I tried durian ice cream… and really liked it!
Made friends with an Asian elephant named Saxad outside if Chiang Mai…
Took a Thai cooking class with my husband in Bangkok…
Visited several astonishingly ornate wats (temples)…
Spent three days on a live-aboard snorkeling and diving boat, gawking at sea creatures, eating massive quantities of fresh pineapple, and wearing a bikini non-stop…
Stayed in a hotel so fancy that you were physically uncomfortable with the level of service you received, because exchange rates are amazing and you should take advantage of those situations sometimes and treat yourself…
And ate hella spicy Thai food.
Including one less-than-pleasant encounter in which I attempted to be a conscientious consumer by ordering the barracuda, knowing that the nearby waters were teeming with them, only to learn a few hours later that they should NOT BE CONSUMED because the bullshit they eat accumulates and will literally poison you and you will feel VERY bad and you will spend most of your time in the fanciest hotel you’ve ever stayed in on the toilet. Thankfully a very nice toilet with several walls separating you from your sleeping husband.
PSA: Don’t order the barracuda. It’s delicious and has a great, meaty texture, but you will regret it for several days following. Apparently you haven’t really traveled unless someone gets diarrhea, I was told afterwards when comparing travel poop stories (mine was not nearly so entertaining as the experience that was shared with me, which is decidedlyfortunate), so, I guess I successfully traveled?
“But Stephanie! You’re on CONTEST PREP! For your PRO DEBUT!”
Yes. Yes I am. And yet at 11 weeks out, I packed up my brand new wheels suitcase and embarked on a two week Asian vacation. During this time, I stepped inside of a gym on only three occasions, and weighed exactly zero meal components. Don’t stress, though, this was all planned, well, well in advance. Way back in December, actually, when I started this contest prep at more than 20 weeks out. You see I knew this vacation was coming up. Last year during the same span of time I traveled to the Land Down Under, because I’m on spring break. It didn’t really go as well as I’d have liked last year, nutritionally speaking and in that I spent way too much of my vacation seeking out barbells instead of adventures and way too much time stressing over my eating and putting myself in sort of a “fuck it/why the fuck did you do that” mental space knowing that prep would start as soon as I landed back home, so I approached it differently this year.
I started by moving my contest prep diet start date back a few weeks, to before the vacation. WAY back- like I said, to December. Rather than trying to cram in an 8 week prep, I decided to embark on a TWENTY-TWO week prep, cutting down much more slowly, and incorporating something called a diet break during my vacation, so that I didn’t have to feel stressed while navigating food in a foreign country.
A diet break is exactly what it sounds like: a period of time where, in a dieting phase, you simply take a break from being in a deficit and bring your calories back up to around maintenance. A planned-in-advance break. This is important. This should, ideally, coincide with a deload in the gym as well. A diet break should last one to two weeks. This serves a few purposes:
- It gives your body a break. Eating at a deficit is taxing on a body, and causes several hormonal and physical adaptations, including a reduction in non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT, or, the normal moving and wiggling you do in a day) as you have less energy overall, increased cortisol (stress hormone), and loss of strength and energy in the gym. A diet break can help hit the reset button on these by enabling you to essentially power-up, replenishing depleted glycogen, resensitizing you to carbs, bringing in a few more calories to power you, and reducing stress hormone responses to dieting. Because the calorie boost is paired with a gym deload, it also gives your probably-busted up body a chance to repair itself, too, so you can hit it hard when you return to start your next training cycle.
- It gives your brain a break. Eating at a deficit, constantly tracking your macros and worrying about staying within the smaller numbers, perhaps an increased focus on the scale for weeks on end, is also very taxing. Dieting is hard! A diet break gives your brain a little boost, too, because you see it on the horizon as you’re pushing through the weeks leading up to it. There’s a sort or partway light at the middle of the tunnel, so the diet doesn’t seem quite to endless.
The idea is not to continue dieting through that time, or to lose weight, even. It’s to actually take a break from it. Eating more calories, you should anticipate to maintain your weight or even gain a little bit, some of which is due to water retention from increased carb consumption. And the real key is that this is planned in advance. This isn’t a massive weeklong freak out binge that you afterwards call a diet break. That feels different. It is not the go-ahead to eat anything and everything. This requires forethought and restraint, but allows for a bit more flexibility- a delicate balance, for sure.
I heard Mike Israetel provide a phenomenal example on the topic of diet breaks that really resonated with me: think of it like summer break, and you’re one of the smart kids. You look forward to it as you slog through the end of quarter 4, then it’s summer! You play outside, you watch TV, you sleep in, but by August, you’re pretty bored of all the freedom and you miss the structure of school. You miss using your brain, and you’re starting to feel like maybe it’s slipping around in there a bit more loosely than you’d like it to… and then it’s time for school again! And you’re so excited to catch up with everyone and have the structure of school back, engaging you.
A diet break provides some needed relief, before you get back to your regularly programmed caloric deficit, which you should (hopefully) feel excited to return to, increasing adherence and motivation.
Laurin Conlin, IFBB bikini pro and evidence-based coach (Team Norton, as well, if that means anything to you…), breaks down an incredibly interesting study on the topic in this video.
So that’s just what I did. I (perhaps riskily) didn’t track any of my food- and truly I don’t know how realistic attempting to do so would have been anyhow- but I kept in mind the following principles:
- Prioritize protein.
- Stay hydrated (it was godawful hot!)
- Eat carbs commensurate with activity for the day
- Stay in tune with your body- a quick, honest check-in each day to see if I was bloated, losing definition, feeling a bit jiggly, was all I needed as a reminder of the work ahead in weeks coming.
I had packed a stock of protein bars, almost all of which I did end up eating, but protein was easy to come by in Thailand. I avoided noodle-centric dishes as my main options, instead opting for options like larb (my FAVORITE- essentially a meat and herb salad), grilled seafood, tom yum talay (hot and sour seafood soup), and yum nua (a spicy beef salad). The fact that the food is SPICY was helpful in not encouraging overeating, as well. I love love love spicy food, but dang, some of this was next level. Me and some Thai chilis got serious.
And you know what?
It was super successful.
I gave myself a few days to stabilize in terms of weight- flying always makes me bloat, and a 13 hour trans-Pacific would be no exception, and within jut a few days, I was exactly back where I was when I left for vacation. Right on target.
Here we go- my Happy Scale since just before the beginning of prep.
See that tiny bump at the end?
That’s immediately following my return home. See that last dot at the end? That’s a week after returning home. Right back at 127. My goal was to at least not GAIN any weight. If I could remain stable, I would remain on track with my prep.
For comparison, let’s look at my back, immediately following my return from vacation last year versus this year:
Clearly there have been some compositional changes (leaner AND heavier?! That’s muscle gain right there!) in the year between these two photos, but following this year’s vacation, and this year’s diet break approach, I’m coming in much tighter.
Not pictured: I’m also coming in much less stressed, much more mentally refreshed, much less regretful of my vacation decisions, and much more prepared to take on the next 9 weeks. I also feel very proud that I was able to have that experience, to trust myself to live without my food scale or my bathroom scale, to truly experience Thailand without saying no to a few bites of mango sticky rice or had Thai when my husband ordered them, without losing my shit completely over a few sips of the local beer (aside: a Thai beer called Leo tastes exactly like a Point, if you have any context for that), that I didn’t feel guilt about eating all of my daily carbs in the form of pineapple and fresh mango most days while wearing a bikini all day, and that I came home with my goal accomplished, physique intact, and trust in myself stronger than ever. I didn’t lose all my muscles from not lifting. I don’t get fat.
I have no regrets about planning a 20+ week contest prep this time around, more than twice the length of any previous seasons, or about planning this two week break midway through. This has been, and continues to be, an experiment in what works best for my body using the research and anecdotal evidence that I have available to me. With now 8 weeks left on the horizon, I’m excited to see how this new approach to prep effects my fat loss and muscle retention, as well as my overall feelings this season. I’ve got a fairly lengthy season planned, with shows spanning a three month period, and my hope is that this less intense, slower approach will lead to a healthier, stronger, happier contest season going into my first as a professional.
Also trophies would be pretty badass.
As I was writing this post, I found that 3DMJ released a podcast on the topic of dieting while on vacation, as well, which may be useful whether or not you intend to take a diet break while traveling, as a competitor or as a general population dieter. I highly recommend taking a listen.