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How to manage a post-show diet

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Eric Helms is a pro natural bodybuilder, raw powerlifter and a coach at 3D Muscle Journey. He lives in Auckland, New Zealand.

If your post-contest diet strategy is nothing more than a list of restaurants you want to hit, you need to make a better plan. It is often very hard to think about anything other than the show, but the transitional period from your pre-contest to off-season diet can sometimes be the hardest part of the entire process. Just ask anyone who has competed.

To put it into perspective for those who haven’t competed, a case study of a six-month natural bodybuilding contest preparation diet of an experienced professional competitor found a seven-fold increase in mood disturbance from baseline[1]. That’s a lot of stress. So consider that many competitors report that the period immediately after prep where they try to transition back to the offseason is actually a more stressful experience.

After my first season I put on 22kg in two months, struggled with binge eating, depression and spent the next six months in and out of cutting trying to mitigate the damage. It was a terrible experience. Yes, prep was hard, but that really, really sucked.

The reason it’s harder to stick to your diet right after the show is because your body and mind are still in pre-contest diet mode, and will be for a while, but mentally you are no longer handcuffed to the knowledge that you’re going to have to stand on a stage in your Speedos. So you rationalise yourself out of the need to stay on top of your nutritional intake because next season is so far off.

Making a plan
You need to set goals and have a plan and you need to stay focused enough, yet also learn to relax. And that’s where proper preparation comes in. Having a more flexible[2] and less restrictive[3] approach to dieting can make it more effective for fat loss[4] and reduce the mental stress of the diet[5], which will allow you to get back to a state of mental and physical balance faster after a tough pre-contest prep.

Because the post-contest phase is so important, when you or your client is a couple of months out from a contest that’s when you need to start thinking about what happens immediately after the show and how it transitions to the off season. Let me hammer this home: you need to have a plan.

I have found as a rough rule of thumb that the length of the ‘danger zone’ – the time where you’re at high risk for binge-eating, gaining a lot of body fat, and subsequently feeling depressed and potentially feel the need to start dieting again to compensate – is roughly half the prep length, at most. So, if your prep was six months and you can make it three months post-show and haven’t had a meltdown in terms of your relationship with food and general happiness, then you have probably made it through this danger zone.

Dealing with pre-contest neuroses
One important aspect is that while we have a lot of willpower and drive, it’s not a limitless supply. If you burn out your willpower during prep then you’re going to have nothing left for the off season, and it’s during the off season where shows are won and lost.

What’s my point? It’s that most people need to learn to relax a little more during prep, and have a more structured approach in the off season. Why? Because flexibility and an ability to relax during prep reserves energy for the post-show period

Many bodybuilders get more neurotic when they diet[6] and it gets worse as they get leaner and diet longer[7]. They start off pretty good, and going 5g of carbs over or under their macronutrient targets is no big deal, but after a little while they have to hit it exactly spot-on, and then suddenly they’re even counting their Splenda packets, or worry about what to do with that grain of rice that fell off the scale.
Why does this happen during prep? It’s all about control. We are doing something that is hard, that we are emotionally attached too, and we’re scared of failure. And we are living it 24/7, so we are trying to assert more control.

Staying sane
It’s not that this type of behaviour is intrinsically ‘bad’, you’re just trying to maintain sanity during this period. You’re trying to take more control to try and stay sane.

But when we talk about reverse dieting, it means that these food-related neuroses that occur during prep – these OCD-like behaviours – also need to be reversed. It’s not just about calorie and cardio reversal, you need to attend to the behavioural side of things in a gradual way so you aren’t immediately confronted by a sense of being in an abyss right after the show, which is a time when bingeing is very likely to occur[8].
That’s why depression can kick in and you gain weight quickly and are no closer to getting any life balance than you were during prep.

Gradual management
You want to get back to being a human being so reverse dieting, while physical, is primarily psychological, and changes need to be managed gradually. It takes time to become crazy, so it takes a little time to get uncrazy. You need to get yourself psychologically ok with that. And that takes time and practice.
You’re likely to be on auto-pilot mode the day after the show and start to measure your carbs before thinking do I need to do this or should I? And suddenly your mind is all over the place trying to figure out the best course of action.

The approach one needs should be intentional, and gradual. For example, starting this week, I’ll stop weighing my Splenda. Starting next week, I’ll have one meal out, and still track macros, but I won’t weigh my food at this meal. This needs to be an intentional plan of action. You shouldn’t just let eating happen haphazardly right away or it will very likely turn into binge eating.

Keep it simple
As I mentioned earlier, after my first competitive season I got fat fast. So my plan for the following post-season phase was simply ‘don’t get fat’. That’s about as complicated as it got. That was my only goal. And I succeeded, and then in my third competitive season I was finally able to stay a bit leaner and be more intentional with my eating beyond just avoiding obesity. But it took me three seasons and nine shows to get to a point where that was possible.

Don’t expect to be perfect the first time. In fact, your first reverse dieting plan should accommodate the likelihood that you are going to go off the rails and binge. That’s just the reality. And if you don’t binge once or twice during prep, you’re definitely going to afterwards.

Avoid knee-jerk reactions
If we know that binges are going to happen and they become part of the plan, this prevents any knee-jerk reactions, such as suddenly feeling guilty then cutting again, or restarting your reverse diet. So when you binge, don’t assume you need to diet again or that you’ve blown the plan. Just forget it, sleep on it, and get back on the diet the next day. It takes faith. It’s very emotionally stressful. You need to stay on the plan and trust the process. When you created your reverse diet plan you were sane, collected, intentional and thought it through in a rational way. So, don’t go changing it now that you’re temporarily insane after a binge.

You need to remember that in the off-season you’re just trying to create a nutritional environment for growth through training. When you’re deep into the offseason, you’ve got this footpath to walk. It’s broad and you might not even notice whether you’ve eaten 100g of carbs less than normal or not. You’ve got glycogen stores a plenty, another 10-20lbs of fat on your body, and 100g might only be one-quarter of your daily intake of carbs. It doesn’t really matter in the same way that 10g of carbs can during prep, when everything you do matters more.

The speed of change
Physiologically we want the fastest transition as possible. We want to get back to normal quickly, but as fast as we’d like the transition to normal to be, it’s not going to be that quick. It’s not about prolonging the transition either and trying to stay as shredded for as long as possible. It’s about gradually getting you to the level of control you need to become balanced again.

There is a slight caveat. While I am a fan of being gradual in your return to normalcy for the offseason, I do believe there needs to be a ‘first jump’ with regards to energy intake. Adding 1g of fat and 5g of carbs for ten years to get back to pre-prep behaviour isn’t a smart approach. That’s crazy. So for the majority of clients I will take them right back to where they started.

Six months ago their diet started at 250g carbs and 70g of fat on low days with three days of cardio, which then dropped to 150g and 40g respectively before the show, and they got up to twice-a-day cardio. So, as an example, I might cut the cardio in half and bring them back to 250g carbs and 70g fat. Let’s be honest: even if they gain weight doing this, then that is weight they needed to gain.

The goal is not to say shredded and to stay lean while adding calories. The goal is to have the best off-season possible to start the next prep in the best position possible. This ‘first jump’ may not add much body fat, or it might add a modest amount. If it does and it’s not something the person can handle mentally, then make the first jump slightly less by reducing calories by 10-20% from the start point, which is still a decent jump. Once weight stabilises, then it becomes a much more gradual process based on how they look and the weight on the scales.

But remember, it’s not just about macros, it’s primarily about behaviour. My goal is to get the person sane again as soon as possible so they can have an awesome off-season.

1 Rossow, L.M., et al., Natural bodybuilding competition preparation and recovery: a 12-month case study. International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, 2013: p. [Epub ahead of print].
2 Stewart, T.M., D.A. Williamson, and M.A. White, Rigid vs. flexible dieting: association with eating disorder symptoms in nonobese women. Appetite, 2002. 38(1): p. 39-44.
3 Loria-Kohen, V., et al., Evaluation of the usefulness of a low-calorie diet with or without bread in the treatment of overweight/obesity. Clinical Nutrition, 2012. 31(4): p. 455-461.
4 Smith, C.F., et al., Flexible vs. Rigid dieting strategies: relationship with adverse behavioral outcomes. Appetite, 1999. 32(3): p. 295-305.
5 Westenhoefer, J., et al., Cognitive and weight-related correlates of flexible and rigid restrained eating behaviour. Eating Behaviors, 2013. 14(1): p. 69-72.
6,8 Andersen, R.E., et al., Weight loss, psychological, and nutritional patterns in competitive male body builders. Int J Eat Disord, 1995. 18(1): p. 49-57.
7 University of Minnesota. Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene. and A.B. Keys, The biology of human starvation. 1950, Minneapolis,: University of Minnesota Press. 2v. (1385p.).

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