As a self-confessed fitness addict, Natalie Keegan thought preparing for a bikini fitness contest would be a breeze.
But 11 weeks – and almost £2,000 – later, the 27-year-old, from London, had learned exactly how gruelling getting ready to take to the stage can be.
After managing to scoop trophies in the UK Ultimate Physiques Southern Championship and South of England Classic earlier this month, Natalie tells FEMAIL about her whirlwind weeks of intensive cardio and weight sessions fuelled by a mere 800 calories a day in order to look as lean as possible.
Her eye-opening training diary documents how contestants spend up to £390 on a single bikini, as well as forking out hundreds more on fake tans that left Natalie with constant tell tale stains on her palms.
Natalie also reveals how contestants swapped water for white wine the day before a show – to ‘dry out’ the body and ensure muscle definition stood out to full effect…
Already a keen gym bunny, Natalie ramped up her diet and fitness regime for almost two months in order to take to the stage as a bikini fitness model. Pictured: Natalie Keegan before any training or dieting 11 weeks ago
Natalie took part in posing classes, costing £245 a pop, in order to perfect her posture and impress the judges as she strode on stage in the UK Ultimate Physiques Southern Championship and South of England Classic, which took place earlier this month
Backstage at a bikini fitness contest: Natalie, 27, shows off the telltale tan marks on her palms after experiencing life as a fitness model (left). She also reveals how contestants limited their intake of water before a show – but did drink alcohol (right) to ‘dry out’ and boost muscle definition before taking to the stage
Weeks 1 – 4
The earlier weeks were fine and I felt great – I was on seven small meals a day that changed on a three-day rotation, while my cardio stayed at around 15 minutes a day.
On top of cardio, weight training was split over four days and separated into shoulders and abs, legs, back and abs, and glutes and hamstrings.
I pretty much always felt full as it seemed I was eating constantly – despite being at around 1,700 to 1,900 calories a day.
Weeks 5 – 6
My diet was tweaked slightly so there were less carbs, with more fats (like eggs) in their place. Cardio was increased to 30 minutes of HIIT (high intensity interval training) and 30 minutes LISS (low impact steady state) every day.
Weight training remained the same and I felt good, although the diet could feel a little boring at times – as did drinking soda and limes instead of Pimms in the beer garden all summer.
That being said, I began to get used to not drinking alcohol and mentally I felt focussed and happy.
At this point, I started to panic – I didn’t feel like I was ready, despite seeing good results and getting leaner.
The competition was getting closer and closer and already I was starting to miss having ‘a bit of what I fancy’, and my moods started to come in highs and lows.
For week seven, my coach told me to halve my portions of carbs and skip the last meal of my day, leaving my stomach grumbling with less food each night.
As the weeks went by, Natalie had to restrict her diet more and more. For the final two weeks, she ate five meals a day that totalled just 800 or 900 calories. Pictured: At the UKUP finals
Natalie admits that she struggled with the diet, and was left with ‘brain fog’ after cutting down her calorie intake. Natalie (pictured up against fellow contestants) found herself reliant on coffee to make it through the day at some points
With one less meal a day, my fat loss came in thick and fast, but when my coach told me to cut my carbs further and double my cardio I was left with brain fog.
I seemed to get more and more clumsy (and bruised!) and began to find it hard to concentrate by the afternoon.
I even began to feel chilly most of the time, and, at a low moment, I cried because of how hungry I was.
My weight dropped by around a stone in the final four weeks, and people began to comment on how different my face looked and most of my clothes were hanging off my hips.
By no means is this a sustainable nor healthy approach for these last few weeks – so please do not try this at home, it is purely for that last road to the stage.
Weeks 9 and 10
My food now comprised of egg whites, spinach, chicken or white fish, steak and asparagus – split into five meals that totalled between 800 and 900 calories.
Despite the dramatic change in diet, my training stayed the same – leaving me with heavy legs and reliant on coffee to get through the day.
Thoughts of food plagued me and I was left with cravings for weird and boring foods like porridge.
On top of struggling with my dieting, my costs were soaring – my weekly shop completely changed during training, with heaps of fresh meat and fish quickly adding up.
Entering one of these competitions is not something to take on lightly – you need to commit not just your lifestyle but also a fair bit of dosh if you want to go the whole hog.
Week 10 meant ‘peak week’ and water loading – drinking around five to five-and-a-half litres of water every day before cutting it out completely before the show.
In the final four weeks of her diet, Natalie lost around a stone. Her friends began to comment on the changes in her face, and the fact that most of her clothes were hanging off her body
Ahead of the show, Natalie had to get a spray tan at the venue – which involved standing completely naked in a room with dozens of other competitors
Getting the perfect orange tan to make myself ‘stage-ready’ was a challenge in and of itself.
First, I had to exfoliate my body every day for a week, before shaving every single hair – no matter how tiny – the night before the competition for my first layer of tan.
I then had to stand in a room with dozens of other contestants – who were also all naked – so we could be given the same deep, mahogany glow.
To keep the spray tan perfect ahead of the show, I was stuck wearing dark, baggy clothes and flip flops, and had to be extra careful going to the toilet in case of splash marks.
I even ended up covering the hotel sheets with layers of towels to protect them and sleeping with large men’s socks over my hands so I didn’t leave prints anywhere.
That night, I stopped drinking water at 6pm, and had a dinner of steak and a fried egg without vegetables (as they can bloat you), before being told to have a glass of white wine.
Although she messed up during her first competition by walking the wrong way, Natalie ended up winning the bikini tall category at her second. Pictured: on stage at the UKUP Southern Championships
Natalie was presented with a trophy for all of her efforts after competing at the UKUP Southern Championships
The wine serves to dehydrate you further for show day and after almost three months of no drinking; a couple of sips had me instantly tipsy.
Many competitors get to ‘carb load’ before their show to make their muscles ‘pop’ – but I wasn’t at a super lean level yet – so sadly I wasn’t allowed to.
9AM – The morning of show day, I was told to only take tiny sips of water and to only eat small amounts of turkey throughout the day – the less I put into my body the better, it seemed.
Prep wise, I first needed to get my tan touched up, which meant another round of being completely naked en masse, before getting my makeup done.
10.30AM – I then needed to register for the show before heading to a quick athletes meeting where there was a quick rundown of what was going to happen.
I then went backstage to chill out with the other girls, change into my bikini and have that infamous ‘glaze’ applied – that shiny substance that you always see bodybuilders plastered in as they glisten on stage.
1PM – Backstage, the girls started using dumbbells and resistance bands to ‘pump’ up for the stage – so I joined in and also did a few body weight exercises to get me ready.
Others began drinking more wine and eating sweets or rice cakes to fill out their muscles as much as they could.
Unfortunately, once I got up on stage in the Ultimate Model category I turned into a complete deer in headlights and ended up walking the wrong way – but managed to keep smiling.
When it came to my second category, Bikini Beginner, I was determined not to screw anything up – and thankfully, I managed to get my head round it this time and let myself enjoy the experience.
The day passed by so quickly in the end and, by some miracle, I placed third in the model category (the one I mucked my routine up in!) and scooped fourth place in my bikini category.
The next week was a re-run of the last – no carbs and lots of water until the evening before the show.
The morning of the South of England Classic show I was not allowed to eat or drink anything, except for small nibbles and sips if needed.
Natalie spent a grand total of £1,732 prepping for the competition including £420 on diet plans and a bikini at £345 (seen right)
Makeup and false eyelashes alone set Natalie back £80 for the first of the competitions
Backstage, everyone was once again just as friendly as the previous week and it was great to meet other people who had been on similar journeys over the last few months.
The day passed in a blur (thankfully I didn’t manage to fluff my routine this time) and I was lucky to even bag a first place trophy for my bikini tall category.
Happy, and very hungry, I went straight home for a celebratory Sunday roast… and I don’t think a crispy roast potato has ever tasted so good!
As a personal challenge, it has been one of my most fulfilling – but I also understand an ‘on season’ diet and regime is by no means sustainable long term.
Coming off the diet will also take some serious care, slowly adding carbs and calories back in and cutting down on cardio to avoid a huge rebound in fat gain – as you can’t go straight back to eating completely normally.
After the competitions, Natalie went out for a well-deserved roast dinner. Coming off the training regime will have to be a gradual process because of the huge changes to her diet
Natalie Keegan is a journalist, fitness instructor and qualified PT. Follow her on Instagram @nattykeegz.