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.