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What Happens When Too Much Really Is Too Much?

By Jen Minihan

I’ve just completed my second year of recovery. Recovering from what? Too much training, too much dieting and in all honesty too much of everything. Three years ago I started preparing for my first figure competition. Mentally, I couldn’t have been more excited. Looking back now and of course having the wisdom of time on my side, it may not have been the best time to jump into such an endeavor. At the time I had two toddlers at home, a husband who worked endless hours and I was completing my master’s degree as well as two special nutrition certifications. When I made my declaration about entering the competition I felt truly excited about it because I was doing something I had always wanted to do. Just like my type A personality dictates, I took on this challenge just like everything else-guns a blazing-no holds bar! I didn’t yet know about Cathy so I trusted a trainer in my gym to get me physically to my goal. I relied on books and the internet to supply me with my nutrition information needed for contest prep. Even though I knew tons about nutrition, preparing for a figure competition was completely foreign to me. We had 20 weeks to transform my body and get me competition ready. Looking back and knowing what I know now, 20 weeks was plenty of time to reach my goal. When I was knee deep in the thick of things, 20 weeks sounded like 2 weeks and definitely felt like not enough time to be stage ready. I’ve seen countless pictures of competitors and deep down I doubted that I could ever look like they did. Panic and fear began to set in. So what did I do? I immediately started over training and over dieting. Carbs and fat were immediately cut from my diet. I want to say I was only consuming 2 servings of nuts a week and taking 2 little fish pills-that’s it! Carbs were rationed out. Fruit was taken out entirely and I would say I was having ½ cup of oats every other day. Training was a whole other story. Cardio was doubled right away. I would do a session in the morning and a session in the evening. My weight workouts lasted anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes. Put this all together with school and two kids and guess what-I had a recipe for disaster. Well needless to say I was competition ready in about 8 weeks-with still 12 to go. I was so much in the thick of things I couldn’t see the forest through the trees. I didn’t realize what I was doing to my body. I was exhausted. I would get up every morning at 4:30 to start my first workout and end the evening at midnight after the last of the homework, house chores and second cardio workout was done. In order to get through these workouts and long days I was constantly feeding my body caffeine. Can anyone say 4 shot espressos multiple times a day? I was also starving all the time. I couldn’t understand why I was constantly hungry. Now I know that my body was starving for the rest and vital nutrients I was keeping from it. I was evil too! So moody and downright mean to my family. My emotions would swing all over the place. I still tear up when I think about how short tempered I was with my children. Besides feeling exhausted and being evil, my skin was a mess from not eating any good fats. I always had pimples and my hair, skin and nails were dry as a bone.

It was about this time I heard of Cathy Savage so I immediately signed up for her July camp. I was the only person in my gym at the time training for something like this and I felt alone. I thought attending Cathy’s camp would do my spirit some good. I showed up to camp ripped and stage ready and yet my competition was still 4 weeks away. I can still remember everything she said about training and nutrition. Eat good fats; eat your carbs; eat fruit and don’t listen to everyone at the gym telling you to double your cardio. While listening to Cathy speak I felt panicked and completely freaked out because I was pretty much breaking every Savage rule that existed. I promised myself that once I finished the upcoming show I would trade my ways for the ways of Savage and everything would be okay. Besides, with only 4 weeks to go I was too afraid to turn back now. I would keep up with the crazy diet and training and then make all the necessary changes after my competition. I muscled through the remaining weeks and made by stage debut. I did phenomenal. I brought home 3 trophies as well as the drive and determination to do it all again. In my twisted thinking, my wins validated my behavior. I had already set my sights on another competition scheduled for 8 weeks later. I got myself back into the gym and back onto that crazy schedule. I was completely ignoring every sign my body was giving me telling me that enough was enough and completely ignoring everything my Savage coach was telling me to do. I knew that Cathy had all the right answers and had the history to prove it and yet I wouldn’t let myself trust her because I had become so focused on winning and therefore afraid to change anything I was doing. If I didn’t bring home yet another trophy then it must mean I was a failure. Everyone around me was watching me waiting to see if I could win again. Little did I know at the time that competing is so much more than winning or losing.

As I continued to get ready for my second competition I continued with the overtraining and over dieting. Never letting my Savage Coach know what I was doing. The second competition came and yes, I won again! Honestly though, I was most excited that this was my last competition and I was considered off season! I could get off this crazy roller coaster I was living on. I would act as if the last 7 months of dieting and training never happened and I would start fresh and start listening to my Savage coaches.

I ate and trained sensibly during off season. It was a true feeling of bliss! I couldn’t believe how good carbs tasted! However, besides my skin and hair still being a mess and my cycle still absent, some new things were going on with my body. I was experiencing awful night sweats and my abdomen started protruding. In the back of my mind I was always fearful that there would be permanent damage from all I had done and would worry daily if my fears were coming true. I didn’t want to believe that so I continued moving forward with plans for spring shows. Before I knew it, February was upon us and competition season was well under way. And wow, did I have plans! Great plans!

I wasn’t going to over diet or over train this time so I was genuinely excited to get the diet down process underway. The first week I didn’t lose any weight-ok I thought, no big deal. Week 8 came and went and still not an ounce gone. I started freaking out. My fears were in fact coming true. All this time the night sweats continued, my cycle still hadn’t returned and my belly protruded more now than before. I immediately scheduled an appointment with my doctor. I thought ok, I’ll fix whatever I did and then I can focus on getting ready for my next competition. Four doctors and 5 months later I finally had a diagnosis. Well thanks to all the over dieting, over training and caffeine my cortisol levels were off the charts. And thanks to all my diet research on the many blogs that are out there I was eating way too much fish. They said to get lean you should eat fish and boy did I ever. Well thanks to that warped advice I ended up developing mercury poisoning. My poor liver couldn’t keep up with the high levels of mercury so I began to experience liver failure. That’s right-my liver was failing. And remember all the good fats I refused to eat, well not only did I have poor skin, hair and nails I also was entering kidney failure. See you need fats for your kidneys to work properly. Something that these blogs don’t talk about! Good fats are also the foundation of our hormone system. No good fats, no menstrual cycle. I virtually had non-existent levels of estrogen, testosterone and progesterone. Oh, and my thyroid. Shot. The high levels of cortisol produced from all my training, caffeine intake and lack of sleep caused my thyroid to give out. I was in trouble. Looking at my test results, the doctor looked up at me and couldn’t believe I was able to walk around. He expressed his concern-even using the words death in our conversation. I acknowledged what I had done and knew I couldn’t keep this destructive behavior going if I wanted to be there for my children. I sat with the doctor and we formulated a plan. Silly me, I thought everything would be back to normal in a few weeks. Well, this past July 16th marked 2 years. During the two years, I lost all my muscle due to the high levels of cortisol and Mother Nature kindly replaced it with fat-25 pounds of it. She thought since I couldn’t take care of myself she had to step in and do it for me. I had no control over my body over these last 2 years. I had to sit back and let Mother Nature take its course and let the healing take place. It took a year for my cycle to return and just recently I have been able to build muscle again and my weight has slowly but steadily been dropping. I’m working with yet another set of doctors and I believe that this will be my last as with them I‘ve seen my most recent successes.

For all the lessons learned from this experience (so many I’ll have to write another article!), I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. I cannot turn back the clock but I can move forward and do things differently. I now take care of myself with the love, respect and grace I deserve. Winning is no longer about a trophy. It is about a sisterhood, it is about paying things forward, living truthfully, being fulfilled, being a great mom, wife and friend. It is about loving myself unconditionally. I have grown physically, spiritually and emotionally in ways I could have never imagined. Our journeys help us to grow stronger from the inside out!

22 Responses to What Happens When Too Much Really Is Too Much?

  1. I cried AGAIN reading this story! Jen is one of the strongest, most beautiful people I know, and am honored to call her my best friend. You are such an inspiration!!!!

  2. Hi Jen-

    Thank you for sharing such candid details with all of us about such a serious and personal struggle you went through. I feel as though many women on this team have experienced the ‘darker side’ of the fitness industry by following the ridiculous advice of trainers out there who think they know contest prep. Before I discovered Cathy, I attended a fitness camp held by a famous fitness model/pro figure competitor (whose name I’ll leave anonymous) and after a weekend of listening to all of her advice and experiences I was set on competing. I immediately signed up with her coach (also whose name I’ll leave anonymous) and I was ordered to put in over an hour a day of cardio, split up in two sessions, lengthy training sessions and a very restrictive diet. In fact, there was a woman I met at this event who had transformed her body with the help of this coach. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more so I asked her some questions. She was a full time nurse, married with children and had decided to compete. When I asked her how many hours per night she slept, in order to workout 3 hrs or more per day, on average it was only 4 hours! A voice inside told me this was ludicrous but I joined with this coach anyway. Well just a few weeks into the program I knew it wasn’t right for my body and quit. Unfortunately the $400 or so I had spent in just 2 months for his online coaching was non-refundable.

    From that point I decided to do more research and knew I wanted to look like a fitness model/bikini competitor and that’s when I found Cathy. Throughout the years of hiring and firing about 5 trainers before joining this team I’ve gained and lost the same 10-15 lbs about 3 or 4 times (ok, maybe 5). It has literally taken years for me to understand what works for me and what doesn’t in terms of nutrition mostly.

    I am proud of your progress and thankfully you are seeing results. Keep with it! (I am on the journey of losing those 10 lbs for the last time).

    Lauren : )

  3. GREAT article and insight Cathy ~ this is exactly what we support with SoloStrength – true fitness of body and mind is wellness and it’s meant to serve our enjoyment of life, not sacrifice enjoyment of life for the task of getting fit. For the most part it’s so deceptive and misleading (the industry). It doesn’t take so long, or so much work, but a right attitude of balance, and activities. That is why I developed SoloStrength SpeedFit Simple Gym – to help ease the time and pressure to achieve full body resistance exercise we all need for the healthy balance, and leave lots of “extra” time to enjoy it! Would love to meet you for an introduction and perhaps have your experience on SoloStrength! Keep up the insightful articles thank you for being a WELLNESS leader!

  4. wow is all i can say… really …. i have heard it all and seen even more…. and the way you articulate what you went through .. what happened and how you overcame…

    i am glad you ended up in a good place… cathy is an icon ..and as she said to me YEARS AND YEARS ago … “oren there is nothing thoes little pills and supplements can replace that good training, listening to your body and eating clean cant do better for you”

    thanks cathy!

  5. I wish every single woman on the planet could read this. I can’t even begin to count how many girls I have come in contact with that have done what you did including taking “grey area” supplements just to achieve the perfect competition look. It always made me sick to my stomach. Jen you are a true inspiration as you will teach many through the unfortunate mistakes you made. You are teaching women to listen to their bodies and treat them well. Thank God for Cathy and her staff as well who teach us that health and beauty start within and we must treat our bodies as temples and use the resources God has given to us to feed our bodies, our minds, and our souls. I am so glad to hear that your health continues to get better and that you are so strong to fight it. Thank you for sharing you story.

  6. Hi Jen….I want to say thank you for being so open and sharing in your experiences. I have to tell you that in this article, well, let’s just say I could have written in myself. Aside from the mercury poisoning, I went through the same exact thing. I never competed, but for many many years on end, I followed that diet, overtrained, overdieted, and in that time period, had no period, have fertility issues and have not been able to conceive, developed osteoporosis, severe hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue, and went through years of bad acne……
    After seeing doctor after doctor after doctor and them wanting to put me on drugs for my bones, synthetic hormones, and them just telling me to eat more –you’ll gain weight and your period will come back….well, that didn’t happen until recently. I encountered a naturopathic physician who took me under her wing, diagnosed my thyroid, put me on bioidentical hormones and phenomenal bone support (ALL NATURAL)…I am doing so much better. My periods are exactly on time, my skin as cleared up unbelievably, my weight is stable, although I still need to gain another 5 pounds (i’m working on it) and I have a better feel for what healthy diet and exercise is really about. As for the fertility stuff, well, that hasn’t happened. And if it is due to too much damage having been done, that is a price I will have to pay. But being a holistic health practitioner, and feeling that I should have known better, if I can take my experience and share it with other women and have them get something….anything…..from it, well, then it wasn’t all completely a waste.
    Thank you again. I will be sending you lots of healthy, happy, and healing thoughts.
    If you should be inclined to reach out, my email address is…..

    All the best,


  7. Wow. Fabulous! Thank you for sharing your experience and shedding light on the importance of taking care of & nourishing you body.

  8. Wow, great story! I can totally relate with you. Thank you for your honesty! I too, took 2 years to get back to healthy/normal again from competing…I too over dieted and overtrained! yet kept it a secret, I though more was better! So glad to be healthy again, still not interested in competing again though! Just don’t want to put my body/mind thru it again!!! Living a super healthy fit lifestyle though and loving it!!!

  9. Omy this exact scenario happened to me with the fish (Mercury poisoning) and the adrenals (Fat Burners) SCARY! I crashed and burned after 6 months of continuous over-exercise over-dieting-fat-burners and competing. I went to the doc last February during my off season. I’m Glad to Say I got better rather quickly thanks to a Tissue Mineral Analysis/Blood test and a holistic doc who knew what to do for me. I am training The Savage/Polsky way now with clean carbs, adequate rest, and sensible exercise plan.

  10. Wow Jen, what an incredible story, I will be sharing this with my facebook fans. I have been Primal/Paleo 4 months now, and am a cured T2 diabetic consuming healthy meats, fats, veggies, and occasionally fruits & nuts. Every fitness/bodybuilder should take this into account and learn that it isn’t about all the crazy dieting and cardio/workouts that keep you strong and healthy!!

    Please visit my page and read my story in the notes section!! 😀

  11. Wow..I completely identify..I broke my hip 4 yrs ago due to overtraining and bad diet…Just recently I have endured High hamstring tendonopathy..which makes it impossible to do any running, cycling or any lower body stuff..I was and an endurance athlete..I can’t even go to work due to the fact I am a letter carrier required to walk8-9 hrs a day. My workout schedules were much like yours…But now I am an a new path…..And I am looking forward to retraining my body…A lot less volume…a little intensity, functional exercises…mixing things up and lots of rest and natural foods..
    And damn praying a lot to thank god that maybe I am finally listening!!
    Thanks for sharing

  12. Hey Everyone-I just wanted to say thank you for all these comments. I love hearing your stories of recovery and inspiration!!!

  13. Jen,

    Thank you for sharing this story! I just signed up with CSF yesterday and I’m finding myself in a lot of your story. I hope you have a fast and healthy recovery and would love to hear more from you. I’m excited for my next fitness journey with CSF!

  14. More people need to be honest about their experiences…I had a similar training/diet experience as you did…with a “coach” who was super extreme and, for lack of a better term, “Old School.” I think there are so many people out there that NEED to tell their stories…thank you for sharing yours…glad to see you are working on getting better!

  15. I definately understand what you experienced. Prior to joining with Cathy, I also competed with another coach who helped me get ready to compete in figure. I too did two hours of cardio split between morning and night, little to no carbs, no fruit or dairy and tons of fish! I did well in my competition, but the aftermath was not so great. I wasnt coached on post show nutrition and over indulged, gaining about 25+ pounds in the months after from eating too many unhealthy carbs and sweets. I soon found out, within about 2 years, that I had insulin dependent (type 1) diabetes. I was overwhelmed and didnt understand how such a “healthy” person could develop this! Well it was very real and very hard to accept, but I too was determined to be healthy. I also was introduced to Cathy and her team, and have competed since a couple of times, did very well and prepared for the shows with all food groups in mind, no overtraining or overdieting and I was happy! I loved reading your story, it is inspiring and I feel that I can relate to you and what you have overcome. Thanks for sharing!

  16. You really just opened my eyes! I am going through this and no one will listen to me or test me. I cannot even find a naturopathic doc in my area to help. So happy you posted this though. Thank you.

  17. Jen,

    Thank you for sharing your story for all of us! Beautifully written and scary to read. You brought me to tears and I truly hope you continue to write about your experiences.
    xoxoxo Kelly

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