SThe pursuit of a stage worthy physique is undoubtedly one of the more extreme endeavours an athlete can voluntarily put themselves through, and the accompanying stress without due diligence in how it’s handled, is the downfall of many. Semi-starvation isn’t a walk in the park, and appropriate prevention/management strategies for contest prep are necessary to minimise negative outcomes during prolonged periods of energy restriction.
In this article I will first outline the basics of what stress is and how it effects athletes during contest prep. I will then share the pre-contest and contest prep strategies that we use at JPS to help our athletes and competitors manage and preclude some of the preventable and burdensome strain that may arise during their quest for the stage.
What is stress?
Stress is the body’s natural reaction to an intrinsic or extrinsic stimulus that shifts the body away from equilibrium into a more sympathetic state.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work involuntarily as part of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system is designed to prepare the body for stress or injury. Some acute physiological responses related to sympathetic nervous system up-regulation include increased heat rate, increased ventilation and vasoconstriction to the digestive system in order to bias blood flow to skeletal muscle. In comparison, the parasympathetic nervous system controls functions of the body at rest. Both systems work in tandem in order to maintain homeostasis in the body.
There is no shortage of scientific evidence that reiterates that exposure to stressors may have detrimental effects to both the physiological and psychological wellbeing of an individual, with the ramifications being diverse in regards to how they manifest. Mental cognition, immune system function and gastrointestinal function, among other things, may all be impaired due to excessive stress build-up in the athlete’s life and are all very real consequences for physique athletes in contest prep. A compromised final product is inevitable if distress is present, with the worst-case scenario being the termination of the athlete’s competitive aspirations and potential health implications.
Stress in some shape or form will accompany the body’s shift away from homeostasis. Thus, an element of strain is desirable if adaptation is the goal, with fat loss being one of adaptations pursued through energy restriction and the primary objective of a contest prep. However, the repercussions of stress can be minimised through deliberately applied interventions, for example proactive periods of caloric maintenance (diet breaks) to minimise the fatigue associated with calorie deficits.
Furthermore, when possible, action should be taken with the intention of precluding unnecessary stress to accumulate. Fundamental to such interventions is an awareness of the relationship between current and future environmental factors – such as cognizance of the phase of the contest prep and the potential side effects of that phase along with strategies to minimise unfavourable outcomes. For example, in the digging phase of a contest prep where an athlete is well below their body fat settling point range, and stress at its highest, tools to manage insatiable hunger, lethargy, irritability, decreased sex drive, interrupted sleep and mood disturbances are all but necessary for upholding the athlete’s adherence and wellbeing. This example demonstrates how pivotal the athlete’s understanding of themselves, their environment, and the relationship between the two entities is and why their ability to implement control over the potentially derailing circumstances they will inevitably encounter during a contest prep is vital to their success.
Strategies for stress prevention/management
The following are strategies that I have used in my own contest prep experience to maintain some form of order in my life and ensure that the stress I encountered was as deliberate and controlled as it could be. During my physique prep I had to micromanage my time and my stress efficiently to keep up with working two jobs, managing a client list and living in a slightly chaotic home environment. My forethought and diligence ensured that I put myself in a position to get the best out of my physique in my three shows, while not compromising other important aspects of my life.
Pre-contest prep stress management.
- Research – An absolute prerequisite to undergoing a contest prep is doing the foundational research to understand the exact nature of the task which you are about to attempt. One of the best ways to do this is to visit a bodybuilding show in person, and by speaking to numerous athletes and coaches about their perceptions and experiences. The experiences and perceptions of bodybuilding through the lens of Instagram and fitness influencers should be consumed with extreme caution, as these highlight reels do little to portray the discomfort and sacrifice necessary to succeed in this sport.
- Education – Although being educated has never been and will never be a prerequisite for an athlete, a little bit of knowledge can go a long way. Becoming familiar with the basic principles of training and nutrition will be of assistance by ensuring that the athlete understands how and why their nutrition and exercise interventions are getting them from point A to point B.
- Communication – Effective communication, not only with a coach, but with friends and family is imperative to laying the foundations for a contest prep. Making sure that the coach has the correct feedback before the process even begins will result in what is hopefully a smooth start to a process where momentum is a valuable asset. Furthermore, by successfully communicating both the nature of the sport and the potential obstacles you will face to those in your immediate environment, you go a long way to avoiding probable miscommunications.
- Organising significant variables – Although it may go without saying, one does not have any business embarking on a contest prep if they are already struggling with the stressors of everyday life. Relationships, work and one’s financial situation are all factors which may negatively impact one’s ability to obtain a stage worthy physique due to the both the levels of mental and physical exertion required, as well as the time demands of these external factors. Measures should be taken to ensure that you’re starting a prep healthy, energized and stress free, with a clear run towards the finish line because you’ve done your best to minimise or remove potential obstacles in your future.
Prep stress management.
- Food – Food and hunger are without a doubt one of the most stressful components of semi-starvation, particularly towards the end of a contest prep when energy and body fat are at their lowest point and the athlete is at their most vulnerable, both physically and psychologically. To minimise decision fatigue from a food standpoint, an athlete should establish a balance between rigid and flexible dieting early in the prep. Rigidity will ensure that they have minimal decisions to make on a day to day basis, and the incorporation of flexibility will ensure that adherence is not compromised if circumstances call for a deviation in the rigid dieting process.
Keeping meal time consistent on a day to day basis and eating in a stress-free environment is another component which can offer great benefits for physique athletes. Allocating meal times to periods of time when you are at your most relaxed is important, as “high stress” periods are not only sub-optimal for digestion and nutrient assimilation, but are also usually associated with lower levels of hunger due to the athlete being focused on other objectives. Attempt to allow 30-45 minutes for meals, eating mindfully with undivided attention. Even though hunger may be extreme, chew your food purposefully to allow the enzymes in the mouth to begin breaking down the food to commence the digestive process. Altering the texture of food to ensure that you must chew thoroughly is a great method to ensure that meals are not inhaled.
“As a physique athlete, you are volunteering to undergo this process. Practise gratitude, and remember that the conscious decision to restrict food is a great privilege, enjoyed by few.”
- Sleep – Sleep is imperative for cognitive and physical function even when not in a calorie deprived state in order to avoid decreases in functions such as cognitive performance and mood, glucose metabolism, appetite regulation and immune function (Halson, 2014). Therefore, sleep duration and quality should be regarded as an utmost priority for the duration of a contest prep. If you are serious about your goals, 7-9 quality hours should be a minimum in regards to sleep duration, and measures should be taken in order to maximise sleep quality. Reverse engineering your sleep procedure, the process of allocating a specific wake time and working backwards to establish an ideal time to fall asleep is a great starting point.
From here, you should allow yourself however much “limbo” time is necessary (the state between lying in bed consciously trying to fall asleep and falling asleep). A pre-sleep routine can also be used to great effect; engaging in non-stimulating behaviour such as reading (non-stimulating reading material) or meditation in an attempt to shift the body to a more parasympathetic state. Also, ensure that stressors are minimised as bedtime approaches; less screen time, less social media, and putting your phone on do not disturb mode. A conscious effort should also be made to ensue your sleeping environment is conducive to high quality sleep. A cool, dark, clean room is ideal. Furthermore, due to physique athletes having a proclivity to consume copious amounts of caffeine in the form of coffee, energy drinks, fat burners and pre-workouts, effort should be made to set limits on the amount of caffeine that is consumed on a daily basis. Furthermore, biasing caffeine towards the beginning of the day to minimise the effect it has on sleep dysregulation can be beneficial. Supplementation may also be used to enhance one’s ability to sleep, and Ian McCarthy has written extensively on utilising supplements such as melatonin (https://www.jpshealthandfitness.com.au/the-truth-about-melatonin-dosing/ ) and KSM-66 (https://www.jpshealthandfitness.com.au/supplement-in-the-spotlight-2-ksm-66-ashwagandha-root-extract/ ) to enhance sleep quality.
- Organization skills – Time and energy are both finite resources. This is never more apparent than in a contest prep when your to-do list is at an all time high and your mood and energy at an all-time low. Having a plan to get the most out of your day, such as scheduling daily tasks and a “to-do list” with tasks divided into high priority and low priority will assist in conceptualizing how you’re going to remain productive through these times of low vigour. Furthermore, by separating tasks into “high energy” and “low energy tasks” you can ensure that you adopt a “work when you’re hot” approach to your day. This could mean doing the brunt of your work that requires a large degree of mental cognition in the morning after breakfast and caffeine, while leaving the dishes and vacuuming to a time when brain function is below par.
As an athlete, you must take responsibility for yourself and your actions. It is both your role to manage your own stress, while ensuring that you do everything in your power to manage your environment. If you can minimise stress and maintain a clear, calculated mindset, your decision-making skills will remain sharp through the length of prep, increasing your likelihood of success and decreasing your chances of having to endure unnecessary burdens.
“We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them” – Epictetus
In closing, stress is not the devil and by no means is it completely avoidable, it is a by-product of energy restriction, losing body mass and training hard to retain muscle. All of which are part and parcel with the process of obtaining a stage winning physique. That being said, when looking to endure one of the most challenging endeavours, both physically and mentally, athletes and coaches must be informed and well prepared to ensure that avoidable stress is prevented, and the unescapable strain of contest preparation isn’t overly burdensome or heighten the likelihood of negative experiences during an athlete’s journey!
Halson, S. (2014). Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine, 44(S1), pp.13-23.