Rebounding You’re a fitness enthusiast about to enter your first competition. You’ve talked to other competitors, read about contest preparation, studied the diets of the champions, and pored over lists of tips and tricks. Music has been chosen and your choreography is in the works. Water intake is up, protein is the staple of your diet and you’ve clocked so many miles at the gym you’re thinking about buying your own treadmill. Hip to the inside scoop on posing, tanning, and walking on stage, your confidence is high. Your mind is firmly focused on taking home the trophy. But are you prepared for what happens after the contest? There is a dirty little secret associated with fitness and bodybuilding competition that before now hasn’t been discussed — the virtually universal post-contest rebound effect. Familiar with the term “yo-yo” dieting? It’s not just your mother’s nightmare; even bodybuilding and fitness champions will gain weight after they stop the highly restrictive diets that are required to achieve the extremely low body fat levels they need to be competitive. It is a consequence that is almost never talked about, and therefore, rarely anticipated. Strict competition diets and training programs work, even for non-competitors. But the extreme results can’t — and shouldn’t — last forever. Anyone who is considering entering a competition should be prepared to deal with the physical and, more importantly, the emotional impact of returning to a more normal eating program. The goal of pre-contest dieting is to lose as much fat as possible, and to achieve this, most competitors undergo a highly restricted eating and exercise plan that starts 12 to 16 weeks before the competition. As the macronutrient balance shifts toward high protein, moderate carbs and low fat, the competitor’s body begins to shed both fat and water. As the intensity of the precontest diet increases, the competitor’s mind compiles a list of foods that she can’t wait to eat when the show is over. Most athletes want to celebrate, or simply reward months of sacrifice with a feast right after the competition. Some will take their indulgence a step further and immediately resume an offseason diet. This type of competitor may also stop taking the fat burners that helped her get through her twice daily cardio workouts, cut back on the cardio or stop altogether, and decrease the intensity of her weight training sessions. Such an abrupt change in eating patterns and workout schedules will shock the body and cause a rebound effect. While enduring a calorie restricted diet, a competitor’s body tends to go into a starvation-survival mode, which subsequently causes her metabolism to slow down. When she starts to eat a few more calories, her body will quickly store them as fat, stocking up for the next famine. Within a couple of days, her hard, lean appearance will smooth out primarily due to water being pulled into the muscles when glycogen (from carbs) floods the body. After even one week of less controlled eating and drastic reductions in her training intensity, she will regain body fat. This is the very same yo-yo effect that plagues many conventional dieters. Although the physical effects of diet rebounding could be harmful if taken to the extreme, perhaps the more significant impact is the psychological one. To a fitness or bodybuilding competitor, this kind of rebound can be emotionally devastating. She may only rebound to half as much body fat as she started with, but to someone who has been in the single digits, that small increase may feel like an enormous failure. One day, the competitor is onstage presenting her perfectly sculpted and lean physique, subjecting herself to the judgment of a panel of strangers, and within a couple of weeks, she feels fat, bloated, and self-conscious. The form fitting clothing that she bought to show off her hard work is snug, her six pack is gone and she feels embarrassed by her sudden weight gain. The judges at her competition weren’t nearly as critical of her as she is of herself at this point. “It’s amazing the kind of pressure we put on ourselves,” says personal nutritionist Keith Klein, CN, former champion bodybuilder, and founder of the Institute of Eating Management of Houston, Texas. “When you start your diet at 20% body fat and get to 15%, you’re on top of the world; from 15% to 12%, you feel like wearing only your underwear all day; then when you get to 6%, you can’t believe that you’ve reached the best condition of your life. But once you begin to rebound, you feel as fat at 10% as you did at 20%. The problem isn’t that she’s lost her willpower or control over her body; it’s that the competitor’s standards for herself are unrealistic. Rebounding is the reality. It is normal. In fact, it is a mistake to believe that one can achieve and sustain a sharp, competition look year-round. It may help to know that most of photos that fill the pages of health and fitness magazines are taken at competition time, and are not indicative of how even champion competitors look in the off-season. “Competition shape is unnatural,” says Labrada, former world champion professional bodybuilder and a past winner of the IFBB Mr. Universe, and founder and President of Labrada Bodybuilding Nutrition. “Your body has a thermostat — and it seeks to maintain its body fat level around a constant amount.” Patty Urrutia, age 30, didn’t know how to transition from pre-competition to post-competition eating after her first Miss Fitness contest in 1994. “I had worked so hard to achieve my physique, and I didn’t want to lose it,” she said. “I wanted to continue with the high protein diet, but I also wanted to eat some of the foods that I missed. I ended up doubling the amount of calories that I needed and gained a lot of weight.” Patty competed in another Miss Fitness and two Galaxy contests after that, going through the rebound cycle each time. After her last contest in 1998, she realized that she would rather return to a more normal eating routine than to make the sacrifices necessary to keep her body fat at 7%. She now maintains a healthy, feminine physique at around 16% body fat, and allows herself to indulge in what she calls “fun foods” in moderation. “I don’t want food to be a focal point, just a part of my healthy lifestyle.” For some, the only way to reverse a rebound and a corresponding sense of failure is to begin another competition diet. Whereas winning, placing or simply entering a contest used to be the goal, now they become the means to an unattainable goal — physical perfection. Laryn McCandless, age 22, will have competed nine times in three years by the end of 2001— including a bodybuilding competition, four Galaxy competitions, two NPC fitness contests and an upcoming NPC Figure competition, a Women’s Tri-Fitness and the Fitness America pageant. Although she’s experienced the rebound each time, the emotional impact is still significant. “It’s hard to watch yourself gain weight, and then look at your competition pictures,” she says. “I feel guilty and unhappy.” Laryn has decided to win the rebound battle by avoiding it completely. In effect, she plans to convert her precontest diet into a strict lifestyle that allows for few days off. Unfortunately, for women, there are health risks associated with having too little body fat. Some of these risks include hypothermia, vitamin toxicity, cessation of the menstrual cycle, and osteoporosis. Hal Louis, founder of Better Reflections: Fitness through Strategic Training, Inc. believes that a female athlete should carry enough body fat to maintain her menstrual cycle. “You must take your health into consideration,” he says. “You can still look great at 14-16% body fat.” So how can a competitor avoid this emotional rollercoaster? “The solution lies mainly in adopting a more realistic, accepting view of your body,” says Klein. “You need to realize that 10% or 12% or 15% body fat is totally acceptable — especially since you felt good about yourself when you first got there on the way down to your competition shape.” An athlete must go into a competition knowing that she is trying to achieve a temporary condition of leanness, and accept that her body fat will return to a more natural level. With this in mind, she can prepare for a smooth transition, extending the discipline she’s gained from dieting and training for competition into a healthy program that she can maintain for life. Sidebar: Advice from Experts: How to Control a Rebound Lee Labrada: When done correctly, a methodical reduction in the amount of carbohydrates can help you achieve your ideal shape. To maintain your physique after a competition, you have to follow the natural laws of metabolism: base your diet on small, frequent feedings, consume adequate protein to maintain muscle mass (the foundation of metabolism) and manipulate carbohydrate and fat calories to meet your energy needs. Keith Klein, founder of the Institute of Eating Management: Even if your intentions are to stay lean after a contest, when you start eating more normally, your brain is going to turn up your appetite. The body doesn’t know the difference between true starvation and the purposeful withholding of food. Have an exit strategy with a formula that will work for you. For example, when the competition is over, celebrate and eat whatever you want that night and for brunch the next day. But on Monday, resume your clean eating, except for a “cheat day” once per week. Hal Louis, founder of Better Reflections: If it took you 12 weeks to get into contest shape, allow at least 8 weeks to return to an eating program that you can maintain for life, slowly adding back small portions of “normal” food. Continue with your cardio and weight training, and strive to stay within 10-15 lbs. of your competition weight. Remember that you have achieved what millions fail to do every day!