Fitness and the Winter Blues

Things are about to get personal right here. As always I like to keep this blog as “real” and honest as possible. If you go to my about page you can read my whole history of my complicated relationship with my body up to the point where I started this blog. But what I haven’t touched on before are the peripheral things that also have an impact on health and fitness. Namely, the psychological aspect of health.

I, like many Canadians, suffer from depression.

I have for a very long time.

It’s worse in the winter, like it is for most people in the northern hemisphere, because of the cold, the lack of daylight and the urge to stay inside all day. It’s sometimes called the Winter Blues, but its technical term is Seasonal Affective Disorder (yes, the acronym is SAD).

But I’ve been getting better! Better at dealing with it and better at actually being happier. I no longer consider myself “depressed”, but that doesn’t mean winters aren’t hard.

Photo credit: Hyperbole and a Half

Depression is a complicated beast and is not something that I am going to try to explain here, other than to say that when you start to get depressed (real depression, not sadness) it is a vicious circle. You feel depressed -> you don’t want to do anything -> you stay away from people and things that can make you feel better -> you get more depressed -> cycle repeats.

BUT that is also the cycle that gets you out of that crappy spiral. You can spiral up!

Ok, here is where we get back to fitness. Exercising and eating right and taking care of your body make you less depressed. Not can, might or may make you less depressed. They will make you less depressed. And if you don’t suffer from depression, they will make you feel even better than you already do. There are a lot of physical and chemical reasons for that. But a lot of it boils down to the fact that you are doing something good for yourself, which means that you value yourself and that is a powerful thing!

So keeping active and eating well throughout the winter is crucial for anyone with a sensitive disposition. Obviously that’s not the easiest thing to do in the winter with lots of holiday temptations and the bitter cold outside acting as a deterrent from getting off your couch. But those are pretty easy to  overcome once you do it a couple of times and realize how great it makes you feel.

One of the nail ripping incidents

But what happens if you injure yourself? I seem to be on a minor injury streak recently. I bashed my ankle yesterday and it swelled up pretty badly. I have pulled and repulled my adductor 5 or 6 times now (I really need to get it checked out). And I have fallen down a set of stairs and smashed my knee. Oh and I can’t seem to make it through a leg workout without ripping off 1-3 nails.

Injury for an athlete often leads to depression, and if it’s something you are already predisposed to, it can be pretty hard to fight it off. But one of the keys is to have a game plan. If you have a minor injury, keep going to the gym, just take it easier than normal. But if you have a major injury that requires rehab or rest, the best thing to do for your mind is to come up with a plan of action.

  • How long are you out of commission?
  • Will this cause a permanent change to the way to function?
  • What are the steps to getting healthy again?

Lay it all out, go over it with your medical team and commit to it just like you would any other goal. And here’s the REALLY important part… treat it like a normal goal you would set for health and fitness. Break it down into mini goals and celebrate those milestones. Soon enough you will be back to normal and making even bigger progress than before.

*** I wrote the post after being bombarded by the “Bell Let’s Talk” day campaign and thought that it was important to share. I know it’s an uncomfortable and even shameful topic for some people, but it’s important to have these conversations. None of us are alone.  ***

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Thoughts on post-competition blues

Lately I have been hearing a lot about “post-competition blues” (Tosca just had a blog post about it) which is basically like mini depression that a lot of competitors face after a competition. Olympians and lots of other high performance athletes go through this after they attain a goal. It happens because the process for these things is so long and gruelling, but the actual result or competition is short and over quickly. Then what?

You have been living a life full of structure, limiting yourself, depriving yourself, pushing yourself hard and harder all in the name of this one goal… and then it’s gone!

Here is what happens to a lot of fitness competitors I have been reading about:

  1. They have a serious binge after the competition that usually consists of fast food, chips, chocolate and candy.
  2. They continue to eat unhealthy for days sometimes weeks because they feel they deserve it.
  3. They gain a lot of weight very quickly (a lot is water) and get upset that they lost the body they worked so hard for so quickly.
  4. They stop going to the gym for a few days/weeks all while eating poorly when introducing higher calories could mean great muscular gains, instead they get out of shape and lose muscle
  5. They have nothing to push towards and either vow not to do a competition again OR they immediately sign up for a new competition to try to get that motivation back.

None of these responses are mentally or physically healthy and there are good ways to deal with this. But I am a little worried about how this will happen with me. I decided I need a plan and a new goal to keep myself in check after the competition.

No I am not immediately entering a new fitness competition, at least not right away. I always have a few vague goals, but I think I need a few solid ones to keep me in line. So here it goes:

  • Increase my strength to above where it was pre-competition diet within 3 months
    • 205 lb deadlift
    • 175 lbs squat
    • 115 lb bench press
    • 20 dips
  • Keep my weight under 140 lbs (or approx. Within 7 lbs of my competition weight) consistently
  • Allow myself 2 weeks of “free-er” diet that includes alcohol and grains, but no gluten and no eating beyond full, my post competition meal will be Indian food and ice cream and I will not binge!
  • Look into paleo and consider the Whole30 challenge

None of these goals really have an end date, but they will at least keep me accountable and I will at least be able to let you all know how I do with the eating post contest.

This is what I dream of!

I am really excited about ice cream, and Indian food is great because it’s rice based (gluten free) but salty and fatty, which makes me feel indulgent without giving me a huge tummy ache.

I’m also really excited about my strength goals because after depleting your body and pushing it so hard it is primed to gain muscle if you push yourself. All of a sudden you are actually providing it with enough calories to build muscle and not just spare it. I want to add a little bit of muscle so the next time around I will look even better. You will also be able to make huge strength gains because you are properly fueling your body.

I do not want to turn my body into a waste bin just because I don’t have a goal… so I won’t! But I also recognize that I am currently at an unsustainable body fat % and that it is OK to gain weight after a competition, it is even healthy to gain as long as it’s not straight sugar and fat.

I plan to dial back my training to 3-5 times per week with an emphasis on heavy lifting and to allow myself to cheat with wine and chocolate and ice cream every so often (like 1 – 2 times per week) but I will keep this up… it is a lifestyle, not a diet!

Goals are great. They keep you motivated, but they can also lead to disappointment or confusion when you have finished with them, so if you take one thing from this post today, make this a lifestyle change. It took me 2 years of progressive little changes to be able to diet this strictly without feeling super deprived.

I started out working out 2-3 days per week with very little cardio and lots of strength and slowly increased that to 4, then 5 times per week, so the jump to 6 times or even multiple workout a day didn’t seem the jarring.

I also started by just making simple swaps with my food. I still bought my lunch most days 2 years ago, but I would bring healthy snack like fruit and nuts and only buy lunch, not a bag of mini eggs for a snack. My lunches were jimmy the greek salads and pita wraps, then slowly I transitioned to making lunch a couple days a week, and doubling up what I had make for dinner. Then I started prepping big batched of food and keeping staples like chicken breast and cut up veggies in the fridge. So when competition diet rolled around all I had to do was change what went in the Tupperware and cut grains out. I didn’t go from eating 3 meals a day, buying lunch and eating chocolate every day to a competition diet.

If you jump in too drastically (which I know is oh so tempting to do) you will have great results very quickly! You will start making progress, but you will feel like you are deprived and “poor me, I can’t have sugar!” and then you will cheat, and you will stop that progress and you will not make a lasting change. I have had to sneak up on this whole thing by making one little change at a time. Not everyone is like me, but I think it’s more common than we think. So take it slow and try not to look at this as a negative! Love yourself!

Also, almost entirely unrelated to all this – I have stayed the same weight for 2 weeks now, which is super weird at this point in competition prep, but I look a lot leaner – so don’t pay atention to the scale… they lie!!!