I contemplated writing just 1 article about metabolic damage, but as I began to write this month, I found that I could break this topic up into 2, 3, and even 4 parts. So, for Part I today, I am going to focus on the definition of metabolic damage and how it occurs. Next month I’ll focus on how to reverse the damage and how to get yourself on the road to recovery. I will even provide names of industry experts who deal with this stuff on a daily basis.
This article will likely ruffle some feathers in the competition circuit, but I don’t really care. There is enough awareness of the issue of metabolic damage that I can actually write about it and have people know what it is. The intent here is to not bash or make anyone feel ashamed for their prep choices: as competitors, we follow our coaches’ instructions down to the letter.
The problem, I think, is that most of these “trainers” don’t know what they’re doing. They use cookie-cuuter programs and shovel them out to the masses, and they all take the same approach: starvation on top of ridiculous amounts of cardio. Most competitors are control-freaks with Type A personalities, so we’re going to do what we’re told without asking any questions. In my opinion, that’s where we go wrong. We don’t ask the 1 question that 2 year olds have no problem asking 50 times a day: “Why?” My hope is that just one person can identify with what I’m about to discuss here. If I can get ONE person to wake up and for the lights to go on, I will be happy.
What is metabolic damage?
People call MD different things: adrenal fatigue, adrenal insufficiency, starvation mode, etc. It’s basically a series of metabolic, hormonal, and BEHAVIORAL
responses to extreme or prolonged calorie deprivation. The behavioral part of this is what I struggle with the most: I honestly think physique competitions and/or overly-strict dieting can cause eating disorders, especially in those who are already susceptible to them.
Your body has a tough time recognizing the difference between severe dieting and starvation, so it responds as if you were really starving: your rate of further weight loss is decreases (the scale stops moving), and you suffer from reduced energy and an increased appetite. “Eat more!” your body yells at you. Let’s take a minute to think about this and WHY the body does this. Let’s not forget that our bodies are powerful, powerful things, and they’ll do whatever is necessary to help ensure we live to see another day. Back in ye olde times, when food was scarce, the body would adapt by throwing us into this “starvation mode.” No food? No problem! The body responds to reduced calories by hanging onto literally every calorie it is given, and it actually can start to STORE body fat in order to protect your organs and your basic life functions (ie, breathing). Evolution is a hard thing to try to trick, my friends: you can’t do it. Yet, every competition season, thousands of people try to do just that.
Back to it: those suffering from MD will typically feel tired all the time, they fantasize about food non-stop (seriously, I know some people who watch Food Network like it’s porn – it’s an unhealthy obsession and part of that behavioral component I mentioned earlier), and they don’t have any energy to get off the couch (for the curious folks, do a Google search for Ancel Keys and read his numerous studies on the psychological effects of prolonged calorie deprivation – FASCINATING stuff). And, no matter how much cardio they do, they can’t seem to lose any weight. And, it seems that when they DO eat, they gain weight almost immediately. These are all signs of a major, major problem. A disclaimer: you don’t have to be a physique competitor to suffer from MD
: you can be a soccer mom who spends hours on the treadmill and eats too few calories, you can be a marathon runner who has become so efficient at running that he/she can no longer maintain a lean frame – this affects anyone and everyone who trains too much, eats too little, and continues down that path for a prolonged period of time.
How does it happen?
And here comes the part that’s going to make a lot of people say, “Hey, that’s me!” Let’s think about starvation and what that requires: PROLONGED calorie deprivation
. We’re talking months, here, folks, not just a few weeks. And one mis-managed contest prep is all it takes to throw you into metabolic despair, by the way. Most competitors “diet” for about 16 weeks, sometimes more. I know some people who have 20 week preps or more. In my honest, professional opinion, if your prep is into the double-digits, you need to find another sport. If you have THAT much weight to lose that it’s going to take you a quarter to a half a year to do it, there is a problem. IT’S NOT WORTH IT, and this amount of time is causing much of the issue. If you pick a show with the motive of, “Man, I need to lose weight! Let me do a figure competition,” YOU’RE ALREADY IN TROUBLE. If it’s sexiness you want, be sexy year-round. Train hard, eat healthy, and stay off the stage. There are some people who should never, ever compete, and they’re the ones who always choose a show for the sole purpose of losing weight. My preps are 6, 8, or 10 weeks (if I’ve really let myself go) long. And this isn’t because I’m “genetically blessed.” It’s because I don’t get fat in an off season, and that’s because I don’t prep like a fool. It all comes full-circle.
Every week of prep, clients send embarrassing progress pics to their coaches, and their coaches, in turn, make diet and exercise adjustments. ACROSS THE BOARD, the industry standard knee-jerk reaction is to cut calories (usually by eliminating carbohydrates) and to simultaneously add in steady state cardio.
I’ve already written 2 articles on my disdain for cardio, and this is why I hate it so much: any trainer with half a brain can starve and cardio the fat off of their client. It takes actual intelligence and knowledge of how the body works to coax
the body into weight loss as opposed to FORCING it. So, for 16, 18, 20, 24 etc weeks, you drop your calories and increase your cardio. When you started prep, you were eating, say, 1800 calories a day and only doing 30 minutes of cardio (still too much daily cardio in an off season, IMO). But now, 6 weeks later, and still with 14 weeks to go, you’re eating only 1100 and doing 60 minutes a day, 6 times a week. Folks, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see where this is going to end: by the end of prep, almost every competitor is eating close to 800 calories day, almost of which none are carbs, and they’re doing 2-3 hours of daily cardio, 6-7 days a week.
Think about what you’re asking your poor body to do: you’re asking it to survive on no fuel and no rest. Think back to the ye olde times I referenced earlier. You know what’s going to happen, don’t you? That’s right! Good, old metabolic shutdown. 16+ week contest preps = prolonged calorie deprivation……pure and simple.
So, as the weeks progress, you notice the scale isn’t moving as much, you notice you’re not looking any leaner, and, gasp, the show is a mere 3 weeks away! What are you going to do? Your trainer will tell you to stop cheating on your diet. They’ll eliminate all of your carbs, even post-workout, and, oh, add another 30 minutes of cardio a day, just for good measure. As you can tell, this just keeps getting worse and worse over time, until your body gives you the finger (and it’s not a matter of IF it will, it’s a matter of WHEN it will) and stops working for you all together.
Does this sound like your last contest prep? Hours of cardio? Minimal calories? Hardly any carbohydrates? Poor sleep? Headaches? Fatigue? Dizziness? I assure you, you’re not alone. I’ve actually done it, too – I am not immune to not thinking for myself. Competitors who have MD often feel ashamed, isolated, and scared. Physique competitors define themselves as being in phenomenal shape, so how can you show your face in public looking less than? Don’t hide: sharing your story is half the battle, and it will help others who are suffering in ways that you can’t even imagine. I want to stress this: you are NOT alone, and this is NOT your fault.
More to come in Part II………
Beth is an NPC and OCB figure competitor and has been competing for 3 years. When she’s not rocking the stage in her stiletto heels, she’s either at work as Project Manager at a Pharmaceutical company in Durham, NC or she’s in the gym training clients or teaching spin classes. In her very minimal free time, Beth likes to sleep, eat, play with her dog, and spend time with her friends (who also like to sleep and eat).