Navigating the post-competition period, part two: Psychological factors

Everybody worries about how they’ll get to the finish line, but we rarely consider what we’ll do beyond the finish line. For bodybuilding and physique athletes, contest prep and the post-competition period bring some pretty crazy changes, both physiologically and psychologically. To effectively navigate the weeks (and months) immediately following competition, knowing what to expect can help you plan for a successful transition. In part one, I discussed the physiological changes observed following competition. In this article I will discuss the psychology side, as this is often the most drastic and difficult aspect to deal with.

For many sports, you plan your training to allow for “peak” performance at the most critical time of year. For example, swimmers train themselves into the ground, taper before the biggest meet of the year, and then achieve their best times when it matters the most (when all goes according to plan). Physique sports are no exception, and the whole purpose of contest prep is to tailor training and nutrition practices to achieve your best possible physique on show day. With this general concept in mind, I want to share some of my thoughts on how to best handle some of the psychological aspects of the post-competition period.

 

First, it’s important to acknowledge the following points:

1) The psychological “lows” experienced after competition are often referred to as the post-competition blues. Don’t beat yourself up or get down on yourself for feeling this way- if they made up a widely-recognized term to describe it, that usually means it’s really, really common.

2) By definition, you will look worse after the show, just like you did before the show. That’s how “peaking” is supposed to work; it’s the entire point. If you do it right, you’ll look the very best you’ve ever looked on show day. That means that virtually every other day of your life, you didn’t look that good, and you probably won’t maintain it for long. You’ve got to get comfortable with that.

3) There is no other sport in the history of the universe where people evaluate their success based on their ability to perform 4 weeks after the championship. Yet, we have countless physique athletes who lose their contest shape a few weeks or months after the show, and feel like they’re “failing.” It’s natural, but it’s illogical.

4) Your competition-day body is the equivalent of taking a vacation. It’s awesome, but it’s not realistically sustainable. You save up all year for vacation, then spend a week in a great location, living above your means, and spending 100% of your time on leisure activities. If you compare your everyday life to your “vacation life,” you’ll undoubtedly conclude that your regularly life SUCKS, no matter how good you’ve got it. We shouldn’t be making “apples to apples” comparisons in that context, and we shouldn’t compare our offseason body to our contest day body.

 

When you look in the mirror, particularly within the first few weeks after competition, your mind is guaranteed to play tricks on you. I’ve found a couple of strategies to be particularly helpful in fighting off some of these mind games:

1) Remember where you came from

Look at your progress pictures, start to finish (credit to Chris Barakat for this one- he made a Facebook pots about it recently). Over the course of my prep, my body fat percentage dropped from around 15% to around 5%. As the fat was coming off, I felt fantastic about how I looked at 10% body fat. But as we shift from 5% up toward 10%, it’s common to feel terrible about how we look. Use your progress pictures to remind yourself that you used to feel pretty darn good about being 10 lbs over stage weight, and that fact that one day (believe it or not) this precipitous weight gain will plateau, and you’ll reach a steady, sustainable body fat level that you’ll feel comfortable with.

2) Remember where you’re going

Let’s illustrate this numerically. Hypothetically, you start prep at 185 lbs, 16% body fat. That’s 29.6 lbs of fat on your normal, offseason body. From the research available, it appears clear that competitors will tend to revert toward their pre-diet weight and body fat level, and that fat will be regained preferentially toward the beginning of recovery. So when you gain about 6 lbs of fat in the first couple months, it can be helpful to remember that you (most likely) still have way less total fat than when you started, and it’ll take a minute for your lean mass to catch up and for your eyes to readjust to seeing a body in the mirror that isn’t absolutely shredded. Take a deep breath, chill, and give your body a few weeks to re-stabilize itself. After putting your body through hell during contest prep, it’s the least you can do for it.

Similarly, consider the positive aspects of the road you’re on. After a show, you’re probably experiencing some negative prep-related side effects, eager to gain some muscle to improve your future placements, or both. In either case, a caloric surplus and some corresponding fat gain is going to be part of that process. That doesn’t mean you should be force-feeding yourself in the name of making gains, but you certainly shouldn’t be stressed about the fairly necessary restoration of a reasonable amount of “fluff.”

This is one of the reasons I love bouncing between bodybuilding and powerlifting. It totally re-frames the post-competition period. As you lose your bodybuilding conditioning, any underlying disappointment is totally overshadowed by the fact that your strength performance is skyrocketing at the same time. One of the primary contributors to the “post-competition blues,” in my opinion, is the inability to shift your perspective from focusing on the negatives of this process to focusing on the positives.

3) Put on your old pants

I did a competition about a month or two ago, and the other day I felt absolutely HUGE (I was cool with it, but felt huge nonetheless). I had to try on some pants for a wedding, so I grabbed the khakis that fit pretty well before I started contest prep. I was pretty concerned that they might be too tight by that point. Then I tried them on, and realized they were still several sizes too big (so big, in fact, that I would’ve looked silly wearing them at the wedding). Your eyes will tell you that you’re losing a battle with morbid obesity, but the scale and your old clothes can be helpful, more objective indicators of what’s really going on.

 

Conclusion

I’m no psychologist, so an in-depth discussion of psychology is well beyond my academic reach. However, competitors have to deal with this stuff, and I have developed a profound respect for how powerful some of these psychological factors are. I hope some of these points and perspectives help physique athletes re-frame their mindset in a more positive direction as they navigate the post-competition period. However, the most important point has yet to be made:

If you derive a great deal of your self-worth from your physique or physical appearance, you’re setting yourself up for a very, very tough time in the world of physique sports.

If this is you, I’d encourage you to spend some time wrestling with why that’s the case, and possibly seek help from a qualified professional in the field of psychology, before embarking on any type of physique-related goal. Don’t let any stupid stigmas about mental health services hold you back- achieving resolution and clarity regarding body image issues will simply set you up with a solid foundation for a happier, more successful path in the world of physique sports.

Anyway, back to the conclusions. Bottom line: Don’t compare yourself to your stage-ready physique; you looked worse before the show, and you’ll look worse after. That’s the whole point of contest prep. And don’t beat yourself up for your inability to sustain an inherently unsustainable physique.

Navigating the post-competition period, part one: Physiological factors

Everybody worries about how they’ll get to the finish line, but we rarely consider what we’ll do beyond the finish line. For bodybuilding and physique athletes, contest prep and the post-competition period bring some pretty crazy changes, both physiologically and psychologically. To effectively navigate the weeks (and months) immediately following competition, knowing what to expect can help you plan for a successful transition. This article will discuss the physiological aspects of the post-competition recovery period; part two will discuss psychological factors.

I don’t want to rewrite everything I’ve written in the past three years, so I’ll summarize: Your body goes a little haywire during contest prep, assuming that you’ve effectively obtained a “stage-ready” level of leanness. A variety of hormonal changes and other physiological adaptations promote an environment of reduced anabolism, increased catabolism, suppressed metabolic rate, and absolutely insane hunger [1]. The side effects go even further, with common complaints of disrupted sleep, foggy thinking, extreme lethargy, and reproductive side effects including amenorrhea in females and low testosterone in males.

In my time at UNC, I’ve been unbelievably fortunate to be granted the freedom to pursue this research line, and to be connected with tremendous collaborators who share an interest in this topic. Our group wrote a review paper summarizing some of the unfavorable effects of contest prep [1], then followed up with a case study [2] and a pilot study [3] on post-competition recovery. I also competed in two competitions (including my pro debut!) recently, so I currently find myself directly in the middle of the post-competition recovery process. In this article, I aim to answer some common questions by drawing upon observations from the literature, the laboratory, and “the trenches,” which may help other athletes manage the post-competition period.

 

1) How quickly should you gain weight?

If you truly got into contest shape, you’re going to gain weight after the competition. This is normal, expected, and almost certainly a good thing. I’m hard-pressed to imagine a sum of money that could convince me to maintain a contest-ready physique for more than 6-8 weeks at most.

The good news is that, as our pilot study indicated [3], the initial weight gain you may experience in the first few days has very little to do with getting “fat.” We used a 2-compartment body composition model measured via A-mode ultrasound, and much of the initial weight gain fell in the “fat-free mass” compartment; bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy confirmed that the initial weight gain was largely water weight.

Simply put, you’re likely to see an abrupt increased in fluid, sodium, and carbohydrate intake following competition, which will increase total body water. Another frequently overlooked fact is that increasing food intake will likely increase the amount of food and waste within the gastrointestinal tract at any given time. So, there’s nothing wrong with just planing for a few quick pounds of weight gain in the first week or so after competition (depending on your body size), and I wouldn’t spend too much time fretting about it.

But what should you do after this initial increase?

I’m of the opinion that it entirely depends on the individual’s goals and circumstances. To make an informed decision on how to manage the “recovery diet,” one must consider the competitor’s weaknesses, the stage of their career, and the presence/severity of any lingering “side effects” of prep. I’ll illustrate with a few examples:

Competitor A is a long-time pro male bodybuilder, who competes with a fat-free mass index of 26 kg∙m-2. He hasn’t gained much lean mass in the last few years, is likely close to his genetic ceiling for muscle mass, and his primary weakness is his inability to achieve elite conditioning (leanness). This competitor has no significant lingering side effects from contest prep.

For Competitor A, a slower rate of weight gain might be advisable, which would consist of what many people consider a conservative “reverse dieting” approach. They might employ a strategy in which they immediately get to maintenance calories after the show, and slowly increase calories from there over time (note: The initial bump to maintenance calories probably won’t be very big, as the caloric deficit is often pretty marginal by the end of contest prep in many circumstances).

Competitor B is pretty new to the sport, 23 years old, and still in the early stages of his lifting career. He achieved decent conditioning for his competition, but simply didn’t have the muscle to compete at a high level yet. Based on these circumstances, it makes absolutely no sense to keep this kid on low calories for another 7 months. He’s better of jumping straight to a moderate surplus, and pushing calories up from there (at a more aggressive rate than Competitor A) to facilitate some lean mass gains.

Competitor C is the exact same as Competitor A, but he does have lingering side effects from contest prep that are clinically meaningful and disruptive. In my opinion, this individual’s approach should be much like Competitor B’s approach- when the caloric deficit caused all the issues, committing to a sustained, reasonably sized caloric surplus is often the most parsimonious route to alleviating these unfavorable effects. (note: see the website disclaimer; always discuss any such health issues with a physician or otherwise qualified medical professional, and follow their advice with regard to any necessary treatment or recovery strategies)

 

2) Are you “primed for growth” after a competition?

Sure you are, just not the good kind of growth. In the obesity literature, there’s a commonly observed phenomenon called post-starvation obesity; we commonly see that weight-reduced subjects will have a ridiculous appetite (hyperphagia), and will tend to preferentially regain fat instead of lean mass when they begin to regain weight [4, 5]. Our pilot study in physique athletes showed a similar pattern, unfortunately, with very little “true” lean mass gained within the first 4-6 weeks after competing [3].

Taken together, the evidence suggests that you should not be force-feeding yourself in hopes of capitalizing on some extra anabolic state after competition. If anything, this is likely to cause a whole lot of rapid fat gain. Research has also suggested that hyperphagia may continue, even after you’ve regained all of the fat you lost, if you have not fully restored the lean body mass you lost while dieting [4, 5]. So, even though the deck is stacked against you, diet and training strategies should be tailored to maximize your chances of regaining lean mass at a realistic rate during the post-competition period.

 

3) How long does it take to recover?

It depends on who you are, what you do, and how you define “recovered.” Case studies tell us that most factors, such as hormone levels, metabolic rate, and physical performance, generally return toward baseline after about 6-7 months [2, 6]. However, these subjects also tend to restore their weight and body fat levels to near-baseline levels by the end of this 6-7 month period. Had they attempted to maintain low caloric intakes and a contest-level body weight, it’s very safe to assume that recovery would be substantially delayed, or potentially halted altogether, depending on the magnitude of post-contest restriction.

However, there are some factors that may lag behind during recovery. For instance, some struggle with appetite and/or their psychological eating habits well after 7 months post-show. In fact, one case study [7] documented amenorrhea in a female competitor that persisted for 71 weeks following competition! As such, it’s almost impossible to give a single estimate for the time course of recovery- different components recovery at different rates, and the rate of recovery depends on the individual and the strategies they employ after competition.

 

4) Conclusions and practical applications (the stuff you can actually use)

When you get in contest shape, your body will hate you, and recovery will be required. In the post-competition period, how quickly you choose to increase caloric intake and/or gain weight should be determined based on the needs and goals of the individual- a “one size fits all” approach is not appropriate. Along the same lines, the rate at which these things occur will influence the timeline of recovery, so different individuals will recover at different rates.

To effectively navigate this time period, I think a few strategies come in handy. I’m going through this process as we speak, and I have made a point of emphasizing high protein intake, consumption of foods with plenty of fiber and low energy density, and training to maximize hypertrophy as much as possible.

The high protein consumption may help on several fronts- protein supports the process of regaining lean mass, has a high thermic effect of feeding, and promotes satiety. Collectively, these factors may impart favorable effects with regard to rebuilding muscle, fighting excessive hunger, and restoring metabolic rate. In fact, our pilot study found a correlation between post-competition protein intake and restoration of metabolic rate.

Consumption of high-fiber foods with low energy density is generally a good idea, even if you aren’t a physique athlete. The foods that meet this criteria often include micronutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, which carry a wide range of general health benefits. With respect to the post-contest period, these foods will also increase satiety and can help curb urges to overeat.

Finally, if you’re going to be in a caloric surplus, you might as well put those calories to use. Train to maximize hypertrophy, targeting each muscle group with sufficient volume and intensity at least twice per week. Personally, I tend to opt for an upper body/lower body split after competition, allowing me to train each muscle group every 48-72 hours to stimulate muscle growth. This will assist with nutrient partitioning, optimization of body composition, and recovery of lean mass, which may play a role in attenuating post-competition hyperphagia and overeating.

So plenty of protein, fruits, vegetables, and lifting are good. I know, I know- groundbreaking, controversial findings indeed.

 

Be sure to check out part two of this article, which discusses psychological aspects of the post-competition period!

 

References

  1. Trexler ET, Smith-Ryan AE, Norton LE: Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2014;11(1):7.
  2. Pardue A, Trexler ET, Sprod LK: Case Study: Unfavorable But Transient Physiological Changes During Contest Preparation in a Drug-Free Male Bodybuilder. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2017:1-24.
  3. Trexler ET, Hirsch KR, Campbell BI et al.: Physiological Changes Following Competition in Male and Female Physique Athletes: A Pilot Study. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2017:1-25.
  4. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J, Girardier L: Poststarvation hyperphagia and body fat overshooting in humans: a role for feedback signals from lean and fat tissues. Am J Clin Nutr. 1997;65(3):717-23.
  5. Dulloo AG, Jacquet J, Montani JP et al.: How dieting makes the lean fatter: from a perspective of body composition autoregulation through adipostats and proteinstats awaiting discovery. Obes Rev. 2015;16 Suppl 1:25-35.
  6. Rossow LM, Fukuda DH, Fahs CA et al.: Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2013;8(5):582-92.
  7. Halliday TM, Loenneke JP, Davy BM: Dietary Intake, Body Composition, and Menstrual Cycle Changes during Competition Preparation and Recovery in a Drug-Free Figure Competitor: A Case Study. Nutrients. 2016;8(11).