Standing on stage is an incredible achievement, requiring months of rock-hard mental focus, dedication and drive. Walking on stage, the adrenaline is pumping, you hit your poses hard, you feel on top of the world and – regardless of placing – you know that you have achieved a lifetime dream of competing and achieving the best condition of your life.
You walk off stage.
The days after a comp can be tough. After the initial adrenaline high of the day itself has worn off, you’ve felt the pride at what you’ve achieved, received many slaps on the back for your hard work, viewed the photos and relaxed the diet, and the Instagram and Facebook chatter has died down. Comp season is over, and this is when some people hit a real danger zone.
A lot of readers will have experienced a post-comp come-down of some kind – from a minor funk to depression – and most will know that the post-comp blues are very real. A lot of negative post-comp experiences have been attributed to dealing with the change in our body from ‘comp-day’ super lean, tanned and glamorous physique to a more healthy, regular image with higher levels of bodyfat. But there is way, way more to the story.
A lot of competitors will not know, for example, that they are at greater risk of stress, anxiety, depression and even vulnerability to addictions post-competition. The good news is that an awareness of these dangers can mean that you beat them head on, and even become a better athlete in the process. And the key to winning the fight is developing an excellent post-comp strategy.
Falling off a Cliff
Exercise is an opioid – that means that if you exercise regularly for long enough (the minimum being around 3 months for 3 times a week or so, according to research), the more ‘drug-like’ exercise becomes for you. Probably all competitive amateur natural bodybuilders will have felt that huge high you get from an amazing cardio session, or that bulletproof feeling of confidence and strength you get from a great weights session. That’s a drug-like response that you have earned from countless hard hours in the gym and you have a right to enjoy it.
It can also be brutal in the run up to comp, so, justifiably, every bodybuilder deserves a break from the gym post-comp. What natural bodybuilders may not realise, however, is just how dangerous it might be to go cold turkey on the training and diet, even for a short period. While you can relax your schedule, it can be dangerous to cease it altogether, so you need to make sure that you manage out a brutal schedule over time. But why is this?
Amazingly, the diet and training schedule of a natural bodybuilder seems to optimise the emotional health of ones’ brain more than any other sport. For example, an extremely commonly used sports supplement - acetyl- L-Carnitine (ALC) - possesses significant anti-depressant effects which have been observed in as little as 1 week. Tryptophan (an amino acid found abundantly in high protein foods, abundant in a bodybuilders diet), plays a vital role in the creation of by-product 5HTP (5-hydroxytryptophan), which produces feelings of well-being and calm, and lowers anxiety. Exercise also increases tryptophan (a serotonin precursor), a deficiency in which has been linked to suicide rates and depression.
Regular aerobic exercise positively affects addictive behaviour, by altering FosB or FosC (the transcriptional regulators of stress and antidepressant responses) and by positively stimulating the brains’ pleasure & reward system. Bodybuilders can therefore benefit from greater top-down cognitive control, a far greater likelihood of freedom from depression, and greater emotional management – e.g. feeling less panicked when fearful. Even better, Fos-B expression in the nucleus accumbens is also crucial for its effect on improving resilience to stress, which explains why hitting the weights, or the pads, has been known so many times to build character, deal with life stress, and turn peoples’ lives around. In fact, 94% of 70 randomized studies reported in a recent systematic review of academic studies showing that exercise is clinically beneficial, more so than drug or cognitive-behavioural interventions.
Interestingly, strength training – the mainstay of every natural bodybuilders’ pre-comp arsenal - lowers depression, and provides positive mental benefits that even aerobic exercise cannot create – including a rise in dopamine, the brains’ ‘reward’ or ‘pleasure’ hormone. But take away this source of dopamine (this ‘literal common currency for reward in the brain’ (Saxe & Haushofer, 2008, p. 164)) – which would happen if you relax your workout schedule too much, too quickly - and a bodybuilder becomes immediately in need of a replacement post-comp (e.g. comfort eating). This is because you may have become addicted to the dopamine response caused by exercise and competing. A reliance on this dopamine high (caused by training & competing) can lead to a far greater vulnerability to addiction, as your body seeks aggressively for a replacement source for the dopamine source once the competition phase has ended (which can lead to frustration or anxiety if unmet, or risky behaviour if fulfilled, e.g. heavier drinking). Interestingly, anticipation can elicit a greater dopamine and adrenaline response than an actual anticipated event! - so all of those months thinking ahead to the competition and practicing your routine will have created a steady stream of reward and stress hormones which will also stop cold after the competition has ended.
Amplifying the risks of addiction further is the fact that any elite performance environment that creates habitual stress, whether positive (e.g. walking on stage at pre-judging) or negative (e.g. losing $5m on a trading floor) can create a stress addiction, and you are then also more likely to seek out riskier, stress-inducing experiences to replace that source of stress after the competition or source of stress has ended (e.g. via a high sugar food consumption, anti-social behaviour such as fighting in a bar or arguing with a spouse, angry keyboard warrior-ship, or drinking more).
Worse still, bodybuilders generally have higher testosterone than the general population, and your brain will have become used to hitting the weights as a source of focusing and releasing that testosterone, which can lead to anger management issues, a feeling of anxiety and restlessness if that conduit for all of your energy is taken away.
Cold Turkey: Only for Eating
The benefits of L-Carnitine, omega oils, magnesium, zinc, L-Glutamine, multivitamin, a high protein intake, and a range of other nutrients and supplements commonly found in a natural bodybuilders’ cabinet all contribute majorly to positive emotional health. However, it you regularly use these nutrients and supplements, then withdraw post-comp suddenly, you risk (alongside a far more relaxed gym schedule) falling off a metaphorical cliff when it comes to post-comp blues and overall positive mental health. This is because your brain has come to expect this high quality of dietary intake and will find it hard to quickly re-balance without it.
It is very possible to continue to eat healthily but relax the calorie limits, or add in one more weekly cheat, and still maintain largely the diet and supplementation regime that you enjoyed pre-comp. Failing to strategize over your post-comp dietary intake doesn’t just risk fat gain – it risks stress, anxiety, a loss of wellbeing, anxiety, lethargy and even depression. Whatever your post-comp eating strategy – e.g. reverse dieting – it seems to be crucial to have a strategy which focuses around maintaining your supplementation and relatively high protein intake. An added risk is vulnerability to addiction if you cease exercising – and your body may lock onto sugar and fat (in short, food) as a new source of pleasure and reward which can lead to over-eating. This underscores the importance of maintaining an exercise schedule, even if you change up the sport, or the gym, or the frequency.
The transition from pre-comp to post-comp life can be unsettling for many reasons. Psychosocial and behavioural scientists have demonstrated that greater stress (whether emotional or physiological) leads to a decline in behavioural control and an increase in impulsivity, so post-comp you may feel more vulnerable and more impulsive.
One place to avoid at a time like this is Instagram and Facebook; the last thing you want to see is an unexpected, photoshopped image of a fitness model looking perfect, with 100,000 likes. It’s the fastest way to faceplant into a muffin or a bowl of special fried rice.
Physiologically the biggest dangers here for bodybuilders are two-fold; first, we are a high-testosterone crowd, meaning that we are competitive by nature. Our competitiveness automatically (and often subconsciously) leads us, for example, to not be able to simply view fitness images online, but to automatically compare our physique to any online fitness image that we see in front of us. The emotional brain has far more power over our reactions than our rational brain, so regardless of whether we know a photo has been photoshopped, or taken on the day of a comp, or required 300 re-shoots, our brains still process it emotionally and can produce a negative stress response in our brains that tells us that we do not look as good and have, as a result, failed the comparison. This kind of knee-jerk comparison can be psychologically damaging, particularly if internet use of this kind is habitual.
Secondly, the stress hormone cortisol (and adrenaline) rises with greatest strength in conditions of uncertainty; and when you log onto social media, you have no idea what you are going to see on your feed, or when. You cannot, for example, control a slew of fitness-based photos, posts or announcements from suddenly appearing on your profile at a moment you are feeling negative about yourself, or simply directionless as the excitement of the comp-period has passed - and that will spike stress hormones.
Any great post-comp strategy subsequently has to include a post-comp social media strategy. The Internet offers one of those truly rare opportunities in life where there is an ‘Off’ button for something that stresses you out. Press that button if you need to and, if you can, replace it with more time outside (the academic research supporting the effects of nature on stress are really profound, so if you feel yourself getting stressed, there is a lot worse you can do than putting the smartphone away and going for a walk in the park).
A New Focus
High-testosterone means that natural bodybuilders are likely to have a strong focus – much stronger than the average Joe – and you’ll have doubled-down on that focus for months pre-comp, strengthening it to the limits of its capacity. Which is very impressive. But there is a flip side - if you lose that focus, you can lose your way. This is one reason why so many pro athletes who retire end up with criminal convictions, having affairs, getting into drugs and alcohol and so on – because the psychological foundations that they stood on during their sporting career get pulled away, and they have nowhere to direct their focus and energy. These dangers represent a major focus of interest in the academic world (e.g. in studies of sports sociology), and natural amateur bodybuilders are as exposed as any other high-performance athlete to them. It is vital that they manage out these risks.
A great post-comp strategy, subsequently, is going to map out how you re-direct your focus – which might mean that you plan a new comp in the diary, so training can start again quickly, or an off-season photo shoot, a holiday, a new sport, physical challenge (e.g. sponsored Three Peaks Challenge), more projects at work, or a training course. This would not only minimise any potential pitfalls, post-comp, but also provide an excellent opportunity to re-direct your laser-like focus somewhere else, for personal or professional gain.
The Good News – You Can Beat the Blues
In the run up to competition, your body may have been running on adrenaline for a while, given the excitement and stress of competition, the calorie deficit, and many other aspects of pre-comp life that you will have been experiencing. Your immune system may be compromised, which can be accompanied by cortisol over-exposure and adrenal fatigue – so there literally has never been a more crucial time in your bodybuilding calendar to make sure that a decent strategy is still in place to ensure that you are as mentally and physically healthy as you can be. The good news is that you can beat these blues and come out a stronger athlete.
Ultimately, the sport of natural bodybuilding provides perhaps the most optimal emotional state (in terms of mental health) for any sport on earth (think of the high protein intake, the emphasis on strength as well as cardio training, and supplementation with substances such as l-carnitine). The sport even offers a drug-free and assisted route, which other sports could learn a great deal from and which takes away a major source of psychological strain for many athletes. But given a natural bodybuilders’ reliance on specific supplements, dietary requirements, strength and cardio training, and strong focus – we cannot suddenly turn off that switch, after a comp, and expect, neurologically, to be in a healthy emotional place.
The answer? Develop a great post-comp strategy. It doesn’t have to be complex, as long as it includes some basic elements.
First: any great post-comp strategy will need to retain all aspects of the pre-comp workout and diet regime, with just with the intensity of training managed out to the right degree, and the diet relaxed sufficiently to also continue supplementation and return to healthy non-competition bodyfat and calorie/nutrient levels.
Second, it will build in a conduit for re-direction of your laser-sharp focus, if you feel you need it (a new project, a new comp, a holiday).
Third, any great strategy will include a pre-designated approach to social media. Each athlete knows themselves well and will know what triggers their anxiety, self-comparison, and so on, and planning a social media ban, or adaptation of use (etc) post-comp is hugely additive to your post-comp experience and life.
Finally, any great post-comp strategy will acknowledge the real threat of a greater vulnerability to addiction post-comp (including a possible stress addiction). To know that you are vulnerable is hugely empowering and allows you to manage out the risk by looking for healthy but exciting activities, to keep exercise and diet tight to keep the flow of dopamine steady, to step out of your comfort zone to create positive stress, and to simply be aware of why you crave certain things more around this post- comp period – and to manage your time and experiences accordingly.
Natural Bodybuilding: A Sport for Life
Ultimately, competing is one of the most difficult and rewarding experiences of a bodybuilders’ life. Competing is a journey and one whose final destination does not have to be the comp day itself. Many bodybuilders will find the journey far more rewarding, relaxing and defining, in a positive way, if the post-comp strategy becomes as much a part of their lifestyle and identity as the pre-comp phase has become. In many ways, it is just a reflection of the fact that bodybuilding is not only a sport to enjoy on competition – it is, for many, a sport that can truly become a rewarding and enjoyable way of life, long after the stage lights have dimmed and competitors have made their long journey back home.
Elesa Zehndorfer PhD, www.zehndorferconsulting.com
Many of the observations in this article came from research I conducted for my forthcoming book (The Physiology of Emotional & Irrational Investing: Causes & Solutions’ (Routledge: In Press)) which is available for pre-order now!