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!