for a list of them worldwide.