Turns out being able to dedicate all your free time (which was essentially all day, every day) to being active gets you in really good shape!
By Randee Godfrey
It’s been two weeks since I competed in my first show as a bikini athlete in the midst of a pandemic. My path to this competition was not linear, as are all the paths in my life that have led me to the most growth. I had always felt this small spark in my soul when I saw a friend compete or came across an inspiring IFBB ( International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness) Instagram pro photo, but had also always told myself that this was not for me. That I could never get lean enough to do that. I could never flex that kind of will-power, discipline, or determination when it came to food. I could never possibly work that hard to look good enough to get on a stage. No, it’s not for me.
HOW I LEARNED THAT I AM STRONGER THAN I THINK
I have more will-power than I ever thought possible.
And yet, here I am. Telling you that I did it against the odds of a pandemic, without a coach, without a program, without a plan, and whilst still sustaining my plant-based lifestyle. I learned so much about my body along the way: how much it can handle, how much I can put it through, and how much more I need to listen to it. I am stronger than I think. I have more will-power than I ever thought possible. I got on stage confidently and placed in both of my classes. I felt the pride and I was humbled by all the other amazing athletes there. I look at the medals and trophies and tiaras now and they’re fun, no doubt. They remind me of how far I’ve come and how much hard work I put into it, but they don’t stand a chance against the look on peoples’ faces when I tell them how I did it. This type of shock will always be the most rewarding to me. I beat to my own drum and that, to me, is everything.
That girl who told herself that she couldn’t, she was a younger version of me who had not grown to realize her own strength, potential, and power yet. She was still unknowingly and very slowly suffocating under the blanket of shame, unworthiness, and lack of empowerment the free world has tucked us all into. The more recent version of me looks back on her with tenderness. I wish I could go back and tell her to just try to wiggle a couple toes free from that too-heavy blanket, to take a peak out from under it, to just try braving the cold for a few seconds so she could realize that the world out from under that blanket is warmer, softer, more loving, and more beautiful than she could ever imagine. If there is something in your life you’ve told yourself you aren’t enough for, trust me, you’re overflowing with the power to do that and more.
The delayering of this blanket for me is a slow and continuous effort, and sometimes it moves in reverse, covering me back up bit by bit until I begin to feel the weight of it again, having to work twice as hard at peeling it back. This year has been transformative for me in that light. The beginning of the pandemic hit us all so hard. I had just started a new career–my first 9 to 5 job. I had always worked seasonally or as a gig-worker prior to this. A month and a half in, everything shut down. Like so many of us, I had never experienced furlough before. So much time at home, uncertainty, and stress led me down the Covid-15 weight gain path and before I knew it, the jeans I hadn’t worn in months suddenly didn’t fit. This was the heaviest moment of my year, both literally and figuratively. So I began peeling back that too-heavy blanket: I created some small goals for myself, bought a self-care journal, developed a new workout routine and four months later I somehow was in the best shape of my life. Turns out being able to dedicate all your free time (which was essentially all day, every day) to being active gets you in really good shape!
PREPPING FOR THE COMPETITION ON A PLANT-BASED DIET AND A BUDGET (ALL ON MY OWN WITHOUT A COACH)
I wouldn’t have a coach, I wouldn’t have a program to follow, I wouldn’t be going to a gym, I didn’t want to compromise my healthy eating habits, and I would remain completely plant-based.
It was summer when I decided to start training for the competition. I had put on a few of the pounds I’d kept off on end-of-summer rafting trips with my old company. This is when I decided it was time for a new goal, and just like that I saw a friend posting about competing and the alarm in my head and heart started ringing: this is perfect for me. I had no excuses. I had no obligations, I wasn’t going to be traveling as I normally would in this “off-season”, I had all the time in the world to dedicate the effort, and so I finally allowed that spark to flame.
Because I was still furloughed, I was also broke. So, I went into this deciding I would research as much as I could when it came to what I needed to do to step on stage confidently. I wouldn’t have a coach, I wouldn’t have a program to follow, I wouldn’t be going to a gym, I didn’t want to compromise my healthy eating habits, and I would remain completely plant-based.
I know there’s a lot of concern out there about plant-based athletes’ protein consumption, so let me put those concerns at ease and tell you I was averaging 140 g of complete protein per day. The only animal product I ate the entire duration of my prep was humane-certified, family farm, fresh eggs. The rest of my protein came from plant-based meat substitutes, nuts, seeds, fruits and veggies, and vegan protein powders.
I watched every video I could find on bikini prep diets, plant-based competitor and vegan competitor prep diets, the more sciencey side of macronutrients, micronutrients, sodium, potassium, water, and… well, you get it. I became a bit obsessed. I also enlisted the help of that competitor friend to answer all of my other questions about what the actual competition would be like, and her help was imperative when it came to the posing, peak week, and the walk— all of which weren’t even things I thought about when I first made the decision to compete!
The aesthetics of competitive bodybuilding is everything. It’s literally all about how you look, how you present yourself, your stage confidence, your muscle definition, your tan, your hair, your makeup … it was everything I had been working so hard at peeling myself away from.
CHALLENGES BEFORE AND AFTER THE BIG DAY
Once my carbs and calories got lower than I ever planned them to be, that all went out the window.
I think I managed to not let any of this seep back into my feelings of self-worth up until my carbs were under 75 g per day, which was the last couple of weeks before peak week. Once my carbs and calories got lower than I ever planned them to be, that all went out the window. Carb depleting is the most common way bodybuilders get “stage lean”. It’s extreme. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not supposed to be. I don’t recommend doing it, like, ever. I’ve already decided IF I ever do another show again – I will find another way. But that’s another topic entirely.
Here’s what happened to my brain and body during the extreme depletion weeks: Yes, I lost a considerable amount of body fat and that was probably the only part keeping me going—the tangible, quick results and the reward of seeing more of a “stage lean” body every week. In every other sense, I did not feel like myself. I was extremely irritable and I had enough energy to get me through the day and through most of my workouts, but not enough to want to do anything else, like talk, socialize, or have even an ounce of patience. Your body goes into constant energy-conservation mode when it’s being depleted of its energy sources (calories and carbs). You stop fidgeting. You sit and stand more still. You move less in general when you aren’t actively concentrating on moving. I’m normally one of those can’t-sit-still type of people. I’m constantly bouncing a leg to a beat, dancing in my seat, playing with my hair, and fidgeting with my nails and cuticles. As I’m typing this, I’m bouncing on my yoga ball to my Spotify playlist. It wasn’t until I carb-loaded during peak week that I realized I hadn’t been dancing in between my sets for the past three weeks (which is what normally happens when I do at-home workouts with my headphones on full blast so I don’t wake up my boyfriend).
I lost my period, and even two weeks later on my reverse diet, it still hasn’t returned. I think the last time I had one was maybe three months ago? I have an IUD, so this isn’t completely abnormal, but I can usually still tell when my week is. I have no idea now. My hormones are a complete train-wreck at the moment. For the lowest carb days of my prep and the first week post-comp, I was so unreasonably sensitive, anti-social, non-communicative, and irritable. I found out through more research that these are all symptoms of extremely low levels of body fat, deemed an unsafe, unsustainable percentage. However, gaining it back isn’t as easy as it might sound.
Reverse dieting is almost even harder than depleting. The theory is that by slowly allowing the body to adapt to more carbs, fats and calories, the body won’t panic and instantly store all of this extra energy as fat. Instead, the metabolism can be retrained to accelerate out of energy-conservation mode and these macronutrients can go back to doing what they’re designed to do within the body. I discovered that unless I wanted to gain 10-20 lbs of fat post-competition, I would have to reverse-diet to allow my metabolism and carb-sensitive system to slowly catch back up to my mental need for ALL THE FOOD.
I have been on a lifelong journey of fat loss, getting more fit, getting that oh-so-desirable six-pack, and losing just another half-inch, so having the goal of gaining weight and fat and inches is the ultimate mind game. My brain wants all the food, but my body has adapted to low calories, low carbs, and low fats. I did the typical post-show carb loading with vegan pizza and vegan ice cream and wine and a whole untracked day of eating so much that I couldn’t sleep through the night. It was, simply put, amazing. The next day I started my reverse diet at 100 g of carbs… a sad amount, but not miserable. The post-show binge caught up with my body mid-week and the self-worth I had tied to my cut physique started fading too.
THE TOLL OF EXTREME LOW-CARB EATING
My food options throughout prep had been so low carb that they did little to nourish my body or keep me full.
At the start of the pandemic my health, my mindset, and feeling nourished were at an all-time high. By the end of October, after adrenaline rush of the competition had worn off, it was at an all-time low. My food options throughout prep had been so low carb that they did little to nourish my body or keep me full. The amount of processed foods I was eating had easily quadrupled. My fibre intake was barely hitting 25 g a day, which is low for a whole foods plant-based eater. My sugar cravings were back with a vengeance, especially post-show. Reverse dieting is the hardest because the goal is the anti-goal of what I just literally starved myself and worked my ass off for. Mentally, it feels like I’m taking five steps back, but it also feels like I’m walking way too slowly.
Now, I’m relearning to love my body in all of its forms. I’m relearning self-control around the foods I can eat in moderation again, like smoothie bowls and non-powdered nut butters. I’m relearning how to love myself, how to acknowledge my self-worth, and how to show compassion towards myself. At some point during this journey, that blanket covered my whole existence again, and I’ve only just started peaking out from beneath it. I know what’s on the other side of it now, but it feels like I’ve been working harder than ever at wiggling out from underneath it. I think the biggest thing I learned from this competition is that the younger, less empowered version of myself wasn’t as far behind me as I thought. And that maybe she was right—maybe this wasn’t for me. At least not the way I did it the first time.
About the author, Randee Godfrey
Randee is a plant-based recipe creator, animal lover, entrepreneur, adventure enthusiast, and travel-addict, and is passionate about changing the face of the wellness industry to be more honest and authentic. She believes that vulnerability creates more connection and compassion, and that nourishment through healing plant-based foods, personalized self-care, and mindful travel are the building blocks for joy, self-love, and wellbeing.