Sunday, 24 September 2017

Leaving the stage...what's next?

Over the last few months I’ve often been asked ‘when will you be competing again?’, ‘how come you’re doing CrossFit?’, ‘are you still going to be bodybuilding?’ and they’re all questions I’ve answered openly but not something I’ve spoken about pro-actively on social media or on my blog. Simply because I haven’t really wanted to up until now, but now feels about the right time to clear a few things up.

In short, I have no plans to compete again. Whether that will change in the future I don’t know but not anytime soon. And yes I have moved my focus to CrossFit full-time now.

I actually made the decision not to compete again, about 3 weeks after the NPA Yorkshire in May. Originally the plan was to hit a few competitions this year and try my hardest to earn that British invite in October; at least for the NPA federation and perhaps to have a bash at one or two others. I was disappointed to not qualify for British at the NPA Yorkshire, missing out by one place, but I knew that would always be a tough ask with it attracting the biggest number of competitors and only 18 months into my bodybuilding journey, having spent 10 of those months dieting.
NPA Yorkshire 2017 Trained Figure Class 2 - 4th
I physically became quite ill after that competition and knew my body needed a rest. Mentally, I needed to step away from bodybuilding for a while, more importantly. The biggest sign for me was reflecting on the competition and if I’m completely honest I really didn’t enjoy the day. I felt enormous pressure (from myself only) as naturally I always want to do well and so in contrast to the previous year as the new girl with no expectations who was just delighted to place 6th having achieved what I set out to and having had a fantastic day, this year was very different. I wanted that top 3 and so anything else felt like a huge disappointment, despite having made significant progress in the 12 months.

Becoming ill in June and having to take some time off work to recover and spending a lot of time sat at home thinking; I realised I wasn’t in a great place mentally, to consider going back on prep in July and my emotions were all over the place. Physically my body was struggling and whilst it was one of the hardest decisions to make, I made the decision to not compete again in 2017. Now for many that probably wouldn’t seem like a big deal, but for me, making that decision was hard. I’ve achieved a hell of a lot for my age both professionally and personally, purely because I don’t give up on anything. This felt like I was giving up and that was hard for me to accept. But I had to put my health first and that was that.

It probably made it a more difficult decision as I’d known from the start of the year that I certainly wouldn’t be competing in 2018. I knew after 2 consecutive years of dieting and competing my body needed a break and also because I needed to get a balance back in my life. Any bodybuilder will know that you say goodbye to any sort of balance when you make that decision to compete; sacrificing not only a lot of food, but with that a lot of social plans too. It does become your life and whilst I coped much better on prep this year, after the Yorkshire’s I didn’t feel like it had all been worth it, like I did the previous year. So making the decision to not compete again in 2017, also meant it was likely I wouldn’t compete again for a number of years, if at all again, as for me competing was only ever going to be for short period of time in the scheme of things as I personally wouldn’t choose to live that lifestyle when the time comes to start a family.

So it’s fair to say during June and July I felt a bit lost. My plans for the year had changed and whilst it was a huge relief in some sense, I struggled to find any sense of normality. What even was normal anymore? It was great to have a social life again but I was paranoid about gaining weight post-comp and I struggled not having a real goal. I was bored of my gym and a time when I’m not going to lie some of my love for bodybuilding had dwindled, my gym just reminded me of that.

So why CrossFit? From February I’d trained once per week at Wakefield CrossFit as my coach had moved down there. We adapted training so I could still ‘be a bodybuilder’ at the facility but it gave me a chance to see what it was all about. Believe me, it’s brutal at the best of times but wind up down there in the depths of prep when it takes all of your energy to even pick up a dumbbell and it looked like pure torture watching the others do muscle ups, burpees and almost passing out on the floor.

However, I also saw a lot of incredible physiques down there (yes as a bodybuilder the image is what you see first), but all leading very balanced lifestyles at the same time. I was also amazed at the physical capabilities of many of the athletes. And I also started to understand the buzz that my coach had talked about since he started training down there. That community feel, that fun atmosphere and so the seed had been planted for a number of months.

I’d like to in this post give a special shout out to my coach Michael Barrett. It was always important for me to have a coach that understood me and that was a friend as much as he was my coach. That derived from bodybuilding when you need the emotional support as much as the physical. I remember being so nervous to tell Mikey that I didn’t want to compete again, but I had no reason to feel that way; the support he gave me and continues to give me is incredible. My only focus at the point of giving up competing was that I wanted to get my enjoyment back for training as I’d lost that this year in bodybuilding. All of a sudden the pressure was off and I could just have fun in my sessions.

My feelings have been very mixed throughout this whole journey this year; disappointment, upset, frustration, the list goes on. One thing that Mikey has done is allowed me to feel that way when I’ve needed to and more importantly given me that reassurance that it’s okay to feel that way and to not beat myself up about it, which in turn has allowed me to dust myself down and get that smile back on my face again.

Mikey suggested CrossFit and August saw me become a member at Wakefield CrossFit. Fast forward 7 weeks and yesterday I took part in my first competition. When anyone asked me yesterday afterwards how it went, my immediate reaction was how much I’d enjoyed it and how much fun I’d had. It wasn’t about how well I did (obviously I still have a very long way to go) but I came away having had a brilliant day. And that was all I was bothered about. It’s also nice to take part in a sport that isn’t subjective in the same way bodybuilding is. If I can do a certain exercise, I can do it. If I can’t and someone else can, that’s fair enough. It’s not down to a number of individual opinions on a given day. I can work with that.
Synchro down ups and box jump overs yesterday

 It’s been a tough few months I won’t lie. I’ve gone back to basics; had to ask myself some difficult questions and had to reassess my priorities. It’s been both brilliant and scary joining a new facility and a new discipline. Many of the people at Wakefield CrossFit probably don’t know the challenges I faced to bring me there but the support of the coaches and the other members has meant a lot to me, at a time when I’ve had to rebuild my confidence in many aspects.

So whilst I’ll never say never, I don’t have any intentions of pulling my figure suit and heels back on anytime soon. Bodybuilding will always have a place close to my heart for all it brought to my life but sometimes it’s time to start a new chapter and that time is now.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Swapping the bikini and stripper shoes for waterproofs and walking boots!

I can’t believe it’s almost a week since my competition; the NPA Yorkshire’s held in Wakefield last weekend. It seems to have been a bit of a whirlwind five days since then; coming down from the elation of being on stage once again, to trying to bring myself out of the biggest food coma. To taking some time to reflect on my year so far and think about what I want to do next. To getting back into the swing of work once again and then casting my eyes on my next challenge; my very imminent challenge of the National 3 Peaks this weekend.
It felt very surreal being back on stage last weekend; 1 year after my debut. I had only ever intended on doing it the once but got the bug for it and soon found myself after my first competition in May 2016, planning my off-season and my return to stage in 2017. Last year’s competition saw me place sixth in a line-up of nine girls. I was absolutely euphoric with that result as I had never set out with the intention of being good at bodybuilding (as weird as that sounds bear with me!). As I’ve explained previously in these posts last year was all about getting through prep so to place in the line-up and get a trophy was the icing on top of the cake. I’d only had two months of an ‘off-season’ after returning home from a year of travelling, having done no proper weight training as such before that. And then I went straight into a five month prep. Looking back, it was a great achievement to actually place.
This year felt different. In true Rebecca style it was always about doing better. I’d spent 7 months building my muscle in my off-season and then went into a 21 week prep from January. I came in this year looking fuller with more muscle but leaner than last year; exactly what we set out to do. And the improvements were clear for all to see and I placed fourth out of a tough line-up of nine girls. Disappointed to not finish in the top three? Of course. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. But I knew it was always going to be a huge ask; especially at the Yorkshire’s which is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, NPA show of the year. I’m proud of the improvements I made from last year and gave it my all throughout prep and on stage which is all I could do.
Straight off stage!
Trained Figure Class 2
So what next? In terms of bodybuilding I do have some plans. My coach and I met on Monday morning and had a good chat. We set some goals; some are mini-goals and some bigger goals which helps me to focus right now but also keeps my mind on the bigger picture. I don’t want to share these goals just yet as I feel that adds pressure; and it’s one thing I can do without right now after placing a huge amount of pressure on myself in the run up to last weekend.
Right now however my focus switches to this coming weekend. People often call me crazy for taking on so much, of which I laugh that off a lot of the time but right now I couldn’t agree more. This weekend me and 8 colleagues from Yorkshire Ambulance Service take on the National 3 Peaks Challenge. For those of you that don’t know, the challenge involves climbing Ben Nevis in Scotland, Scafell Pike in England and Snowdon in Wales in under 24 hours. It’s about 24 miles in total and there’s no two ways about it; it’s going to be BLOODY HARD.
We leave Wakefield at 7am on Saturday morning, arriving in Scotland mid-afternoon; with a quick chance to grab some food before we start our first climb at 5pm. It may seem a dumb time to be starting a walk but believe me lots of research has gone into this and this is the best time; it means throughout the weekend you do all the climbs in daylight pretty much. So Ben Nevis should take us about 5 hours and then we set off on our travels to Cumbria where we will take on Scafell Pike, starting at 4am. A 4 hour climb in England will then see us ready to set off on our way to Wales at 8am, arriving around midday. The final climb should take us around 5 hours, finishing up at 5pm all being well on the Sunday.
As a bodybuilder, I hate cardio. With a passion. End of. Why did I agree to walk over 20 miles in one weekend on pretty much zero sleep? Because I’m clearly a little bit crazy…and I just LOVE a challenge. We are doing this for charity so it’s all for a good cause which makes it worthwhile. The monies raised will be split between the YAS Charitable Fund and the Danny Jones Defib Fund. The YAS Charitable Fund uses the money kindly donated to support its work in a number of ways. The money is used to fund additional training and equipment for services over and above those core services provided by the NHS. Most recently the Charitable Fund has been focusing its efforts on raising money for community medical units, which provide on-scene medical treatment for patients with minor injuries and illnesses, and public access defibrillators to help save more lives in local communities. The Danny Jones Defib Fund was set up by Danny’s wife Lizzie after Danny tragically died a couple of years ago during a rugby game. The Defib Fund is designed to raise money to ensure that community defibrillators can be made available at local rugby clubs. Both are great charities that we are delighted to be supporting.
So this week I have been getting prepared for the challenge; most of the preparation involves food supplies for me haha. I may struggle with the fitness side of it but there’s not a change I’m going hungry on it. I’m all stocked up with pasta, sandwiches, protein bars, BCAAs, gels, bananas and plenty of sugary treats to just get me through it. It’s fair to say calorie and macro tracking will go out of the window this weekend but I hear you burn around 10,000 calories in total over the weekend so I think that’s okay. I will be posting on social media (Instagram: @becmallinder, Twitter: @becmallinder and on Facebook) our progress so please follow me and see how we get on. Any donation would also be greatly appreciated; you can donate online following the link below:

In terms of the team that are doing this with me, I’m pleased to say I have an awesome team of support that I know will make the challenge fun and we will get each other through.
Dave Green (Head of Quality Improvement) is going to be a pivotal member of the team as he’s in charge of navigating us throughout the weekend (no pressure hey!). Ex-Army I feel we’re in safe hands…and he’s a Paramedic, what more could we want? Dave’s mate Daz (Darren Parkinson from the Hazardous Area Response Team) is also on the team and will no doubt be Dave’s right-hand man in keeping us all on track. Another Paramedic too so I’m definitely starting to feel more reassured. Both are keen on their fitness so should be no real dramas with these guys (she says!). Our third Paramedic on the team is Martin Shaw (Head of EOC Clinical Hub). Martin’s a keen gym-goer too and having seen him myself on the hills (haha – just for you Martin) he should be leading the way on Saturday. A former rugby player too Martin’s on stand-by to carry me when I collapse in a heap!
The more I write about the team the more confident I am in our abilities…next up Karen Warner (Deputy Director of Quality & Nursing) another keen trainer who has made awesome progress in the gym over the last 12 months and casually goes out walking or cycling miles on a weekend just for fun. A midwife by trade, we have plenty of clinicians on the team which is always welcome should anyone need patching up. Last year she took part in the coast to coast bike ride absolutely smashing it alongside Mark Turner from the Business Development team, who’s also on the team. Mark also gets out doing plenty of exercise so the experience across the team is vast.
Sarah Lacey and Rachel Foster from our Patient Relations department are also on the team and regularly hit up the gym classes. And last but not least we are joined by Sarah Gallagher from the Safeguarding Team. Another Paramedic too, Sarah is a very welcome addition and it’s great to bring so many of us from different departments together into one team for such a worthwhile event.
So, two sleeps to go! I’m in a de-load week this week thankfully so my body is feeling well rested for the challenge and fuelled on carbs after increasing the calories this week. I never thought I felt wholly comfortable in a figure suit and stripper shoes turning out the front double bicep pose on stage, however with the prospect of waterproofs, walking poles and blister plasters on the horizon, I think I might be wishing the Dream Tan back on sooner than I expected!
Wish us luck!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

To the girl who will settle for nothing less than the best

I’m 10 days out from my first competition of the season and if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about myself during this prep is just how hard I am on myself. I’ve had to make a real concerted effort over the last 2-3 weeks to give myself a break, mentally as things reached a bit of an unhealthy point for me. And before anyone starts, it’s nothing to do with ‘self-love’ and all that stuff that we read about all the time as I have a good relationship with myself overall. It purely comes down to a personal drive to be the best, to do the best I can, to constantly be pushing myself. And that’s not always a bad thing; I would much rather be this way than never aim for anything, but it’s not always a good thing either.
Photo: John Gardner Photography
I’ve spent the last few weeks repeatedly challenging my own thoughts and beliefs, on purpose, so that I can be a bit kinder to myself. I wanted to share a few of those messages I’ve been trying to tell myself on a daily basis so this is written from the ‘kinder’ Rebecca to the ‘unless-you’re-on-verge-of-collapse-you’re-not-trying-hard-enough’ Rebecca.
I hope that you learn to take time to look after your mental wellbeing as much as your physical wellbeing.
It’s okay to spend half an hour…what the hell, an hour or two even, on the sofa, just relaxing and taking that time to allow yourself to switch off from the world. You don’t always have to be doing something and that’s just as important for both your mental and physical health as exercising and eating healthy is.
I hope that you learn to be a little more selfish sometimes.
I think we’re all guilty of this from time to time. How many times do we do things to keep others happy or because we feel we should do something when actually we don’t want to do it? I’ve learnt to say no a little more over the last month or two and to stop and think what do I WANT to do? You can’t be something to everybody all of the time otherwise you cut yourself so thin that you’re actually not that much use to anyone and you’re definitely not much use to yourself.
I hope that you’re proud of how far you’ve come rather than always looking at how far you have to go.
What screwed my mind up a few weeks ago was thinking I wasn’t good enough. Looking at photos on social media of other figure girls and marking myself down. In that respect, last year was much easier as I didn’t know any other competitors and last year I competed purely for the challenge and accomplishment of doing so. But in typical Rebecca fashion, that was never going to be good enough and so this year it wasn’t about getting through the prep, I knew I could do that, it was about being better. And it started off with me just wanting to be better than last year’s me but then I found myself putting so much pressure on myself to be better than those around me too and that’s not healthy. I’m all for competition and ambition but I had to really pull myself back, with the help of my coach to just focus on me. I looked at where I was 18 months ago when I began training with my coach and after doing no bodybuilding-style training ever before and after a year of travelling, we got me ready for stage within 6 months. That was no easy job and to place in a strong line up of girls too, I really didn’t expect that. We’ve refocused my mind and shifted my attention back onto me, and only me, and that’s where it needs to be.
September 2015 to April 2017
I hope you come to realise sooner rather than later that you’re not superwoman and you don’t have to be the best at everything nor do you have to take on so much all of the time.
I’ve always known I take on a bit too much but it’s not until this prep that it really hit me just how much I do take on and whereas before I’ve laughed it off when people have challenged me on it, this time I actually found myself frustrated and a bit disappointed in myself for allowing it to happen. My job demands a lot of me and very rarely do I actually just work my paid hours each week. And it’s not just the number of hours worked, it’s the mental energy my job demands too. I can’t just have ‘off’ days where I can take it easy in the office; I have teams to manage, areas of work that I’m responsible for, meetings to attend, reports to write, the list goes on and I’m very mindful that my job is about people’s lives at the end of the day, it’s not something to ever be taken lightly and I take much pride in my work. Throw in a Master’s degree into the equation which I’m trying to fit in too and then bodybuilding competition prep and I’m not sure how I’ve actually got through the last 20 weeks. And this isn’t a sob story or looking for sympathy, these are all my choices I get that, but sometimes I just need to take a step back and learn how to prioritise. I think I forget that I’m only 26 and have a lifetime (hopefully!) to do things; not everything needs to be done as of yesterday.
These are things I’m reminding myself of daily and for anyone that struggles with similar issues; some of the practical things I’ve done to try and help myself are the following.
·         I switched my training to a morning. This has surprisingly helped massively as yes I have to do the same amount of things in a day but by getting up that bit earlier and going to train before work, I find I have more energy to train and it gives me my evenings free so that I can relax or I can see friends. The gym is also much quieter at that time too so I find I’m in a better state for training and can use it to relax my mind ahead of the day.
·         Sleep, sleep, sleep. I’ve always made sure I get enough sleep but especially lately, I’ve made sure I’m in bed for 9pm most nights. Even if I don’t go to sleep straight away, it relaxes me to make sure I have a good night’s sleep. I get at least 7 hours of sleep per night and it makes such a difference. Yes I appreciate 9pm bedtimes impacts on social life but we are talking about competition prep now and so no it’s not something I will do forever but to help me during prep, it’s been a good part of my routine.
·         Learn to say no. Lately if I haven’t wanted to do something I haven’t done it. This I found more difficult to start with as I don’t like letting people down or saying no to things but sometimes you have to for your own good. Real friends will understand.
So, I’m 10 days out now and I’m in a much better place mentally than I was a few weeks ago. I still have my struggles and I still have my anxieties for post-comp but I’m thinking them through and trying to prepare for them now as I feel that’s a part of bodybuilding that people don’t give enough focus to – the post-comp mental battle. I haven’t decided about other competitions yet; one step at a time for now.
I always will be ambitious and I’m glad that’s part of who I am, I just need a better balance in my life sometimes and I’m working on that. But no doubt whatsoever that fire in my belly will always be there; that drive, that passion, that need to succeed. So whilst I’ve come so far on this journey and taken time to reflect; 7 months of hard work in off-season, 20 weeks of dieting almost complete and just 10 days to go. In my eyes, the real journey starts now, the 10 day journey to give it my all on that stage. This isn’t the end, this is just the beginning.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

What a difference a year makes. 12 weeks down. 9 weeks to go.

“You’re much nicer than you was last year”.
This was a comment my mum made recently. I couldn’t disagree with her to be honest on either account that a) I was horrible last year and b) I wasn’t so horrible this year.
One of my biggest fears going into prep this year was that I knew how hard I found it last year. It’s no exaggeration when I say it was the hardest thing I’d ever done and for the majority of prep I really did not enjoy it. Because of that, I became a nightmare to be around. I was pleasant when I had to be i.e. at work I would switch on my professional mode and walk around with a smile on my face most of the time, even if deep down my patience levels were at around -15. At home I was moody, snappy and it’s fair to say an absolute cow at times. My poor parents received the backlash from this and I think they were probably equally as nervous about me going back on prep this year as I was, wondering at what point their daughter would turn into the devil yet again.
So it’s surprising for me (and a relief for everyone else) that I’ve been dieting for 12 weeks and I’m still a pleasure to be around (yes, I determined this, thank you). Most of my blog posts of late have been quite topical as I realise it can get a little boring just reading about my progress week in and week out. However, today, at 12 weeks in, I felt it to be timely to write an update on this year’s prep, how I’ve found it and how I’m feeling.
March 2016 to March 2017
So why has it been so different this year? I’d say there are three big reasons overall.
1.    Diet.
Because I remained in shape (relatively) during off-season and had a good 7 months of building after my competition last May before I started back on prep, I put my body in a good position of not having as much fat to shed this year. This means calories are much higher than they were this time last year so I’m not as hungry. In addition a big factor in my diet has been variety. I did a lot of research in off-season on diet and training which opened my eyes to different ways of cutting and the flexibility you can have. In addition, my coach very much promoted flexible dieting with me in off-season so I continued tracking calories and macros but didn’t have to deprive myself so much. Clearly on prep I have had to give some things up but in comparison to this time last year when my lunches were the same every day and not long after so were my dinners, this year I eat a variety of meals during the week. These tend to revolve around similar foods i.e. beef mince, turkey mince, chicken, rice, pasta, potato etc. but having the variety has made a huge difference.
In addition, this year I don’t prep any of my meals myself. A local company was recommended to me at the start of the year who prepares meals in line with your calories and macros. Some people I know do not agree with this, questioning how you can be sure of calories and macros if you’re not preparing it yourself however as you’d expect I checked all this out with the company before I started using them and 12 weeks in, so far so good. This has made a huge difference to my prep, not having to put aside time each weekend to prepare my meals or start cooking after work and not only that, but they taste a whole lot better than anything I could cook, believe me.
2.    Cardio
…Or the lack of it, should I say. This time last year I was doing 40 minutes fasted cardio every morning (5 days per week) and then 20 minutes cardio after each weight session (5 times per week). I had a lot of body fat to lose last year after coming home from a year of travelling, in the October, going on prep in January and having my first competition in May. I had little muscle mass in comparison too after almost a year off weight training so my metabolism wasn’t the best. This year, at the moment during a week I probably do 45 minutes cardio at Bootcamp (which I do all year round anyway), a couple of 20 minute sessions on the stair master and a couple of outdoor walks (which again, I do all year round anyway). So in comparison, it’s hardly anything. Not only does this free up more of my time for other things but I’m not as physically exhausted from training so much and on such low calories. I see a lot of girls doing a lot of cardio on prep and it’s each to their own and whatever works for each individual but I want to keep cardio to a minimum where I can to ensure I don’t start chipping away at that muscle I’ve worked so hard to build.
3.     Mind set
Last but certainly not least, my mind set. Last year I wasn’t sure for a couple of months at the start of the year whether I was going to compete or not so my mind wasn’t as focused. I slipped up with my diet a few times and I didn’t have the same accountability as it wasn’t until mid-February that I decided I would definitely compete. Looking back, I don’t think my mind set was that great at all last year during prep, I resented the process and having never competed before I didn’t know much about bodybuilding at all if I’m honest, I didn’t know whether it would be worth it on the day or what my body needed to look like. As I’ve said before, I did it purely for the challenge but because of all of the above and added to that I’d only recently returned home from Australia and I was rebuilding my life, it all felt very hard to me. This year I had a lot of time in off-season to reflect, to refocus my mind, to think about what I wanted, what I wanted to do different, why I wanted to do it again and because of that I went into prep on 1 January completely focused on the next 21 weeks.
It’s felt strange at times this year, sometimes thinking to myself; okay where’s the catch? This is too easy this year. I haven’t really craved any food that I’m not allowed and I haven’t found myself getting to the same stages of hanger that I did last year. I’ve been able to go about my normal life and that’s one thing I’m very grateful and glad of. Last year I found it difficult being around normal food. Even to go shopping for a couple of hours I would see cakes and sweets and chocolate all around me and I would hate it so I just didn’t bother going. I couldn’t go round to my parents until I knew they’d finished eating because I resented the fact they were eating the foods I wanted but wasn’t allowed. I would avoid social situations as I just found myself frustrated. This year has been completely different and yesterday for example I went out with my Mum and Nan for Mother’s Day to a local cafĂ© and actually helped my Mum pick out the nicest ice-cream sundae from the menu. Last year I would have probably thrown it at her if she had ordered that in front of me haha.
Enjoying a coffee with my Mum in this afternoon's sunshine.
And I think one of the biggest differences with that this year is that I know why I’m doing it and I know it will be worth it. I know what differences I want to see in my body when I’m up on stage this year and I know what I need to do in order to get there. Things became much easier when my thought process shifted from ‘I can’t have that’ to ‘I don’t want that’. I know this year the elation I felt when I was on stage last year and how much it all meant to me. I know no ice-cream sundae could ever give me that feeling.
Thanks for reading. I hope you’ve all enjoyed the glorious weather we’ve had this weekend and I’ll keep you updated with how things progress over the next 9 weeks. Time flies when you’re having fun.
Posing practice last week at Ian Duckett's workshop

Friday, 17 March 2017

From the Boardroom to bodybuilding. The battle of my passions.

Last week was another reminder of the contrast my life brings. I spent the day in London for a national NHS conference, listening to inspirational speakers, sharing best-practice with colleagues and showcasing some great work done by our organisation over the last 18 months. At lunchtime the hot buffet came out and as everyone chatted over sausage rolls and sandwiches, I snuck out onto the gardens and sat eating my cold turkey mince, pasta and broccoli. I left the room for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t want to watch everyone enjoying the delicious foods that I couldn’t have. And secondly because it avoids me having to explain why I’m not eating it and possibly enter into the uncomfortable discussions around my competitive bodybuilding lifestyle.
I say uncomfortable because that’s how I often feel discussing bodybuilding to people outside of my circle. Some of it may be in my head but I often feel that people maybe judge the sport in a negative way because if you don’t know much about it, then people’s stereotypes are often way off the mark. When I first mentioned bodybuilding to my mum, she asked ‘isn’t it seedy though?’ I guess people only see bodybuilders parading on stage wearing high heels and a bikini and so I can see why people might have those misconceptions. And it makes me wonder if other people will view it that way too and then I wonder how does that reflect on me trying to have a professional career?
It’s one thing I’ve struggled to balance in my head and I try as much as possible to keep the two very separate. I love my job working as Head of Investigations & Learning for Yorkshire Ambulance Service. I love the work I get involved with, I work with some great people and there’s always a new challenge for me to get my teeth into. Having a career has been important to me over the last 8 years since I joined the NHS and having climbed up the career ladder to a senior management position at a relatively young age, it’s one of my biggest achievements. I put my all into my job and spend countless hours perfecting pieces of work, doing things for my team and just trying to do the best job I can possibly do.
Last year: one week launching a new project, the next week up on stage.
Over the last 18 months bodybuilding has become something that I’m equally passionate about. Training and keeping fit is something that brings me so much enjoyment and pushing myself to be the best I can be through competitive bodybuilding has brought me so much satisfaction in a short period of time.
People at work know I compete and those that I’m close to at work know the ins and outs of it and also become a solid support network for me throughout competition prep. They know me well as a person though so I feel comfortable about sharing that aspect of my life as I know it’s absolutely not judged. I don’t feel so comfortable when it comes to people wider than that circle for the reasons I’ve stated earlier in my post and it has worried me before whether my professionalism or credibility as a manager will be questioned because of the sport I choose to partake in.
No one has ever said anything to suggest it has been questioned it’s just something I’m aware of and I guess I have always been aware of other factors during my career that people may judge me on. As I said, I have climbed the career ladder at a young age and over the years this has sometimes led to comments towards me (never actually said to me, surprisingly) regarding my ability as a senior manager in my twenties. I’ve never felt the need to answer or justify any of those critics as I let my work do the talking. That coupled with being female has also left me open to critics in what has been a predominantly male environment. I have to say I have been supported tremendously by the majority of people I work with and never have I had the battles that I read about some female managers in the workplace having. There have been two occasions that I can recall where I feel that being a young, female manager has left me answering questions that I shouldn’t have had to answer and that I perhaps wouldn’t have had to answer had I been older or male. However, the quality of my work has never been in dispute.
I don’t discuss my bodybuilding at work unless someone asks me about it as I don’t like to draw attention to it and for me it’s just a part of who I am and what my lifestyle is, it doesn’t affect my work. However, I very much believe everyone should be able to be exactly who they are and not be judged for it so I have had this battle in my head several times over the last 18 months with part of me thinking no don’t talk about it and then the other part of me thinking, actually hell no I shouldn’t have to hide it, it doesn’t affect my work one bit and I should be proud of having two big passions in my life. And I absolutely am proud of that.
I have seen many managers in the NHS over the years who perhaps will be your ‘stereotypical’ NHS manager if that even exists. But when I say that I mean well dressed, older, many years of NHS experience, very ‘corporate’, I’m sure you all can imagine what I mean and in actual fact they have been in my opinion poor managers and not the most capable. In contrast I have been lucky to work with less stereotypical managers too, perhaps younger managers, from different backgrounds with different experiences who don’t always ‘toe the corporate line’ and they’ve actually been great managers and awesome at their jobs.
So as I head into my second year of competitive bodybuilding I try and embrace both of my passions and celebrate the fact that I am able to do both and that perhaps both together aren’t the typical combination but if by the age of 30 I’ve worked my a**e off to get to a respected position within the NHS, an organisation which I am immensely proud of and if I have a couple of bodybuilding trophies to go alongside that, I’ll consider that not a bad effort.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

It's all in your head!

Each week, one in six adults will experience symptoms of a common mental health problem for example anxiety or depression. (Mental Health Foundation, 2016). Despite an increase in people accessing treatment, around a third of all people with a mental health problem have sought no professional help at all. Perhaps that’s through a lack of provision, people not knowing where to seek help or perhaps some of it comes down to people not acknowledging they need help or being too embarrassed to ask for it. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons out there but hopefully over the next 5-10 years we will see a further shift in perceptions of mental health, as I believe we have done over recent years.
Whilst the above statistics may suggest people are not accessing the relevant services, I certainly feel there is an increased awareness of mental health, certainly in some areas; sport being one of them.
You may wonder what on earth mental health has to do with bodybuilding as primarily that’s what I use my blog to talk about but in actual fact, I think mental health has a lot to do with bodybuilding, as it does every sport out there. A few conversations over recent weeks with a number of different people have prompted me to think more about this and how our mental wellbeing can affect our performance in sport and equally how our performance can affect our mental wellbeing.
NPA Yorkshire 2016 Trained Figure Class 2 - Top 6
As a keen follower of rugby league, it’s great to see the extensive work taking place on promoting positive mental health in the game. Charities such as State of Mind have really led the way in this respect, entering into previous unchartered territories within a sport that is renowned for it’s brutal, no-nonsense, ‘tough guy’ approach. I read an insightful article earlier in the week by Raj Bains who talks about how rugby league is embracing mental health at the heart of the sport and breaking those stereotypes associated with the game. (The article is definitely worth a read
It’s a relief to see so much emphasis being placed on supporting the mental health & wellbeing of sports people as I feel it’s a side that often gets forgotten. We rarely see what goes on behind the scene and even less frequently do we acknowledge those battles that people might face away from the end result we all see.
I was talking to a guy at my gym a few days ago. I used to work with him many years ago, back before my career entered into the depths of the NHS, at a professional rugby league club. A coach at the time, with many years under his belt as a professional player, he is now still involved with the game and we got chatting this week as we have done on many occasions over the last year whilst at the gym, about our training goals, about rugby and about competing. We got talking about the mental side of bodybuilding and how much of this sport comes down to just that. How much willpower do you have? How many sacrifices are you prepared to make? Have you got what it takes in those dark moments when you’re in the midst of a 20 week diet and times get tough, to push through to the very end? I can honestly say from my first season bodybuilding last year, it comes down to your mental approach 100%, or it certainly did for me. Yes you have to train and diet accordingly but if your mind isn’t in the game, you will not get there.
During prep last year I had many ups and downs. I had a few very low points where I questioned whether I could continue and I felt very isolated and lonely on many occasions throughout that 20 weeks. Despite having great friends and family around me and an excellent coach, it’s an individual sport and only you can do what needs to be done. It didn’t help my mental state as I found it hard to be in social situations surrounded by food and drink and going into this year I was genuinely scared and anxious about socially isolating myself again. I’ve made a concerted effort this year to continue my life as normal, so much as I can and so far I’ve dealt with it all much better.
Finding workarounds and still being able to enjoy 'normal' things with my friends, while on prep has helped massively this year!
 There is plenty of focus on preparation for competition. However, there is rarely much focus about the aftermath. For many, this is where the real mental battle kicks in. When you step on stage the image you display is merely that; an image created during a set process and for many of us that image isn’t sustainable, nor is it healthy. I had a love/hate relationship with my show-day body last year. I didn’t enjoy no longer filling out some of my clothes and I didn’t enjoy losing some of those curves that naturally we all have when living a more balanced lifestyle. Of particular concern for me was the hormonal imbalance I experience and the effects that had on my body.
However, all that being said I’m not going to lie I absolutely loved having abs, fitting into clothes that hadn’t fit me for a couple of years and being able to wear crops without a care in the world. It was of great satisfaction knowing my muscles had more definition because there was less fat to hide them away and I just enjoyed the overall feeling of being lean especially after gaining weight the year previous whilst travelling. And slowly but surely over the course of 20 weeks, you get used to being this lean. Whilst I knew I would put on a little bit of weight after my competition, perhaps naively I thought I would remain roughly the same barring a couple of pounds. I was wrong.
After my first show last year, my diet wasn’t as controlled as I would have liked in reverse dieting. I don’t give myself a hard time for this as I’d dieted for 20 weeks and found it extremely tough, so naturally; I enjoyed my food afterwards but within the space of even 2-3 weeks I had lost a lot of that leanness. I was still fit and in shape but of course some of that definition was lost. My body thanked me for this and thankfully my hormones balanced out pretty soon afterwards, mentally I had much more energy and felt ‘back to normal’ again within a few weeks. But it was hard over those following months, mentally coming to terms with my body looking different and carrying more fat than I had been used to. I underestimated how difficult I would find this aspect and I can honestly say it probably took me until about November to truly embrace having curves again and carrying the extra weight, by which point it was almost time to get back on prep for this year.
Moving away from the aesthetics, it’s equally as challenging when competing in sport is no longer part of your life. When you’re in any sporting industry it often takes up a huge part of your life, not just in a sense of time, but in your mind too. It’s your focus day in and day out and for most, the rest of your life revolves around it so it can be a big adjustment when that’s no longer the case and I imagine I’ll find that somewhat challenging when I no longer compete. I suspect most retired competitive bodybuilders continue to live an active lifestyle as it’s something we all love doing, which is partly why we enter into the sport in the first place. But naturally I’m sure it’s a tough challenge mentally when you’re no longer focused on getting your body into such an optimum condition worthy of being on stage. And part of it comes down to identify for some people too. In a conversation I had with a fellow bodybuilder recently she posed the question ‘so who am I if I’m not a bodybuilder?’ and I think that’s a fair point. If you no longer compete or play sport to the level you’re used to, you potentially feel that you lose a sense of your identity.
I wanted to write this post to highlight the struggles that come with bodybuilding and all other sports really. And for it to maybe resonate with some individuals that it’s okay to feel that way and to not feel afraid or embarrassed to ask for support, even if that’s just speaking to a friend about how you feel. It doesn’t always mean accessing professional support; we all have struggles in life from time to time and it’s important to call upon our support network for help as otherwise problems can escalate and become more prominent issues in our lives. I also hope that maybe for some people reading this it will prompt you to think twice before judging other people or making flippant comments towards people’s image or the decisions they make in life. Or maybe just that people can be a bit kinder sometimes to people and understand that people might have battles that you know nothing about – and that doesn’t just apply to sport, that’s life in general.