Is competition preparation unhealthy and what can we do stay as healthy as possible as a competitor?
Competition prep doesn't need to be unhealthy but it really depends on the individual and how they deal with certain aspects of preparation in and out of contest.
Firstly we need to understand that in order to compete you sometimes need to take your body beyond it's limits particularly if you have a hard time getting lean, building and retaining muscle or are not consistent with diet, it is under these circumstances that unfortunately not the healthiest of choices are made. The stage 'look' often requires a lower body fat level than most people's bodies naturally are uncomfortable with. Some athletes may find during competition season menstruation may stop, this is not always the case however, it certainly isn't for me and a large number of the athletes I train, but does and can happen usually due to low oestrogen levels and stress to the body.
I have been competing for five years with no health complications to mention. I have found as an athlete and a trainer consistency is the key to staying as healthy as you can be whilst competing. I have trained a huge number of women and competitive bikini fitness athletes who are perfectly healthy whose weight doesn't fluctuate greatly in and out of contest, however there is no denying that there have been some cases where competing just isn't for them both physically and emotionally.
The most important factor in staying healthy is diet and nutrition. It is important to not yoyo diet, binge, starve or over eat because in time you can slow your metabolism. The biggest mistake a competitor can make is putting on a lot of weight after a show. Your body will be more susceptible to gaining weight after a period of low calories and stress. It is important therefore to increase calories slowly and gradually. This is easier said than done in most cases. We also need to remember that you had to work hard to be stage shape and if you stop working hard and return to your 'old' eating habits then your body won't stay the same, having said that trying to remain stage lean all year isn't particularly healthy either.
The next biggest mistake is setting a deadline which is unrealistic or too soon to get the weight off either from the beginning or after a contest. I have advised competitors in the past to pull out of shows or that they are not ready to compete or simply need more time but if the competitor is insistent then they will find themselves doing more and more cardiovascular training, eating less and less calories and resorting to an array of fat burners to make a date. This practise does result in a slowed metabolic rate as the body tries to protect itself.
Some people also find if they 'diet' for long and sustained periods of time that their body will stop responding, as mentioned before we are taking our body to it's limits and body fat needs to be lower than the average person, sporting athlete or model. Most people's bodies will resist dropping Bodyfat once it reaches a certain point. This is generally essential fat which is required for hormonal function. It is common to just keep on cutting calories and adding more training at this point, whilst this may or may not work short term, it can slow metabolic processes down and cause someone to hold onto body fat while eating less and less.
My best advice is to give yourself enough time to prepare so you are not in a position to need to severely cut calories. If you find a particular diet is not working after a certain period of time, maybe it needs changing rather than simply cutting calories. For example you might be eating a carbohydrate rich diet with relatively low fats so you might find switching over to a diet higher in fat and lower in carbs and proteins may help you.
Doing the same type of training over and over again has a similar affect. Your body will get used to whatever you do, it will become more efficient at a particular type of exercise. I would recommend changing up your resistance program periodically and making sure you do not do the same type of cardiovascular training everyday, the key is to mix it up, maybe you could rotate steady state, intervals and HIIT. Instead of adding more minutes, maximise the time you do have. Having said this, a deadline that is too short, is too short end of story and there aren't many 'healthy' practises than be employed at this stage.
Take responsibility your own actions, recognise if you have been over eating, binging or are putting on excessive amounts of weight. Recognise if you have an unhealthy relationship with food, which is extremely common in female athletes across the board. If you have a show coming up that is unrealistic, move your show date to the next one. Stay consistent with your nutrition don't over eat and don't do extra cardio to make up for it or binge then starve the next day. Have regular health checks and blood tests to make sure you have no pre-existing conditions or what you are doing is not affecting you adversely. If you are doing the same cardio everyday then do something different. Pay attention to what you are doing and make sure your goal is realistic. If you have been training for less than a year, it's unlikely you will end up looking like a professional athlete at the end of twelve weeks, no matter who your coach is or how hard you are willing to work. If you aim for longevity in bikini fitness competitions it is important not to rush the process. Sometimes it's easy to caught up emotionally and set yourself a deadline then complain when you don't make it or have to train harder or longer to make it or wind up worse off for it. It is very easy to blame someone or something if things didn't go well but you must first look at your own practises. As an adult you have a choice, granted there are many trainers and coaches out there that give advice that might or might not work for you but its important to stay in tune with yourself and stay honest about what you are doing and what is realistic to achieve. Competing is not easy and it's certainly not for everyone, achieving a high standard physique does not happen over night.
There however, many positives to competing that shouldn't be lost sight of, I for one have found mainly positive experiences during the time I have competed. There have been ups and downs of course but I am thankful to have found a love for 'fitness' and weight training and all of the people I have met along the way. I have learnt a lot about the human mind and body through my own training and training a number of other, things that cannot be learnt from a textbook. I have travelled the World competing in Europe, Russia and USA, I am passionate about Bikini Fitness and am happy I am able to share my experiences with others.