Helen Saunders - Figure Competitor

I wanted to strengthen my lower back to help with some sports injuries, so a friend suggested I try lifting weights. I went to the gym with him for the first time on 10th March 2015, and within the month my once a week visits to the gym had increased to five or six visits a week. From the word go my friend said I should compete; I didn't take him seriously, though I did take the gym owner's invitation to take part in a strength/endurance competition in September 2015. It wasn't until the end of the year that I actually considered my friend's suggestion of competing in a figure show.....I reasoned that I was fast approaching my 50th birthday and I didn't want to let an exciting opportunity slip me by, so I went ahead and sent my entry in for Pure Elite in April 2016.

Having only just started competing, I haven't yet been off season, though I have had a pre season from when I first started lifting to when I began competing. My nutrition has always been clean through personal preference: I cut out refined sugar, dairy and alcohol from my diet some time ago in order to balance my hormones, and I also eliminated wheat for digestive reasons. I sort out my own nutrition when competing: I don't follow a prescribed diet plan, preferring to keep track of my calorie intake and macro breakdown. I weigh what I eat, write down the details and adjust my meals throughout the day to fit my macros. I set my own protein/carbohydrate/fat levels and allow myself to be flexible; I've opted for a relatively high protein and low carb breakdown. I have no training in nutrition, preferring to gain knowledge from reliable sources on the Internet and from talking to friends who train. Inadvertently I have been following an approach called the Wave, which allows for flexible calorie intakes in order to keep the metabolism guessing; it's an approach that seems to work well for me, though I'm constantly reviewing what I'm doing both in terms of nutrition and training.

I don't have a trainer/coach so I set my own training programme. I'm not fond of running machines or stationary bikes, so my cardio takes the form of sport; I play league badminton two to three nights a week plus touch rugby in the winter and stoolball in the summer. I like compound lifts and they tend to form the bulk of my training; I target legs and shoulders together twice a week, with arms, back and chest taking up the other three days (I lift five days a week). I train abs every day at the end of a workout, sometimes again before going to bed. I like bodyweight exercises and mix things up by setting myself goals such as working towards a dragon flag or front lever. My nutrition fits around my workouts, making sure I fuel my body sufficiently to get the most out of every session, particularly when I have a badminton match (I've noticed a significant drop in my on court performance when I'm low on carbs).

I always knew that self confidence would be a major issue! Despite what people think, I lack self esteem and self confidence and I knew I would need to overcome that in order to find the courage to step out onto that stage. My method for doing so was to practice my posing at the gym.....in a bikini and a pair of heels. So, at the end of every workout I would change from my workout clothes into a bikini, put on a pair of 5" heels, and strut my stuff in front of the mirrors. My thinking was that, if I could overcome my nerves in front of a gym full of men (mostly) then the prospect of being on the stage wouldn't seem so frightening. I didn't have a posing coach, so other than being shown the basics of how to pose at a workshop, I did my own posing and devised my T-walk during those confidence building sessions; during 12 weeks prior to my first show, the other users at the gym grew used to seeing me do my thing and I overcame my nerves.

My most recent show (only my second so far) was with UK Ultimate Physiques. I had invited two girls who were also competing to stay overnight as I lived locally to the venue and they didn't. I'd met the girls at a posing workshop for another federation; despite only having met people on very limited occasions, it's common to make strong friendships when competing. The concept of women bitching about one another and being ultra competitive is a myth; the world of a bodybuilder/figure competitor is a supportive one. Check in for the show was in the morning and everything went smoothly; nerves are always present whether you're a first time or seasoned competitor, but the atmosphere backstage is relatively calm. People are always willing to help one another with make up or hair issues, or with costume malfunctions. We're there to compete against ourselves more so than against one another, and it's common to see people give advice on posing or tips on posture.

No one wants to see anyone fail, regardless of how much they themselves might want to win. That feeling when you're on stage waiting for the results is nerve wracking, but this photo sums it up for me: it shows me with my third place trophy as we wait to hear who's won second and, more significantly, first place.....note the two competing women holding hands in the background! That captures it perfectly for me.

We all qualified for the British Finals and will share the stage again on November 12th; though we will once more be competing against one another, we will be there for each other, genuinely.

I have a competition with NPA (Natural Physique Association) on 3rd September for which I'm just about to start prep. I'm planning to enter the Elegant Fitness Model category with FMC (Fitness Model Comps) on 15th October; it's a brand new category for women over 40 and one I'm heading up and publicising for the federation and will be coordinating entries. On 29th October I will be on stage once more with UKUP (UK Ultimate Physiques) in Milton Keynes for their Midlands qualifier (despite having already qualified for the finals, it's an opportunity to gain more stage experience and potentially qualify in a second category, plus I get to try out a new themewear idea that I have). 12th November will see me in York for the UKUP British Finals. I am really enjoying competing; whilst many women my age are seasoned competitors, I have been told that I have the enthusiasm and energy of a younger competitor and I'd like to harness that energy and see where it can take me. The fitness industry revolves around younger models as it needs to be geared to marketability; however, I strongly believe there is a place for older fitness models (particularly perhaps those who've had children yet have attained a certain physique) with whom the general public can identify.

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Twitter: Helen Saunders @pureelitepro

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Helen Saunders