Back when I first wrote this as an episode for the Fit & Happy Podcast, I was about 22 weeks out from my first competitive bikini show of the 2020 season. At the time it felt like the perfect moment to reflect on the lessons from my first prep. Funnily enough, plans have changed a little now what with this small little matter of a global pandemic going down.
Having started the very early stages of prepping just before the gyms closed, my coach and I decided to put plans on hold and just maintain through lockdown. It’s not exactly the ideal time to prep! But the lessons I learned definitely still stand, and I love reflecting on my first season. It was one of the most challenging experiences I’ve gone through and even though it was very tough at times, I genuinely loved every minute of it. Besides, I know a few people are just like I am, and just chomping at the bit to get going once we have a clearer idea of if and when shows will go ahead this year, so hopefully, this will help any first-timers looking to compete this year still, or maybe even next year. And while prepping for a bodybuilding show is an extreme thing, but there are a lot of elements of prep that apply to lifestyle dieting too. I hope you find these lessons interesting at least from the point of view of getting a little insight into the mad world of competitive bikini bodybuilding, and perhaps pick up so helpful tidbits that you can use yourself in achieving your goals.
Lessons From My First Prep…
Lesson 1: Give yourself more time than you think you need
Getting lean takes a hell of a lot longer than you think it’s going to. My coach set me a 12-week prep for my first show because he was trying to maximise my growing time before leaning me out. And I did well at that show, I got lean. But I did feel a little rushed towards the end and not really quite ready. I still got third place at my very first show, but my feedback was to come in a bit tighter (judge speak for lose more fat, essentially!) My final show of the season was 9 weeks after that first one (with one in between) and the look I brought to that was SO much more conditioned. I was 2.5kg lighter than my first stage weight and officially tiny. That extra time prepping made all the difference.
This year the initial plan was to allow a good 16 weeks to get ready for my first show of the season and I was excited to see how giving myself an extra four weeks to push for that killer condition worked for me and my body. Now, I’m not so sure of what our plan of action will be, but I can’t imagine it will be much different. The more time I have to prep the better. And I think this is so important for everyone to remember, whether it’s your first time competing or you’re getting ready to go on holiday, for a wedding…whatever it may be. Give yourself loads of time. You don’t want to be rushing and end up crash dieting killing yourself with a tonne of cardio. Give yourself plenty of time so you can coast in without stressing. It might mean longer dieting in a less aggressive way, but it’s totally worth doing for both actually achieving your goal and keeping your sanity.
Lesson 2: Food focus is a thing
Crazy fact…being lean makes you really, really want food. Who knew?! As someone who has always had an almost concerning amount of self-control around food, becoming more and more food-focused was a really strange feeling for me. You should have seen my Instagram explore page by the end of my prep, oh and not to mention the ‘cheat meal’ board I put together on Pinterest. Hunger plays tricks on your mind, and hunger is an inevitable part of dieting, stage or no stage.
When it comes to lifestyle dieting at least, I really believe in an 80:20 approach – 80% of your diet from highly nutritious, whole foods, and then 20% from less nutrient-dense high-calorie ultra-yummy foods. Hello, doughnuts. Simply because extreme deprivation tends to make our brains tell us we want it more than we really do. And so in the end when you restrict to harshly, that’s when you become food-focused and potentially go off the rails. Work a little bit of what you like into your diet though, and you’re more likely to feel happy and satisfied with just a taste every now and then.
Obviously, contest prep is a little different and if you want that trophy you’re going to have to be 100% all-in with your diet. So here, I kind of accept that I may get a little food-focused again, but we live in a modern society where food is always going to be there and that’s ok. I don’t have to hoard it like I’m getting ready for a sugar-fuelled post-Brexit apocalypse. And I certainly don’t have to spend the early hours of Easter Sunday baking enough chocolate brownies, cornflake nests and rocky roads to feed an entire village again. That was mad. A lesson most definitely learned.
Lesson 3: You are capable of handling more than you realise
Prep pushes you to your absolute limits. You will be tired, you will be hungry, you will think that you can’t keep going. But the thing is, you can and you will. I say it to my clients all the time, and it was my own personal mantra throughout prep: you are stronger, both physically and mentally, than you believe yourself to be. You will get through the tough days because you, my dear, are a badass and you can handle anything.
I was super inspired by an interview I heard during my prep with US Navy SEAL, David Goggins. In this interview, Goggins stated that when your mind is telling you that you’re done, you’re really only 40% done. Essentially, your mind gives up before your body does and you are actually physically more capable than you perceive yourself to be.
And this stuck with me; it really resonated. My brain would tell me that my legs couldn’t possibly move and yet I would still get up, walk 20minutes to the gym, do 45minutes fasted cardio on the stairclimber, train and then walk the 20minutes back and my legs would carry me the whole way. I can’t even begin to express how powerful it is to realise you are more capable than you are telling yourself you are. It dramatically changed the way I framed my self-talk. I never tell myself I can’t do something anymore. If I set my mind to it I know without a shadow of a doubt that I 100% will achieve it. And I hope that you can realise this too. You are capable of achieving and surpassing your goals. You just have to believe in yourself, and that takes time to learn to do. But again, I know you can do that too.
Lesson 4: Try to enjoy the process more than the result
It’s no secret that I am a competitive person. When I first decided to compete I told everyone I was doing it just for the challenge, but that was a lie. I secretly set myself the goal of achieving a top-three place in my first show and that was all I could think about. And I did it, and it was incredible. But then, my second show I set myself the target of winning, and I placed second in newcomers, and didn’t even place in the open…and it broke my heart. I was so focused on the result that I didn’t enjoy the day at all and cried my eyes out after. I completely lost sight of the fact that I had just come second in the newbies’ category at only my second ever show. I was being ridiculous and I took all the fun and enjoyment away from myself. So my third show I was a little kinder to myself, and I spent the 5 weeks leading up to it just enjoying the gym again, and show day was about enjoying the experience of the day. And I was so much more relaxed and did incredibly well again.
Training is a process, it takes time and you have to put in the work, but more importantly, you have to enjoy putting in that work. If you’re only looking for the result it’s going to feel pretty sucky to be quite honest. Yes placing is amazing, and I am a competitive soul (shock, horror) and so getting top 3 in each show is something I feel so proud of…BUT the real winning is me against me every time I step in the gym. I absolutely have big goals for competing, but on a day to day basis I have mini-goals and challenges set by me for me. It’s why I love my logbook so much, I’m constantly trying to improve, to get better and to just wholeheartedly throw myself into the process. Stage lean is just for a day, a so-called ‘beach body’ is just for a holiday…but falling in love with the process of getting stronger, of bettering your nutrition, of working on your mindset, now that is lifelong.
Work on enjoying the process and the results will follow and will be so much more rewarding for it.
Lesson 5: Finding something you are passionate about is EVERYTHING
The final, and probably most important lesson I learned from prep. When you’re passionate about something you are unstoppable. And I think if you can find the passion for fitness and healthy eating it stops being a chore and becomes a lifestyle. This is why I really encourage my clients, and you, to look at more than just the scale. Find the little wins each week, set yourself those personal challenges, be your own damn inspiration.
This one kind of ties in with learning to love the process, because loving the process builds passion. I had no idea when I set out to compete how much it was going to fuel a fire in me. Just like how I didn’t realise falling in love with fitness in the first place would lead me to genuinely having my dream job. Finding something you are passionate about gives you a purpose, it helps you understand your “why”. And if you have a strong why then the possibilities of what you can achieve are endless. Fall in love with getting stronger, with looking after your body, with doing the inner work for your personal growth. And if fitness doesn’t do that for you that’s obviously ok. Find the thing that sets your soul on fire and just fricking run with it.
I just want to finish with a quote that I come back to time and time:
“If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes”⠀Andrew Carnegie
I hope you can carry that sentiment into the rest of your week. Set yourself that goal that consumes you, and do absolutely everything you can to apply yourself to it. I also truly hope that the lessons from my first prep can help you if you are considering competing for the first time, or are working to your own health and fitness goals. And hopefully, I’ll have an update on prepping for my second season soon!