My Biggest Fitness Struggle, And How I Overcame It

All types of athletes face personal challenges on their way to the top of their field. Here are 5 inspirational stories you can learn from on your way up!

Your triumphs may be what show up on your social feeds, but make no mistake: Your failures and setbacks are what determine your fate. Each one is a lesson, but only if you're willing to be a student.

Will you take what you've learned and plow forward ever the wiser, or will you let an obstacle bounce you back into the Barcalounger with a bag of Funyuns to watch reruns of Full House?

We queried five MusclePharm athletes about their biggest fitness struggles over the years, and we got five inspirational stories that you need to hear. So put down the bag of munchies and listen up. They might just be talking to you.

Overcoming Injuries, Mentally and Physically

Injury. This six-letter word could bring Atlas to his knees and make Tom Brady quake in his cleats. It summarily made Raynor Whitcombe plummet down an emotional sinkhole.

"I incurred a serious shoulder injury when I fell during a friendly football game," recalls Whitcombe. "I kept asking myself, 'Why did I even play? Am I ever going to perform the same again in the gym? Am I ever going to fully recover?' I literally needed help just to put a shirt on, and it was impossible to see beyond the injury into the future."

His negative self-talk soon led to depression. "I beat myself up, not only because I couldn't perform like I used to, but also because I used poor judgment and was now paying for it. I thought that being injured was going to prevent me from achieving my goals, period."

Though it took a very long time to rebound, as shoulder injures often do, Whitcombe eventually saw a break in the clouds. "I had to accept what had happened and remind myself that so many other people have lost more: families, homes, jobs, love. And here I was, complaining about a shoulder injury," he recalls.

At that point, he made a conscious decision to embrace his setbacks, difficult as they were, and use them to grow as a person. "The hard times, the challenges, the injuries—they were all there to build me up and make me stronger," he says. "We all have challenges, but we also have a choice to do something about it. It's really up to you whether you want to be stuck, or if you want to progress and be happy. I chose happy."

Body Image and the Power of the Mind

Noora Kuusivuori was a longtime competitive swimmer. As such, she had never really put much stock into what her body looked like, only how it performed. But when boys began to compliment her on her physique, it ironically led her to be more self-critical.

"My focus had always been on athletic performance, not looks," she says. "Suddenly, I felt pressure to be perfect, and my mental struggle led me to overtraining and unhealthy eating habits. I dropped weight when I had none to lose and was so deprived that I experienced a daily battle with cravings. Sometimes, I would train six hours a day, but only allow myself to eat carrots and tuna. It was insanity."

Desperate for a new path, Kuusivuori read self-help books and delved into psychology to get a handle on her struggle. "The human mind is as powerful as you decide it is," she concluded. "As a competitive athlete, I used my mind to visualize a successful performance, so I did the same with my body-image issues. I just decided to stop the madness, and then I did the work to follow through."

Her advice to anyone struggling in the same way is to do the hard work necessary to build perspective. "It isn't normal or healthy to look at your body negatively and talk to yourself in a negative way," says Kuusivuori. "Your body is beautiful, and no one can make you believe anything different if you don't allow it.

"Focus on all the amazing things that your body does every day, and shift your attention away from looks," she advises. "Body image issues can haunt some people for life, and I could have been one of them. Instead, I feel fortunate to be in such a healthy place with it today."

The Lure and Risk of Seeking More Size

Though they are often the most outspoken about it, women aren't the only ones that grapple with body issues. "I struggle with not being big enough," says Andre DeCastro. "I always want to add 5 more pounds here, 5 more pounds there, and that is why I always go back to the gym: because of that vision in my head of the perfect body. I chase it, and at times I get carried away."

A video posted by Andre DeCastro (@andredc90) on

This type of "carried away" comes with predictable consequences that are easy to overlook in the haze of training. More volume and more intensity equals more growth, right? Yes, to a point, but it can also mean more training injuries. "Over the years, I pulled and tore both my hamstrings on multiple occasions, broke my right clavicle, hyperextended my right triceps, and experienced many other tweaks along the way. I was in constant fear of reinjuring things," he recalls.

Slowing down the desperate quest for size and focusing on short-term goals helped DeCastro move forward. He honed in on what he could accomplish safely right there and then, rather than battling for ever-greater intensity.

"I would focus on bringing up my weaknesses just one or two at a time, and getting in all my meals when I should," he says. "I also did a lot of research. I wanted to know everything, from nutrition to supplements to biomechanics. This way, I learned safe, new training techniques and exercises and was able to alter my workouts to accommodate my injuries and start progressing again."

He has one more nugget of advice that you've definitely heard, but always bears repeating. "Patience! Patience and consistency are key to obtaining your goals" says DeCastro. "No one is going to put in the work but you—no one."

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Getting Beyond Living in Pain

Athletes, especially young athletes, rarely question the ostensible realities of their sport: perpetually sore joints, systemic exhaustion, and even certain surgeries become badges of honor. It's all part of the game, right? Not really.

"I mentally gave it my all when I stepped into the gym every day, but physically my body could not handle it," says Olympic lifter Derrick Johnson. "I had my first knee surgery at age 20, and another one in 2011, a year before the Olympics. I also took regular doses of ibuprofen and pain killers before a workout, and muscle relaxers afterward when needed." All this, and the guy hadn't even hit 30 yet.

A video posted by Derrick Johnson (@4derrick) on

But Johnson began to wonder about the legitimacy of his physical fate, and after moving to Los Angeles in 2013, he started rethinking his entire training methodology.

"Athletes generally consider injuries part of the game, and I was in that mindset for years, but I started doing research and began to learn about the power of food," he recalls. "I eliminated inflammatory foods like sugar, dairy, grains, and alcohol from my diet, and I stopped taking all the pills. Within a week, my joints felt better at 28 years old than they did when I was 16."

He also revamped his training and focused on strengthening his core and improving his thoracic spinal mobility, two major steps that helped to decrease the stress his training put on his joints and lower back.

Six months after making these changes, Johnson won the 2013 Senior National Championships. He went on to win the same competition in both 2014 and 2015, represented Team USA at the 2014 and 2015 World Championships, and is now gunning for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

The lesson he learned was that training isn't all about training. "Take the time to listen to your body, and always dedicate the same amount of time to recovery as you do to training," he says. "If you want to perform at your peak, learn how to eat healthfully enough to do it. Then give those changes enough time to have a chance to work!"

Seeing Beyond What the Coach Says

Like many women, Alyssa Smith struggled with her weight after she graduated. She went from the continual intensity of playing four varsity sports to simply taking a leisurely cruise on the elliptical a few times a week, followed by a sub sandwich.

"The weight room intimidated me, and I didn't have a clue what clean eating entailed," recalls Smith. "I knew I needed guidance, so I hired a personal trainer." Within six months, she was well on her way to regaining her former physique. As a goal, Smith decided to do a bikini competition.

A photo posted by Alyssa Smith (@alyssalifts) on

But sometimes a coach's vision does not parallel your own, although it can take awhile to realize it. The advice Smith received for her contest programming was extreme, to say the least. "My 13-week prep consisted of overtraining, undereating, and obsessing over my weight," she says. "I knew it wasn't healthy, but I figured it would work, since it was what I was being coached to do."

Physically, the prep did work, and Smith placed well in her show. Mentally, however, it simply didn't feel right. "Afterwards, I knew I never wanted to obsess over weighing myself or my food again," she says. "I also didn't want to harm myself metabolically with yo-yo dieting and extreme restrictions."

Smith took her bad experiences and used them as an impetus for creativity, researching and implementing new training and nutritional programs to stay lean, healthy, and—most importantly—happy year-round.

"I created my own unique way of training by blending HIIT, weight training, and sports conditioning," she says. "It was unlike anything I had ever seen, but it was challenging and made me excited to work out."

These days, Smith never gets on a scale, and she says she is happier than ever. "Who knew that pushing my mind and body beyond their comfort zones would lead to an entirely different and better version of myself?" she says. "I'm now the happiest and healthiest I have ever been, and I have myself to thank for all of it."

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