Lessons Learned From Contest Prep

Contest prep is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’ve played collegiate sports, worked a demanding professional career, and made it through a twin pregnancy just to name a few things. And along the way I have always been disciplined about diet and exercise. All of which made me think I would breeze through contest prep and not struggle with many of the difficulties I had heard others talk about. But the constant grind of prep is no joke and the respect I already had for competitors has only increased. Here are a few takeaways:

Being stage lean is overrated. While pictures are impressive and many look at stage-ready bodies as the epitome of health and wellness, that is not the case. Stage lean is an unhealthy, unsustainable low level of body fat that should really only be maintained for a short period of time. By the end I was constantly cold and food focused, my joints hurt, and my sleep was disrupted. All signs that hormones and body fat levels were not at a healthy level.

There is an entirely new level of hunger. I’ve been lean for much of my life, so I thought I knew what hunger felt like and was good at dealing with it. However, being contest lean requires unrelenting discipline with your diet, without great opportunities for even temporary relief. Towards the end, once body fat levels have gotten low enough, your body no longer has extra fuel sources to turn to, and hunger takes on both a physical and mental presence.

Contest prep isn’t just difficult for the athlete, but also difficult for personal and professional relationships. The physical and mental demands made me struggle at times feeling like I was neglecting and not contributing to our family and businesses. Priorities are constantly being evaluated. We can still be successful in all aspects of our life during contest prep, but some days that requires juggling those priorities. Fortunately I have a wife who has been through it all herself, but constant communication (about everything) was extremely important along the way.

Emotions can feel like a roller coaster. By nature I am a calm and cool person but there were days that it was difficult for me to control my emotions. For seemingly no reason I could be anxious, sad, worried, angry, impatient, introspective, questioning, confident, or happy at any given moment and then feel something else minutes later despite nothing happening to cause a change. It made me question if I was doing the right thing and if I would ever get back to feeling “normal”.

Somewhat surprisingly, I now have a better relationship with food and exercise. This is probably worth a blog post by itself, but I have always been concerned about putting on weight, so tight control over workouts and food was a staple in my life. I have now gone through cycles of putting on weight to bulk and then taking it all off to get ready for the stage. I have an appreciation for what healthy actually is and now don’t carry the same burden. I know I have control and it’s much more fun to be goal and purpose driven.

Lastly, my wife is the most incredible human being I know. Even though she will never take an ounce of credit, Kjersten Bakke deserves it. She supported me through all the hurdles I just wrote about unconditionally. In fact, most days she knew what I needed before I did. She allowed me to just worry about me. Through this experience, as in our entire relationship together, she simply makes me a better version of myself.

If you are getting ready for contest prep yourself, I hope you notice that most of what I learned has nothing to do with what workouts to do or what food to eat. Find a good coach and talk to others so that you know what to expect in all aspects of life. It will make it a much more enjoyable experience and you can use all of these challenges to make you better at everything else you do in life.

Its time to step away, work smart, work hard, and put on some size for my next run at the stage in 2021. In the meantime, I am looking forward to providing the same type of love and support to my wife as she starts to prepare to compete in 2020!

— Stephanie Johnson-Bakke

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