With a background in fitness and nutrition and a hunger to set new goals for herself, trainer Carrie McMahon signed up for her first bikini competition more than three years ago. "I thought it would be a natural step in my journey," she told POPSUGAR.
The new goal was exciting for Carrie, but what actually manifested was less than what she had hoped for. "I hated the actual competition," she said. "And I definitely felt pretty bummed that I hated it so much."
"I had such high expectations that I would hit the stage, fall in love, and want to do it all over again," she said. "I had invested so much time and energy into it, so that was a hard pill to swallow."
We chatted with Carrie about the good, the bad, and the "ugly behind the scenes" that dissuaded her from competing again. If you've ever toyed with the idea of competing, definitely take Carrie's account into consideration — there were some positive things she learned, too!
Expectations and Preparation
"I loved the thought of having a goal like this that takes a lot of work . . . working toward it and then being able to achieve it. Nothing feels better then setting a goal for yourself and then actually doing it." Her goal with bikini competing? To place in the top five.
"Nothing feels better then setting a goal for yourself and then actually doing it."
"I had an amazing experience with diet and exercise while preparing for the competition," she said. "I began macro-counting, which completely changed my outlook on food and diets." Carrie told us that she "reverse dieted" — "Starting out, I was lean and actually didn't have enough muscle to compare to most of the bikini girls, so I actually gained five pounds of muscle for the competition through reverse dieting."
Reverse dieting is exactly what it sounds like — you eat more. "You slowly increase your intake by adjusting your macro totals for the day; I typically added about five to 10 grams of carbs to my daily macro count each week and about one to two grams of fat as well. So I was only adding about 30 to 50 calories to my daily total each week. It's a slow increase, but it's the best way to gain muscle and stay lean, as long as you pair it with a weight lifting program," (which she was doing).
"I was able to eat whatever I wanted as long as it fit into my macros!" she said. "I was eating 250 grams of carbs every day, only doing cardio two times per week, and I drank water and consumed sodium all up until the day of the show." She noted this specifically because her diet seemed to be the antithesis of what the other competitors were doing. Here's what Carrie ate (totaling around 2,100 calories per day):
- Breakfast: "Oatmeal with one scoop of protein power, one to two tablespoons of peanut butter, a drizzle of maple syrup, and some chocolate chips."
- Pre-workout: "Sliced apples (apples were easy to adjust when I had to add in more carbs, so the amount of apple slices increased each week) and one chicken breast."
- Post-workout: "Egg whites and sweet potato wedges (also easy to add in more sweet potato when I added in carbs each week) with ketchup."
- Lunch: "Usually a sandwich with whole wheat bread, chicken, a spread (I like to butter my bread — it's an English thing), cheese (one to two ounces) or 1/4 avocado, and carrot sticks."
- Dinner: "Some sort of meat, fat, and veggies combo (a favorite was roasted veggies with coconut oil and ground turkey with some blue cheese on top), although sometimes I ate protein pancakes with peanut butter and syrup because I wanted something sweet!"
- Dessert or Snack: "Cottage cheese and sweet potato chunks (roasted in syrup and cinnamon) with nut butter and chocolate chips and some sort of cookie like Oreos or Chips Ahoy! Sometimes I did an oatmeal bowl with similar toppings."
"Ugly" Politics and a Disappointing Experience
When the time to compete came around, Carrie noticed a distinct favoritism during the event, saying she got a feeling that the contest was more about who you knew and not how hard you worked. "It seemed that girls who worked with certain prep coaches (who had ties to the competition and judges) got placed ahead of those who had lesser known coaches," she told us. "The competition was very political. They always placed those who were working with [an important and well-known] coach in the top five, even if that person clearly wasn't as well prepped as the other competitors."
She told us that it was more than discouraging: "It felt like all the hard work you put in didn't really matter." She also said that though she met "some awesome girls" during her experience, she had different expectations of what the competition would feel like. She didn't realize how "weird" it would feel to be "completely judged on looks and how [she] was able to walk and present [her]self," telling us that it felt more like a beauty pageant on TV than a fitness competition.
"Bikini competitions look glamorous and fun, but there is a lot more 'ugly' behind the scenes . . . It doesn't live up to its hype. It didn't for me."
Behind the Scenes
She remembers chaos backstage: "rooms full of girls with insane tans and over-the-top makeup," a "supercrowded and messy backstage" environment, and "people running around with straighteners and self tanner to touch up," were just a few of the elements she described.
"I was horrified . . . They weren't drinking water, they weren't eating any carbs, they were slaves to cardio . . . it was so hard to hear."
Through her backstage chats, she also got an inside look at how not all women prepare for this kind of competition in a healthy way, and it left her with a sad, heavy feeling. "Women who do these competitions are not always healthy," she said. "A lot of them told me about their diets and workout routines to prep for the show, and I was horrified; they weren't drinking water, they weren't eating any carbs, they were slaves to cardio . . . it was so hard to hear," she said. "It was sad to learn what women put themselves through just for 20 seconds on stage."
She said her preparation was so much more enjoyable and sustainable. "Most of these women bounced way back after the show, because they had deprived themselves for so long," she said. "There are a lot of bad 'competition prep coaches' out there who do things that can really damage you, so you have to be smart about who you choose to work with and what practices they believe in." This realization also fueled Carrie to help other women through her coaching, using the knowledge she had gained through the conversations she had during the competition experience.
Things You Should Know
Some things you may not know about the cosmetic aspect: "You have to use boob and butt glue to hold your suit in place!" she said. And "the spray tans we get are thick and feel disgusting! It took a week for mine to fade, and it faded in a way that I was patchy for a while."
She also noted that you should be prepared for a full day, as this kind of event can try your patience. "On competition day, you are there ALL DAY. You have a call time on stage, so you wait around for that; then you have to wait for the award ceremony, which is the last call of the day. It is a VERY long day of waiting around."
Though it's clear that she won't be back on stage for another round of competing, Carrie did tell us she experienced some seriously positive things — chiefly, her experience with macros, which is what shaped her diet, changed her life, and reframed her nutrition coaching for clients. "The tools I learned through my macronutrient-based diet and through my weight training have stuck with me ever since, and there are healthy aspects that I still implement into my lifestyle today."
"The tools I learned through my macronutrient-based diet and through my weight training have stuck with me ever since."
She also said she "loved gaining some muscle and feeling strong, lean, and toned!" Because she prepared in such a healthy way, she said, "My body had never felt so good in my life, and I was full of energy! I was so proud of myself and proud of how my body looked." Her key learnings for success on diet and exercise? Reverse dieting with weights and HIIT. "[I learned that] reverse dieting is amazing and the best diet to get a lean and toned body, and weight training plus HIIT is the best exercise formula to get that lean and toned look."
But the best part? "I felt really empowered, as I had achieved a goal I set for myself. That's the best feeling in the world." She says if you're looking to feel that sense of accomplishment, set a goal for yourself, then lay out the steps for how you'll achieve it. "You will make it there."