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4 Ways You’re Approaching Competition Prep Dieting All Wrong

Posted February 15, 2017 by

“Eat clean, train mean, get lean!” Seems so simple, right?

Of course, as anyone who’s gone through the process of prepping for a competition (successfully or otherwise) can tell you, there’s a lot more to it.

Unfortunately, misinformation and bro-science have permeated the bodybuilding subculture of the fitness industry more than perhaps any other niche–which is saying something. Approaches to dieting and training have been handed down from one generation of competitors to another–without critical analysis–so many times now that most of what is taken as “common sense” is actually myth.

Here are the top four mistakes I see many competitors make when prepping for a fitness competition.

1. Focusing on Food Types and Exclusion-Based Dieting

The idea that some foods are universally “good” and others are “bad” for getting lean is one of the most-commonly cited and oldest nutrition myths in existence. The basic logic is that when one is prepping for a show, foods that are detrimental to fat loss need to be avoided–either cut off cold turkey, or weeded out over the course of the prep one by one.

The problem is that this simply isn’t true. Body fat is not gained or lost based on the types of foods we eat, but on the amount of food we eat–both in terms of overall calorie intake, and the macronutrient breakdown of said calories. In other words, eating too much food, or too many carbohydrates can definitely prevent fat loss, but the specific types of foods you eat to meet your needs is much less relevant.

tl;dr: focus your attention on tracking your calorie and macro intake daily and eat what you like to reach those targets.

2. Following a Strict, One-Size-Fits-All Meal Plan

This issue is closely related to the previous one. As you can imagine, many competition prep diets are filled out with the alleged “good foods” and devoid of any of the “bad foods”–unless, of course, you’re having a “cheat meal.” I have a huge issue with this approach to dieting, and feel that it invites competitors to develop eating disorders.

You’re essentially forcing yourself to consume a narrow range of foods, some of which you may not like at all, while abstaining from foods you may enjoy greatly. This combination doesn’t make for an enjoyable experience whatsoever, as you’re choking down bland foods you can’t stand and obsessing over foods you feel you can’t have.

Then you have the “cheat meal” (which is no different than a premeditated binge), during which you consume huge amounts of foods that are otherwise prohibited. Since you’ve been withholding for so long, your ability to regulate your consumption goes out the window and it’s common for a prepping athlete to consume an entire day’s worth of calories in a single cheat meal.

tl;dr: practice flexible dieting so you can choose foods you like and avoid those you dislike. This will also allow you the freedom to switch things up if your diet becomes monotonous. Instead of binging once per week, regulate consumption of treat foods on a daily basis and ensure they fall within your calorie/macro targets.

3. Adjusting Caloric Intake Based on a Schedule

Calorie/macro reduction is a critical tool in the cutting process and without it you won’t get to your goals. Unfortunately, due to the lack of emphasis on calories and macros in the first place (due to a focus on food type), fine-tuning reductions in calories or macros becomes impossible.

Instead, heavy-handed elimination of entire meals or whole food groups is what happens. If you’re lucky, this might be done based on the need for change from analyzing your stats over time (weight, measurements, body fat, etc)–but more typically, an arbitrary schedule is set up for eliminating meals/foods.

For example, a 16 week prep plan might instruct the athlete to eliminate the 5th or 6th meal 6 weeks in, then eliminate another meal at the 10 week mark, and finally to remove all carbs 2-4 weeks before the show date. This type of approach is unscientific (see: total crapshoot) and results in unnecessary suffering and/or potential over/under-eating because there is no method to the madness.

The result? You come into your show with much less lean body mass, or more fat than you would have with a more meticulous approach.

tl;dr: adjust your calories and macros based on need, not an arbitrary schedule. Track everything and aim for maximum fat loss and maximum lean mass retention.

4. Setting a Minimum Intake Level

A few years ago, there was a large-scale social media lash-out over the concept of “metabolic damage”–a theory that has yet to be proven. As with most things, folks who lacked the expertise to properly engage in the discussion put their two cents in anyway, and a huge amount of misinformation was spread to the competitive community.

The main issue was that many competition coaches were prescribing huge amounts of cardio and very low calories (e.g. 800 calories per day) to all of their female clients right off the bat, 20 weeks out from a show. Instead of adjusting things up/down as needed based on physiological signs of over/undereating, they would just keep piling on more and more cardio and dropping calories more and more.

What has resulted is a reactive aversion to lowering calories. Many fitness professionals loudly proclaim that if a coach tells you to eat fewer than “x” calories, you should fire them. The issue, of course, is that everyone has individual needs and there are definitely situations where a particular athlete might need to drop to extremely low calories or add a lot of cardio to burn off that last bit of body fat.

The major difference between this approach and the original issue regarding metabolic damage, is that with a proper approach, changes are made on an individual level, based on need, and well within the prep timeline (not right out of the door). It’s the general lack of attention to one’s clients and the lack of nutritional knowledge as a fitness professional that is the real issue with these coaches being accused of damaging their clients’ metabolisms.

tl;dr: don’t assume there’s a universal minimum calorie intake or maximum amount of cardio you’ll need to get into peak condition. Everyone is unique and you may need to go much lower than you anticipated in calories, or much higher in cardio to get to your goal.

Prepping for competition is hard enough without bogging yourself down further with inefficient and unnecessary approaches to your diet. Avoiding the pitfalls above in favor of a smarter approach will help make your future experiences more enjoyable and more effective.

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