I first met Karen (who is also brand manager for M.A.C cosmetics in India) last year when we were going to Berlin for a M.A.C event. We were sitting on the front row of the aircraft - her on one window seat and me parallel from her on the other window seat. She was dressed in a pair of trainers, jeans and leather jacket, all long legs and blonde hair, and I remember thinking maybe this is a supermodel I don’t recognise. Karen is six feet tall (even taller in heels) and gorgeous, but she doesn't carry her beauty like a badge of honour. She doesn't care if she sleeps with her mouth open and I'm sure can beat the boys at any drinking game. I enjoyed Berlin with her because we’re both health nuts and we visited every health food store in Mitte. Since March last year, Karen has also been preparing to participate in a body building competition and is militant about her diet. Even when she comes over as a dinner guest, I always ask what her food will weigh and then prepare something according to her specifications. Here’s her training diary:
Have you always been a health nut?
I have dipped in and out of fitness at various stages of my life. I wasn't always as dedicated as I am now! Before I started weight training consistently, I was doing quite a lot of other fitness activities (functional training, cardio classes etc), but I really felt like I needed a goal to push myself further. That's when I decided to enter into a Bikini Fitness competition.
What is your diet like when you’re training for a competition?
It depends on which stage I'm in. Right now I'm in off season mode so the goal is to build muscle. For that you need food! Plenty of protein, carbohydrates and the right fats so that my body can use the fuel to grow muscle. When I get closer to competition time (around 16 weeks prior), I'll go into prep mode, where the goal is to shed as much fat as possible while maintaining the muscle mass I've built. During this time, the diet becomes super strict, with all of the macros carefully measured.
Why do you weigh your food?
I weigh my food to make sure I get the right amount of nutrition to support my goal. So if the goal is building muscle, I need to be consuming enough calories from the right sources, so that my body has fuel to build muscle. If the goal is losing fat, I need to consume less calories than I'm burning each day, so that my body attacks the fat. It's a bit like baking - if your cake recipe states 100g of flour, you're not going to put 200g right? And if the recipe calls for a splash of milk, you're not going to put orange juice instead. You need to put in the right ingredients in the right amounts to get the right result.
Are there any principles about a body builder’s diet that can be applied in real life?
Like for women who are not competing? Of course! Clean eating. Competition diets are generally based on getting the majority of the nutrients from clean food sources. That means really reducing processed and packaged foods, where you don't know the majority of the ingredients. Also, eating at regular and consistent intervals. When you're working towards a body goal, nutrition timing is as important as what you actually consume. It's no use going to the gym and banging out a heavy weights session and then not eating anything for the next couple of hours.
What is your workout schedule like when you’re competing?
Closer to competition time it gets very intense. Twice a day in the gym almost every day. And since I have a full time job, it's not easy! During that time, I need to be super organised and supremely disciplined. When the alarm goes off, I can't hit snooze. If I go out in the evening, I have to come home on time to sleep. Nights out, holidays, weekends away - all become extremely limited.
What’s your advice to women who are trying to build muscle?
Lift heavy weights. If you're not struggling on the last couple of reps then you're not doing enough. It has to be hard to have an impact! And eat! Your body needs energy to grow muscle.
Can you share a smoothie/ green juice/ healthy pudding recipe with us?
Yes... although I have to give credit to one of my favourite fit girls for this. Navreet @lilrocket (Instagram) has inspired so many aspects of my journey with fitness. This is a pudding recipe she gave me which can replace a meal during the day. It's great for anyone who loves dark chocolate!
1/2 ripe avocado
1 scoop chocolate whey protein
1/4 cup of almond milk (I normally use an unsweetened, natural flavoured variety)
2 tablespoons of cocoa powder
Put all of the ingredients into a mixer and blend until smooth. Then chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
Do you eat any supplements? If yes, which ones and why?
Yes, I take whey protein, simply to ensure I get enough protein into my diet. I also use BCAAs (branched chain amino acids) during my workouts to aid muscle endurance and recovery. I take Vitamin C and fish oil supplements for general health. It's important to keep your health in check when you exercise so much as even small illnesses can be a set back to training progress.
How much water do you drink in a day?
I drink 4-5 litres a day easily. I've actually never found it difficult to drink a lot of water, but I know many people find it tough. I keep a bottle with me during the day and as soon as it's over, I fill it up again. Wherever I am I make sure water is available. For example, if I go into a meeting outside of my own office, the first thing I ask for is water. And I always make sure there's enough to keep me going throughout the meeting.
How important is sleep?
It's very important, although admittedly, this is an area I need to work on myself. Sleep and recovery is essential in any fitness regime. I try to get a good seven hours in, but during prep this unfortunately gets reduced. During that time, I would normally wake up at 5:20am to go to the gym, then full day of work and then back to the gym in the evening. By the time I eat dinner and prepare food for the next day, that seven hour target is a tough one!
What do you eat on a cheat day?
I actually don't have cheat days, but I do have cheat meals. You can undo a week's worth of hard work if you cheat the whole day! When I eat something off plan, I like to have something really satisfying. Steak with potatoes and veggies, some sort of meat casserole, that kind of thing. I have a major sweet tooth so having dessert is something I really enjoy.
Can you describe the days close to the competition in terms of not drinking water to enhance muscle tone?
In the last 24 hours before getting on stage, the amount of water you can have drastically reduces. Dehydrating techniques vary from coach to coach, but in general you're going from drinking at least 5-6 litres of water a day, to having just a few sips. You just have to get in the right frame of mind. It's only temporary. It's one last step in the process that you've worked on for months. So yeah, you might get a bit a headache and feel a bit weak by the end of the day... it's really no big deal after all that hard work! And it's not all bad. My coach suggested a glass of dry white wine the night before competing to help dehydrate a little more. After months of not drinking it was a major treat.
What was the competition like?
Interesting! Nothing really prepares you for getting on stage in a bikini! It was actually a very empowering moment. I know now, looking back, I was not quite ready to compete, but it was such an achievement and a personal victory to have made it that far. Now I know what I need to do to be ready next time and I have at least had the experience so I know what to expect when I do it again.
What did you binge on right after and how did that make you feel?
Cereal. I know it's weird right? I just LOVE cereal. There's something about it that I find so satisfying. Like if I'm feeling a bit low, a big bowl of cereal with almond milk (or a protein shake instead of milk) will cheer me right up.
You also head M.A.C in India - what are the three makeup tricks that you’ve gleaned on the job?
Oh my god only three?? Beauty is my ultimate passion so I could really talk about this all day! OK here are four:
1. Curl your eyelashes and wear mascara. Defined lashes look good on EVERYONE. I use my M.A.C Full Lash Curler and then two mascaras (both M.A.C) - In Extreme Dimension 3D Black Lash on the top (3 coats) and Extended Play Gigablack Lash on the bottom. I use different ones because I like my top lashes to be really thick and dark, and on my lower lashes I like a really long-wearing formula to avoid mascara smudges under my eyes.
2. Use foundation and concealer to make your skin look flawless, but still like your own skin. People should see you first, not your foundation. I use M.A.C Pro Longwear Nourishing Waterproof Foundation because it gives the right amount of coverage with a natural finish, so I still feel like me. I use a brush (M.A.C #130 short duo-fibre brush) so that I only apply a very small amount at a time to make sure it doesn't look heavy - using less in areas where my skin is more clear and building it up more in areas where I need more coverage.
3. Wear a blush that suits your skin-tone. Blush is supposed to look healthy and natural, not like an obvious colour on your cheeks. I normally use a cool pink shade (M.A.C Powder Blush in Well Dressed) because I have really fair skin. The same colour on a deeper skin might end up looking blueish or grey. In general, most Indian skin-tones look good with colours that have more warmth - a warm neutral pink shade or colours with more peachy tones (try M.A.C Powder blush in Mocha or Gingerly).
4. Don’t forget your eyebrows. A little bit of brow work can really shape your face. I use clear brow gel to brush up my brows and set them into a slightly lifted shape. Once it’s dry, I use brow pencils (M.A.C Eye Brows in accentuated and Lingering) with very fine, light strokes to fill in gaps and add texture. I always extend my brow out slightly higher than my natural brow shape - it really lifts up your face!