Post Competition Depression (PCD) – Can You Avoid PCD? Over the past 15 years in working with clients and athletes my knowledge and client base has expanded from from the fit to those with medical conditions such as eating disorders, thyroid disease, diabetes, auto-immune deficiency, cancer patients and many more. Like each of these complicated conditions PCD (post competition depression) is real. A topic that is rarely discussed or acknowledged is more than enough reason to discuss. It’s been a part of my past and for many it becomes a cycle that cannot be broken.
So you decided to do your first bodybuilding show. Whether you’re a first time competitor or not, most of you might relate to this topic. For the first time competitor and those who compete regularly awareness and educating yourself is your best defense against PCD and minimizing the negative consequence during the weeks following a competition. Doing your homework to help yourself from spiraling down to a real low is worth just as much as all the time spent getting ready for a show. We are all unique individuals and we respond slightly different to exercise and nutritional programs. When it comes to these two components one size does not fit all. When an athlete decides to compete in any type of competition or challenge, having a well-designed program should be based on our individual differences and responses. Some of those individual principal differences have to do with body size, shape, genetics, past experience, current health conditions, injuries and even gender. A good example, women generally need more recovery time than men.
Prior to hitting the stage an athlete can spend countless hours preparing. We learn how to utilize our time wisely to get everything done. It becomes a part time job without getting paid. Many competitors spend countless hours in the gym per day trying to burn off as much body fat as possible in the months leading up to the big day. Your nutrition changes and your focus becomes a tunnel that leads straight to being ready for the big day. The gym becomes your second home where everyone knows your name and the encouraging words from members and peers boost your motivation and help you push harder. Your progress is acknowledged and noticed. Your endorphin’s are stimulated and nothing feels better than this journey to looking your best! The feeling is exhilarating and makes you unstoppable.
What we do. After months of disciple and dedication we reach new levels of fitness, we start looking like a champ and the feelings of being ready, or not, intensify. We continue to make sacrifices we never thought we could or would. We spend time alone, become hermits and seclude ourselves. We make the choice to give 100% every day no matter how tired we are. Heck, we can get all the sleep we need when we die. Right? Some burn the candle at both ends and push the envelope beyond what they thought they could. This leads up to the day, the day is here! The moment you’ve worked so hard for. It’s show time! Your adrenaline hits a natural high and you experience a rush like never before. Then bam! It’s over. We plan, train and walk the line for months in preparation for that moment. Now what? What happens next? What do we do?
Speaking from experience. Whether an athlete wins or loses, episodes of depression following the mental exhilaration of intensive training, hormonal shifts and balancing life are common and normal. The problem is, most competitors especially first timers, are not aware of PCD. Post competition depression is usually self-resolving. Awareness, post competition planning, setting post competition goals, easing back into higher caloric intake of the right foods and being familiar with PCD works best in coping and dealing with any depression that may arise.
What I have seen and hear most. During the weeks following a show has become almost epidemic within the bodybuilding world. After months of intense training, cardio and dieting to reach competition condition, we start to fantasize, make plans and talk about what we will eat first. Pizza, burgers, pancakes, chips, queso and let’s not forget that favorite alcohol beverage! You’ve worked long and hard to achieve amazing results. You’re lean and fit and deserve to splurge and relax. It’s time to celebrate and cut loose. It’s time to have some fun and let your body recover and rest from the stress you’ve been under. We think, I’ll have a splurge day and get back on it. However this can be challenging. You’ve accomplished what gym members were motivated by and witnessed as you went through your journey and transformation. You became a quasi-gym star and now it’s time to take a break. REALITY bites and bites hard.
And so it begins. It took me years to figure out how to make the most of post competition leanness without going down the wrong path. We have to allow ourselves to regain some weight. There is always a time (typically the first few weeks) after a competition where most competitors find themselves binge eating and drinking. At this point we feel the need to try to rectify these episodes with lots of cardio, others try to maintain their low body fat while having these moments of over indulgence. The bouts of feeling guilty, feeling run down and tired starts to spin out of control. We spend months preparing to achieve leanness without planning for how to maintain a happy medium. Little do most competitors know that we are in prime condition for what could be the MOST rewarding potential in building lean mass.
Work with what you have achieved. Work to help yourself, not against yourself. After months of strict dieting to achieve extremely low body fat levels for a bodybuilding contest, you are essentially priming yourself for what could be a muscle-building dream, or a fat hoarding nightmare. As body fat levels dip low, especially into the lower single digits, hormones shift dramatically. The hormone leptin is significantly lowered thus triggering intense hunger followed by an increase in ghrelin production. At this point making food choices becomes critical in determining what path you will go down post competition. When one attains truly shredded conditioning, the hunger is unavoidable. Typically a competitor will know what their “post contest binge” will be weeks before the contest even happens. The list is usually empty calories, fat storing foods, which we know are non-conducive to muscle growth. Foods that will spike and shift the once balanced hormones due to a strict regimen and eating regularly. We should all shoot to be the smart competitor. The one planning out their post competition regimen and goals a few weeks before the show. Take advantage of your accomplishments when the contest is over, your body is primed to store all the nutrients you ingest. Since body fat is extremely low, your insulin sensitivity is very high. This means less insulin is needed from your pancreas to transport nutrients to their destination. Greater insulin sensitivity translates into nutrients being absorbed towards muscle cells and not adipose tissue. Since leptin is low and ghrelin is high, your appetite for muscle building foods will be high. The foods you should be focusing on are typically what you would have consumed during your pre-contest phase, but more. Plan to celebrate your accomplishment and set your post competition goals. Focus on foods that are lean protein sources, fibrous complex and essential fats. All of the foods that are very beneficial to a depleted and deprived competitor. Consuming these food choices in the proper caloric range will yield a compensation effect of glycogen storage. The influx of calories will also elevate thyroid output, which increases your resting metabolic rate and will increase testosterone production from essential fatty acids and additional saturated fats. This cascade of hormonal responses combined with heavy resistance training and a little cardio will be your biggest growth spurt of the year if executed properly. If you fall victim to the post contest binge festival that lasts for weeks the exact opposite will take place and more than likely lead you into post competition depression. This option usually involves the competitor eating excessive amounts of refined sugars, processed meats and carbohydrates plus large amounts of hydrogenated trans fatty junk food, washed down by their favorite alcohol beverage. This road is usually accompanied with down time from cardio and weight training which equals muscle atrophy and fat cell hypertrophy. Not to mention, water retention, possible muscular cramps and mild to elevated depression once the crazy feeding comes to a halt.
Learn from history or the history of others. Like many, I learned my lesson the hard way. If you are a first time competitor or have experience PCD due to a binge rebound in the past, maybe these words will help you better understand, prevent and motivate you to make the most of your hard work while focusing on over-all planning that will help you chip away at the piece of art that you are while leading you down the right path for success.