This post was by no means easy to write. However, I believe that I need to share my experience with training for a bikini competition so that other women in a similar situation could make the right decision.
I’ve recently learned a big life lesson: When you’re planning to have your life go in a certain direction for the next few months, life itself won’t necessarily oblige and go that way. Even if it does, it may not necessarily make you as happy in the process as you thought you would be.
I know all this sounds vague, but here’s what happened in a nutshell: a few months ago, I announced in this blog post that I wanted to train for a bikini competition (‘bikini’ here is one of the bodybuilding divisions). But as I started training for it following a specially designed diet and workout plan, I realized that the process was making me really miserable, and that my body image was getting distorted. So I made a very tough decision to quit.
Why very tough, you may ask? Well, all my life I believed that I was not a quitter. I moved to the US by myself from Russia when I was 21, and fought for the opportunity to become a legal resident here even through my loneliest and darkest times when everything seemed to be saying, ‘Hey, it’s not gonna happen, go back home!’ I trained for and ran 3 marathons, battling injuries and overcoming self-doubt every time. Heck, I still have an Etsy shop that I opened a few months before starting this blog as a creative outlet to make the cutest (if I say so myself 🙂 ) sock monkeys, and I kept it open when I realized that it wasn’t very profitable, and when the orders in the pre-Christmas season ate up all of my free time!
So what made me decide to quit my bikini competition training? As much as it may sound too ‘spiritual’, I realized that I needed to stay true to myself.
Originally when I set this goal, I thought that it would be an interesting self-experiment. As a runner who’s got bored with running races and found a new interest in lifting weights, I decided to take on the mission to do a bikini competition to keep myself motivated to train hard, and to document this journey here on the blog. There are thousands of vegan marathoners today, but way fewer vegan bodybuilders, so I thought that vegan bodybuilding world could definitely benefit from the addition of another competitor like myself. I wanted to do just one show, in April of 2016, and then move on to enjoy my life without all this pressure I constantly put on myself.
(Red flag number one: getting into the bodybuilding lifestyle for just one show is not worth it. There’s too much effort that has to be applied, and if you’re doing it to be on stage only once, you’re unknowingly setting yourself up for disappointment after the show.)
I was already working out for up to 1.5 hours 4-5 times a week lifting weights and doing some moderate cardio, so I felt like I was ready to take my fitness to the next level following a proper bikini competition training program.
I hired Samantha Shorkey, a well-known vegan pro bikini competitor, to create my diet and workout plans to follow for seven months leading up to my target competition next April.
Red flag number two: it’s important to stick to a plan to transform your body for a competition, but I was never ever good with plans, especially designed by someone else. Out of the three marathons I did, I very vaguely followed training plans for the first two, breaking them left and right, and for the third one I created my own plan that I followed for the most part, but even there my compliance wasn’t perfect.
Almost immediately after the start of my program, I realized that my bikini prep turned out to be way more time-consuming than I hoped it would be. The four weightlifting workouts a week took 2+ hours a day each, and the four times a week I was supposed to do cardio sucked even more time out of my days. I work full-time, leaving home for work before 7 am every morning, so with the 2+ hour workouts after work I was coming home well after 7 pm. Rob was used to me making dinners every night, so I’d do my best to put together something quick to eat, have a small serving of that along with them (even though that meal wasn’t on my plan – enter the feeling of guilt that I was cheating on my meal plan). By the time I showered and had dinner, it would be already time to go to bed. I used to write my blog posts after dinner and before bed, so it’s no wonder that my two previous posts took almost a month each to write!
(A side note: Rob does make us dinner every now and then, but he’s been very busy and stressed at work lately, so I feel bad making him cook us a meal after he had a tough day at work.)
I have to admit that the actual workouts were my favorite part of my bikini prep. Samantha’s plan had me push my limits, and my body responded remarkably well (besides, of course, the whole stressed-out part). I reached personal records on both squats and deadlifts, and it felt freaking awesome to finally have the courage to push around a loaded barbell that weighed more than my body! If I comfortably had the time to continue with the 2 – 2.5 hour workouts a day, who knows what else I could have achieved.
The meal prep part of my program was not so enjoyable. To grow muscle, you’ve got to be in a caloric surplus (i.e., eat a lot!), so I was supposed to eat every 3 hours or so. Yay, more food! Except that it had to be all prepped and portioned out in advance. Sunday afternoons were now devoted to cooking green and starchy vegetables, beans, lentils and tofu, measuring out prescribed portions and packing them into Tupperware containers to take to work during the week. Red flag number three: I’m quite picky about eating the same exact thing for every meal for a few days. The whole-food composition of my diet plan was a big plus, but things were still getting quite repetitive. Enter the crazy cravings for foods that were now off-limits: Before starting this diet, I would have never wanted to plough through a pint of So Delicious ice cream in five minutes, but now that’s all I ever wanted to do! Plus, by Wednesday I’d run out of the portioned-out meals I made on Sunday, so after work I had to spend the evening making yet even more meals for the rest of the week. On top of having to make dinner for Rob. To save time, I sometimes skipped the prescribed Wednesday cardio workout just to get the food prep going. (More guilt that I was yet again cheating on my plan.)
The food part of this whole experience was by far the hardest. I knew that before starting my bikini prep plan, my diet may not have been perfect, but it was overall healthy and definitely mostly plant-based (with the occasional exceptions of store-bought veggie burgers, Gardein chick’n wings, vegan cheese, etc.). So my rebelling body couldn’t understand why now it had to stay away from pasta and veggies for dinner, or why my head made me feel guilty for giving in and having some. My relationship with food and my body image went through some dark times when I was younger, and for a while I thought that I had put it all behind me, but now I felt some of the old demons raise their heads all over again, throwing me back into the vicious ‘good food – bad food’ circle. If being plant-based has taught me to abstract from viewing food as good or bad, then why did I need to put any foods as off-limits again?
Also, let me remind you that this was the very early stage of my bikini prep, so I was still allowed to eat a lot. To get shredded like what you see bodybuilders on stage, my diet would eventually have had to go into caloric deficit (read: less and less food) while the workouts would have stayed quite intense. If I was feeling miserable at this point with plenty of food, I was fearing to imagine what my mood would have been like in the final stages of my prep!
Before long, I found myself saying to Rob that I felt like all the fun has been sucked out of my life, and this was only the beginning. I started looking for ways to shorten my workouts, but the intensity of each exercise suggested taking plenty of time to recover between sets. Every now and then I’d skip 1-2 exercises or reps from the plan, and pay for the acquired 10 minutes with the already familiar feeling of guilt on my drive home. One Monday morning, as my alarm went off at its regular 5:20am, I opened my eyes and realized that I felt like I already failed for the day. I didn’t even get up yet, and was already feeling miserable!
Red flag number four: battling guilt and feeling like a failure all the time is no good way to live a life.
Moi on our recent vacation in Hawaii, a couple weeks before I started my bikini competition training program. Current goal: to return to that happy, carefree state as seen in this picture 🙂
I’ve read in various bikini competitor blogs that everyone experiences dark times during their prep, but didn’t realize what exactly they were talking about before I stepped on this path myself. Luckily for me, the help came from the least expected direction.
When I gathered all my courage and wrote to Samantha that I was giving up on my wish to do a bikini competition, I thought that she would be dismissive and consider me a quitter. Instead, I received the most supportive and heartwarming message, in which she told me that she completely understood my reasoning. She said that bodybuilding competitions are NOT for everyone, and that sometimes even the strongest-minded women develop a lot of insecurities as they embark on this journey. Also, at this stage in my life, with my husband and my home to take care of, with my job, my blog and the thoughts of starting a family in the foreseeable future, the goal of doing a bikini competition could be a little far-fetched.
At this point in my narration, I have to say that even though the goal of doing a bodybuilding competition proved to be less than attainable to me right now, I am not saying that it can’t be achieved by others. A lot of amazing women, vegan or not, prove this every year, and I have even more respect for them now that I know how hard it is. Ladies, my hat goes off to you and your willpower, and the ability to stay strong in the low moments that turned out to be too much for me.
I can’t say that I will never want to give this bikini competition thing another try sometime later in life, but for now I’m fine with staying on the sidelines. My butt may not look its absolute best come next April, but at least I’ll spend the next few months experiencing less guilt on a daily basis. And probably enjoying a few homemade chocolate chip muffins and Ethiopian feasts along the way.
Now that I’ve painted this bikini competition prep in such rosy colors, I’d like to share a few things to remember if you want to try competing for yourself:
5 Things a Future Bikini Competitor Should Keep in Mind
1. Before you commit to a bikini competitor lifestyle, make a gooooood assessment of your life and your priorities. A full-time job, family, running a household are huge factors that you may find yourself struggling with keeping up. I’m kind of ashamed to admit that in the month I’ve spent on my bikini competition plan, I didn’t clean my house even once 🙁 Oh, and you may as well say goodbye to your social life (no more happy hour drinks with coworkers, or an occasional coffee shop date with your best friend). Sam Shorkey writes brilliantly about how her own life has changed since she embraced her bikini competitor lifestyle – check out her blog, Jacked On The Beanstalk.
2. Don’t commit to a bikini competitor lifestyle unless you want to keep competing for at least 2-3 years. If you want to do just one show and then retire, the amount of work and pressure you’ll be putting on yourself to be on stage just once is going to be too much. If you allow yourself at least a couple years to follow this lifestyle, then you’ll get a chance to progress from one show to the next – provided you really enjoy the process.
3. Know that you’ll be judged solely by your looks when you are on stage during the competition. The judges aren’t going to care that maybe you volunteer in a soup kitchen, or that you donate to an animal sanctuary every month, or that you speak three languages, or even that you may have just set a new squat PR – it’s all irrelevant to them. If another woman next to you has a tighter glute-ham tie-in, she’ll most likely score higher no matter how great of a person you are.
4. Speaking of the looks… The mandatory bikini posing routine may strike a wrong cord with you, especially if you (like myself) are the shy, slightly tomboyish type who felt like hiding under a table at her own wedding reception. Don’t know what I’m talking about? Just google ‘bikini competition back pose’. Of course, some women manage to do the posing more tastefully than others, but watching stage videos of one of the top IFBB bikini competitors of our time made me utterly uncomfortable. My inner feminist is puzzled why strong, dedicated athletic women are still reduced to act and look like eye candy to win this game.
5. There will be dark moments, and you’ll need plenty of willpower and dedication to overcome them. Sure, there are lots of of bikini competitors on Instagram who make this lifestyle look easy and glamorous, but the truth is, even they struggle. The ‘look-how-great-I-am’ culture of social media makes showing our weaknesses a taboo, so to an outsider this lifestyle may seem easy-peasy. Remember: it’s far from true.
6. It’s very likely that your friends, family and coworkers won’t understand why you’re putting yourself through all this. To me, competition prep proved harder than marathon training, and even marathoners get some puzzled comments on why they have to work out so much. If you’ve decided that you really, really want to do this, you’ll need to brush off the naysayers, hopefully in a polite, non-confrontational manner. However, keep in mind that those closest to us often see more than we do, so if your partner or best friend points out that you’re developing an eating disorder, or that you’ve lost too much weight, please evaluate their comments.
So this is what I’ve learned when I briefly stepped on the path of training for a bikini competition. If you’ve ever trained and competed in such contest – I’d love to hear your thoughts about how you managed to do so! Especially if you had similar struggles and happened to overcome them – please share your thoughts below! Or if you’d rather keep the discussion private, please email me at veganrunnereats (AT) gmail (DOT) com.
What’s next for me fitness-wise? I’m not inspired to train for another running race just yet, and I still love lifting weights, so I’m planning to continue a weightlifting routine with 4 workouts a week plus (hopefully) 2 days of some running or other type of cardio. I’ll keep my lifting workouts to 1.5 hours max, which gets me home at a decent hour in the evening and keeps my stress levels in check. Let’s see where this routine will take me!
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