My journey to the stage: the highs, the lows and the reality

A few years ago I decided to enter a fitness comp to see firsthand what sports nutrition and the lead up to the stage involved. It is exactly three years ago today I took to the stage.

I always knew I would write a blog about my journey but never felt comfortable in doing so. I have many friends who continue to follow the sport, thrive and love it. This is in no way discrediting the sport, I am simply pointing out the fact that we are all unique and sometimes things don’t work out for others the same. 

I am sharing my journey to let others know just how important it is to understand and listen to our bodies and that there are very real risks associated with intense training and restrictive dieting.

Here is my story…. 

5 months out from the fitness comp my journey began.  I became familiar with the friendly faces and free weights at the gym. The first part of my journey included:

  • Weight lifting; 
  • HIIT training;
  • Meal planning; and
  • Tracking and counting calories (which was new for me).

After the first few weeks, I felt amazing! My body was transforming before my eyes. Not only did I look stronger but I had all the confidence in the world, clear headed, so much energy and above all, my self-doubt and anxiety were non-existent! I could do anything, be anything! It was like a drug and I wanted more. This girl was on fire!

My days were now not only filled with motherly chores (particularly with a toddler), running a business and studying full-time but I was now rushing from task to task to make sure I had meals ready to take wherever I went.  The gym was only a fraction of what was involved, most results were through changes in diet and mindset.  I could do this… right? With loads more energy, this wasn’t too hard to keep up with, I was super mum, or so I thought.

As we neared the comp, I began to fork out money left right and centre (it isn’t a cheap sport).  Association membership, coaching, posing lessons, outfit, shoes, hair, makeup, nails, spray tan, supplements, protein powders etc.  I had spent so much time fitting everything into my busy schedule, it then hit me. I had to get up on stage in front of all those people! Cue the anxiety. For those who know me, I am introverted by nature and to get up on stage and pose in front of everyone was completely out of my comfort zone.

This was, for me, the biggest challenge I had to face so far throughout the journey. I would practice my poses again and again (even in the shower), with each category having certain pose requirements.  My kids thought I was nuts. It became routine to weigh myself (which I had never really done before) and I began to build up a fear of high calorie foods and carbs.  Low body fat percentage and abs out was a requirement to get up on stage as well as a high level of muscular definition and even physique symmetry. 

…”99% of my thoughts were about food”…

As the comp grew nearer, I began to restrict foods further in order to get to a certain body fat percentage. I told myself, I could do this… but out of nowhere… my energy started to deplete and my weight training was going backwards. We upped my calories with fats and protein as my body was extremely efficient at burning calories.  My coach was very hands on and helped me every step of the way. My body was just not keeping up like everyone else on the same journey. Something wasn’t right. 

I began having vivid dreams about ice cream, cake and hot chips. I would stare at people eating delicious carb loaded foods. I could have written my own recipe book with the amount of food pages I had shared or saved for when I walked off the stage. 99% of my thoughts were about food. Was it time to eat again? What would I eat when I got off the stage? I started baking all the time. I couldn’t eat it, but I just wanted to bake – which worked out well for my family. 

I realise now those thoughts and feelings were the same experienced in POW concentration camps. When experiments of starvation were undertaken, the men had exactly the same thoughts and dreams! My body was screaming out “Feed me!”  Not fat, not protein but carbs! Lots of carbs! It was even talking to me in my dreams. The body’s main source of energy is from glucose and it wanted it sooooo badly. But I was eating! I was eating lots of food. In fact, 2600 calories plus a day…just not what the body actually wanted. 

“…it had been months since I had my period.”

As my body fat went down, my muscle definition became more defined but it had been months since I had my period. Athletic amenorrhea is common in women athletes from intense exercise and low body fat. I was almost at the stage so I powered through much to the discretion of loved ones around me.

People, including strangers, would comment on how fit and amazing I looked but I just didn’t feel amazing anymore, I felt tired and rundown. In fact, I felt angry… really really angry. I had hot flushes at night. I had insomnia. I had put so much effort into getting to where I was, I couldn’t give up right? I felt like I had to prove to myself I could do this! On the outside I looked super fit and confident but on the inside I was tired, sick and screaming.

One morning, before school drop off, I got so angry. I could feel the rage firing up inside me. My eldest son came up to me and said he was scared, he didn’t like the person I had become. This ripped my heart out. What was I doing?! Who had I become!? Why was I so angry over silly little things!?  It was like the rage had taken over my body and I couldn’t control it.

“…I started to have a constant dull ache in my right side.”

A few weeks out from comp I started to have a constant dull ache in my right side. At first I thought it was stomach cramps from something I was eating but it got worse. I thought, it must be a stomach ulcer. I drove myself into the hospital, the first time I had actually listened to my body and took action. It was at this point I realised something was really wrong. I had doctors questioning me about the levels of alcohol I drink, any drugs I take, whether I live alone and my state of mind.  I was so confused.  I don’t drink and I definitely don’t do drugs.  I have always been a really health conscious person.

My mum arrived at this point, and my brave confident face was gone. There were tears and I was scared. The doctor came in and said “you have hypoglycemia and acute liver failure”.  As those words came out of the doctor’s mouth I felt like that fire within me was put out, I was down and defeated. My liver!?

My mum and I spent the night in hospital as we awaited further blood tests.  There were many tears, not just for myself, but for being so ignorant, selfish and stupid. For everything I had done over the past few months and what I had put my family through.  I felt foolish.  The hospital spoke to me as if I had an eating disorder and started asking me questions into my eating habits and my body image.  As I began to reflect, I was showing signs of said disorder and my relationship with food was not considered normal.  My behaviour over the past few months had been so focused on my exterior, not the interior.  I think deep down, I really wanted to go back to the way I felt at the beginning of the comp prep. For someone who has suffered with anxiety disorder her whole life, to have that feeling gone was just the most amazing thing. Having no self-doubt really opens up every door in our lives.  

I decided to give up, not just for my own health, but for my family. I came home, ate the biggest bowl of porridge I had ever had, loaded with honey.  It was the most amazing thing ever and my body loved every mouthful.  I spent a few days reflecting on what choices I had made and how they impacted on my life and those around me. With all the support of family, coach and friends I decided to still go to the stage, maintaining what muscle I had while treating my liver, in which treatment involved rest, nourishment and avoiding what got me there in the first place. I stopped pushing myself beyond limits and started listening to my body.  Nourishing it with complex carbohydrates, liver loving foods, reducing the amount of fats, taking quality supplements and plant based proteins.

Life is a journey, albeit not where I originally planned on going but nevertheless, a journey. I made it to the stage (with a little less muscle definition and little more fat) and took out third place in my division. My boys were so proud of me but even more happy they had their mum back.

 

Our past should not deter or defeat us.  I believe it strengthens who we are.  My past is what has led me to where I am today. I spent the last few years recovering from adrenal dysfunction, thyroid imbalance, being kind to my liver and balancing my hormones (it took 6 months for my period to come back). My body was not equipped to take on the extreme pressures that come with intense exercise and dieting.

I’ve learnt to slow down, listen to my body and appreciate life for what it is.  

I met so many amazing people along my journey and learnt a lot about myself and the inner strength I have. There were so many positives I gained from doing a fitness comp but unfortunately, my body took a turn for the worse. It doesn’t happen to everyone but it does happen.

Having a “perfect” toned body may be achievable for many with a lot of self-restraint and motivators, but it may not be sustainable. Over time it does put a lot of pressure on our organs, can disrupt our hormones and change our relationship with food. If you do decide to enter a competition I would highly recommend you see what level your health is at prior to entering, monitor your health throughout and listen to body signs and symptoms. Too much protein, carbs or fat (even good fat) can be damaging to the body, and many supplements in the fitness industry can be harmful to our organs including the gut, kidneys and liver.  

Would I do another fitness competition?

At this stage, no. I have many friends who do enter these comps regularly and absolutely enjoy it. They are some of the most inspirational and nicest people I have ever met. It really does give you a great boost of confidence and you really have the strength and energy to inspire and help those around you achieve more out of life. Remember, it is a sport not a lifestyle. That being said, it is your body and your choice what you do with it. Don’t judge others for their choices – it is far from showing off bodies on a stage. It is a personal journey both physically and mentally and takes a lot of strength.

Sammy x

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