What Happens When Your Body Just Stops Listening?

Five-time figure competitor Monica Anctil tells TUA about her fight back from metabolic shutdown.

When Your Body Betrays You: The Truth About Metabolic Shutdown

By Monica Anctil, NPC Figure Competitor

As I stepped on stage as a figure competitor for the first time on July 18th, 2009, I was instantly hooked!  There was something about being up there, in front of a panel of judges and hundreds of spectators wearing next to nothing, knowing that I had worked harder for this accomplishment than any other event in my life.  Everything about this moment in time told me I had the determination I needed to succeed: I had done what I set out to do as an athlete.  It was an achievement and triumph I could own.  Of course the support of family, friends and fans is extremely important and without it and their encouragement there wouldn’t be much keeping you going. But to know that this was, physically, all my own doing, was a feeling that just could not be surpassed.

After the show I felt amazing!  I felt fulfilled. I had FINALLY accomplished something that I really, truly wanted.  So, naturally I picked another show to do and began prepping.  At this point I was very lean, but didn’t have a keen appreciation for my low body fat, so I ate… very freely!  I’d still eat my clean meals throughout the day but was very robotic about it and always relied on a coach to tell me what and when to eat, etc.  I would occasionally snack on junk food such as snacks, sugar-free candy, anything that contained carbs but in small enough portions where I felt I could counter my choices with cardio.  Still, I felt miserable about “cheating” which affected my overall outlook and even training sessions.  Needless to say my next experience on stage, just three months later, was nothing like the first.  I felt out of shape, had cheated numerous times on my diet and added cardio when it wouldn’t have been necessary if I would have eaten a cleaner diet and had a healthier perspective about food.  You can NOT out train a bad diet!  I had a false expectation of greatness and that I should do better at this show than I had at the last one even though I didn’t work as smart.  I guess I thought it should be easier the second time around. WRONG!  Learning to work smarter is the route that I’ve learned to take now, but at the time, as I strived to be the best, I trained harder without really listening to my own body. 

I entered four figure competitions over the course of a year.  Typically competitors will do one, two, three or and even four contest, but back to back, rather than spread out over a year. By grouping the contests in one quarter or a few months, you give your body the time it needs to recover from extreme dieting and endless cardio during prep and the heavy weight training sessions during your “off season.” It’s a way to balance the stresses you put on your body.  Unfortunately I was unfamiliar with the suggested protocols of “on” and “off season” and began prepping for shows purely out of desire to stay in “show shape” all year round.  I didn’t understand that for most people it’s not feasible or even desirable to keep your body fat and weight so low 12 months out of the year. I just knew I wanted to look “competition ready” all the time.

"I didn’t understand that for most people it’s not feasible or even desirable to keep your body fat and weight so low 12 months out of the year. I just knew I wanted to look “competition ready” all the time."

The guilt really set in when I began straying from my “contest-prep diet,” where I would incorporate more liberal food choices and one to two cheat meals a week.  Over time I began to damage my body and mind.  I began decreasing my calories from the guilt of cheat meals, adding more and more cardio and eliminating off days, building a mentality that “more was better.” In my case that meant more cardio and training—and less calories.  I was doing upwards of two hours of cardio daily on top of five to six days of very intense weight training a week. To further stay in competition shape, I started cutting calories, from 1300 calories a day, gradually working down to 800-900 calories a day.  I was terrified of carbs and fats were my sworn enemy.  In essence, I was slowing down my metabolism and starving my body. All the while, my exhaustion grew. Training at the gym, a pastime I had once enjoyed and loved, now became a never-ending job that I dreaded. How had this happened so soon after I first stepped on stage and felt that thrill of being a figure competitor?

Even worse, my weight began to climb uncontrollably.  Around July of 2010 I began prep for the IFPA Pro Qualifier, The Yorton Cup Amateur Figure Class in the Washington, DC area.  Five weeks out from the show I instinctively noticed a change in my physique that put a halt to my prep and forced me to think hard and long about my body and emotional health. 

"Over the course of 2 months, I gained over 30 pounds and my weight increased from approximately 135 to upwards of 165.  How is it possible, on so few calories and so much exercise to actually gain weight?"

The foods that I had religiously eaten to burn fat and lose weight suddenly caused my body to hold onto fat and store it.  My body was flooded from water retention and it seemed to get worse with each day that passed.  Over the course of 2 months, I gained over 30 pounds and my weight increased from approximately 135 to upwards of 165.  How is it possible, on so few calories and so much exercise to actually gain weight? I asked the same thing.  It wasn’t logical.  If I was burning 1,000 calories on the treadmill most days, how could I gain weight eating just 800 calories?

I reached a point, I remember very vividly, where I realized that there had to be a better way to live and a smarter way to train. I knew in my heart that whatever I had done, I had expended more energy and calories than my body was willing to readily expend and I needed to give it time to heal and find its equilibrium again. I thought about the many athletes out there and knew that they weren’t trying to train and stay competitive on less than 1,000 calories a day.  I knew deep down that there had to be more to my training than exhaustion, failure and dreaded weight gain.

 

At that very moment I decided that I had to take a break.  I put my food scale away and vowed to take at LEAST a month off from the gym.  This was one of the hardest things to do—it felt so counterintuitive– but what did I have to lose, the weight?  I wasn’t losing it by drastically cutting my calories and over-training so what harm could I do by adding more nutrient dense foods? Frankly, I was out of options, so changing my nutrition one of the few things I could control as I tried to build back my health, my metabolism and my energy.  I went from eating a typical competitors diet of egg whites, oatmeal, chicken, fish, sweet potatoes and broccoli to adding nutrient rich foods like whole fat butter, greek yogurt, honey, steel cut outs, red potatoes, steak, whole eggs, rice, a greater variety of fruits and vegetables and so much more!  I began to research different foods, looking hard at their nutritional and health benefits.  My energy levels came back pretty quickly, thanks to adding  calories and not exercising myself into exhaustion.  After being deprived and at near-starvation levels for so long,  it took a little while to regulate my metabolism and I did gain a few more pounds in the first weeks from eating foods that my body wasn’t use to, but I could literally feel the difference internally almost immediately. Over the course of the next three  months my regularity came back, my skin, hair and nails ESPECIALLY became softer and more supple again and most of all my demeanor changed.  I was healthier mentally, physically, emotionally and physiologically.  I went back into the gym with not only more energy, but I found my love for training again.      

Being happy, I mean truly happy and loved, will make your whole world better.  After meeting my boyfriend and love of my life, NPC National Level bodybuilder Tim Fernandez, and taking that much needed time off, I feel more rejuvenated and healthier in all aspects of my life. I listen to my body and when I need an off day I take it. When I need a re-feed meal, I eat it. I also try to be objective with my nutrition.  It’s made all the difference. This year I prepped to do my fifth figure competition in three years and was able to lose 35 pounds in roughly 4 months, with control and moderation.  I found the sport I love again, but this time on my terms.

SIDEBAR: FIVE THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT METABOLIC SHUTDOWN:

5. Your body is different than anybody else’s.  You have to learn what works for you.

4. Understand that most people are more critical of themselves than others are of you.

3. Learn about the vast variety of healthy, complex carbohydrates and don’t be afraid of them.

2. Be open minded and not afraid to (gradually) add calories to your meals and menus. 

1. Most importantly, learn to trust yourself. 

Columnist Monica Anctil is an athlete, five time figure competitor and student studying massage therapy in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Most recently, she competed in figure at The Shawn Ray Classic in Baltimore, MD, October, 27, 2012.