Metabolic Mindgames

December 10th, 2010 by

I had a light bulb moment a few weeks ago while having a discussion with a client. We were discussing metabolic damage and how much more common this is becoming these days in female competitor circles. Well, figure has been around for about seven years now and really popular for let’s say, the last four or five. Let’s also add in the fact that the ‘standard/common’ contest dieting practice is very large amounts of cardio, very low calories and in some cases, very low, or no, carbs. You know, because you can’t lose fat when you eat carbs right? (insert sarcasm). What happens after the show to the large majority? A big post-contest weight/body fat rebound. And then they diet for the next show, and it’s a bit harder and the person is thinking, “Geez, my body isn’t responding like it did last time. I have to work harder this time.” And so more cardio comes in, less calories, etc. etc. You know the story.

And thus we are NOW seeing the cumulative effect of repeated preps of this style now wrecking havoc on the metabolisms of figure competitors. And I mean wrecking havoc. To the point that some of these competitors don’t even care about competing anymore, they just want some semblance of fitness and balance back in their life. They just want to feel healthy again. Never mind the fact that nothing that used to work, works anymore as it pertains to fat loss and getting lean. What resulted in an amazing physical transformation the first few times through now results in … nothing. Why is that? Note, that’s a rhetorical question. That once, “virgin”, off-the-shelf-healthy-robust metabolism is long gone.

I’m going to talk more about the whole metabolic damage thing another time in more detail but today I want to talk about what is by far the hardest aspect of the recovery – the mental side of the coin.

The mental side of this is by far and I can’t even emphasize this enough, the hardest part of this process. But to those who have the right perspective and realize and fully accept where they are right now; those who can step back and look at the big picture, long term, the reward of getting a sense of normalcy and balance back is priceless. You can’t appreciate it, until you’ve lost it, and finally got it back. To those who can’t, well, in my opinion, there isn’t much hope for you and the issues will likely magnify with time. It doesn’t get better on its own, trust me.

I think a big issue here is denial. Simple denial that one has a serious problem on their hands. That if they just buckle down and diet harder, do more cardio, eat less than zero carbohydrates (come on, there has to be someone marketing negative carbohydrate foods out there by now) get even more hardcore, it’ll all work out. “It can’t be me”. Well yes, it actually can be you, and eventually, if you don’t start treating your body with some respect, it probably will be you, as your body is going to revolt against you big time; more than it already is. As Scott Abel has repeatedly said, “force the body and it reacts; coax the body and it responds”. Huge difference. Starving fat off is not the same as burning fat off. Working against your body is not the same as working with your body. Case in point, a while back I had a discussion with someone who essentially refused to acknowledge that something was wrong. Now this is a person who followed a very low calorie diet, did exorbitant amounts of cardio … and rebounded after her show by nearly fifty pounds. FIFTY!! Talk about a good reason to feel depressed. All that work, all that time, all that sacrifice, undone just like that … and THEN some. This is the telltale sign of a problem – a disproportionate amount of weight/fat gain for a given amount of food. That is, the weight/fat gain, doesn’t at all match the caloric intake. Everyone who shares their rebound story seems to say sure, they ate after their show, but not so much that it justifies the ridiculous weight gain. Again, a disproportionate amount of weight gain for a seemingly normal amount of calories.

So said person gets their act together and gets a good chunk of this fat back off … the same way they did the first time, until it happened. The Plateau. At this point nothing worked, absolutely nothing. More cardio, less food, no carbs, nothing. And it’s not like this person was lean and hitting a plateau either. So I hear all this and offer my 1.5 cents (it wasn’t even worth that much in this case LOL) as to what it looks like to me and what I think she needs to do. Oh heck no! And why were there no metabolic issues relevant to this person? Well, because she knows other people who do low calories, no carbs, and 2 hours of cardio per day … and they have no problems and look great. Do I need to explain the problem with this logic? I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and assume I don’t.

There is no perfect timeline for how long it takes to get a handle on metabolism again. And the sad case is that in some cases, maybe it’s simply too far gone to bring it back to that wonderfully responsive body you had when you dieted down the first time. This is one of the questions I always get, “how long will it take?” And I can certainly appreciate where this question is coming from as girls are used to being in shape and their frustration and desperation with not being in shape anymore has them anxious and impatient. But my answer, every time is, “I can’t answer that. I don’t know.” That’s me being honest and that’s an integral part of any good coaching relationship. And it’s the truth, I DON’T know, and it’s not for lack of knowledge or expertise either; no one knows. As such, I’m not going to start guessing or lying just to give someone what they want to hear. That’s not good coaching. To reference Abel again, the backbone of good coaching is truth, whether it’s easy or hard to accept.

There are a myriad of factors that come into play. A person’s innate and individual metabolic resiliency for starters – we can’t measure this. Or the degree of extremes taken during a contest dieting phase – how much cardio/training, how low were the calories, how long this protocol was being followed, etc., etc. How about, how many times the individual took their body through this type of protocol? The more times, the greater the cumulative effects, the potential issue and the longer the potential recovery. How about drug usage? Chronic dieting? Never having a structured off season where the goal is to ‘undo’ the effects of the contest dieting? A period of time with less cardio, more food, and some much needed BALANCE restored?

So you can see how the question of, “how long will it take?” is essentially impossible to answer. There is no way to forecast the timeline. All we can do is get things on track the RIGHT way, keep tabs on it, adjust as we go and exercise PATIENCE. What’s your alternative? No, really, what IS the alternative?

Which brings me back to the point – the mind game, which relates to patience. And, unfortunately, some people aren’t willing to see the bigger picture due to the blinding nature of desperation. I’ll say it again, the hardest part of metabolic recovery is the mental game and learning to be patient. The desperate need to get back in shape because you don’t like what you see can really mess you up and prevent you from ever pulling yourself out of the hole you’re in. It’s preventing you from ever getting there again. So it turns out to be a nasty vicious cycle and I honestly feel sorry for anyone in this situation. It must be awful. And sadly, many of the trainers (note I didn’t say coaches) simply don’t care.

It is not easy to ‘make it better’ and it doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen with more hard dieting. The contest dieting mindset of seeing weekly progress in terms of numbers (a problem in its own right what with the obsessive need to measure and quantify every possible thing)
MUST change. This is a different beast altogether. Your goals are different here. Before you can start worrying about fat loss you have to worry about getting your body out of this protective shell it’s retreated into. You have to get the internal physiology and biochemistry as normalized as possible before you worry about anything else. Failure to accept this way of thinking as opposed to the previous, will stop recovery dead in its tracks. A responsive body that is willing to give up body fat as you work WITH it, is an external manifestation of a healthy internal environment.

It’s this shift in mindset as it relates to priorities and the short (although not-so-short) term goals that’s so hard for a person struggling in this situation. Just because you start dieting and training properly, and by properly I simply mean more sanely (working with your body, not against it), doesn’t mean your body is going to automatically become super responsive as if you’re back to working with that virgin, off-the-shelf metabolism. You’re not starting from Ground Zero here. That doing the right thing, protocol wise, doesn’t result in automatic results is not a problem with the protocol; it’s an issue of the metabolic environment you’ve (or in some cases your trainer) has put you in, which takes time and effort to get out of. It’s a problem of what you’ve subjected your body to.

To add to that, in many cases, I’m told by clients who I’m actively helping work through this stuff (successfully I might add – to those who are willing to BE helped in the first place, that is), “I was the perfect client. I was just doing what I was told. I should have taken more responsibility for my own health”.

My response is, “yes, you sure sound like you were the perfect client, from a program compliance standpoint, but I’m not sure how you can take the responsibility on your own shoulders. You hired an ‘expert’ to help you, assuming all along that they have your best interests in mind. How are you to know, as a person without this expertise, any differently? That’s why anyone hires someone – to gain the benefit of that person’s assumed expertise; a level of expertise you yourself don’t feel you have.” So, it’s hard for me to hear a client say this to me. I put more blame on the hired help since they’re the ones designing and creating these protocols. It’s like the blind leading the blind in some cases. Everyone’s an expert these days … with their one tool in their toolbox. As I said in a previous contest prep rant, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to starve fat off a person. Keep removing food and keep adding more cardio over and over again – brilliant strategy.

The problem as I see it? A myopic view that places all the eggs in one basket – contest day. Who cares about anything after that right? Well, hello, there’s life after the Saturday contest too, lest we forget. Some of these ‘teams’ care more about building their brand and collecting trophies than they do the individuals who make up their team. There is NO team without individuals. Start caring about the long-term health of your clients, really caring, not just how they do in a contest. You’ll never run out of clients when you actually care about them … provided you’re also helping them get the results they came to you for. The journey is far more important than the destination. Contests are just a stop long the path, not the end of it.

Again, it doesn’t get better by itself just because you will it to. What people don’t realize, is that these problems doesn’t just go away on their own, untreated. Stupid diet and training are a massive contributor since people didn’t have any of these issues BEFORE all the crazy diet and training protocols. Therefore proper diet and training protocols are also part of the solution.

But you have to give it time!!

Unfortunately, you can’t help people that are one, not fully accepting of the situation they’re in, and two, unwilling to let go of the reigns and accept help. In cases like this, I’ve seen a person’s 130-lb plateau become a 140-lb plateau and then a 150-lb plateau. And it’s not just a bodyweight/fat issue; health issues eventually show up. What’s going on here? It’s not for lack of effort either. Wake up and realize what’s happening. I get you want to get back in shape yesterday, but you’re not going to do it by returning to what got you here, believe me. You’ll just make your situation worse as your yo-yo dieting and mistreatment of the one body you get results in a higher and higher metabolic set point.

You want back in shape? Use THAT laser focus and focus it on metabolic repair and recovery. That’s the only way you’ll even have a chance of achieving finding what you lost.

I work with a significant number girls dealing with this issue and I hope my passion for this topic and my care for people comes through in my writing … although I started this topic from a position of annoyance. Go figure. Ha!

If you like this and think it’s worth sharing, I’d appreciate you spreading it around. More and more people need to hear it and wake up.