SEXYFIT FOUNDER ZLATA SUSHCHIK: #THESTRUGGLEISREAL INTERVIEW
Name: Zlata Sushchik
Occupation: Lifestyle Coach, Sports Nutritionist and Founder of Sexyfit
Location: San Diego, CA
Thank you for having me Amber. I just want to warn everyone who is reading this is the most honest truth about what competing was like for me. I certainly don’t want to jade anyone from stepping on stage but I hope this can really help some current competitors or women who are considering getting into this sport.
Thank you so much for agreeing to share your story Zlata. My blog has always been dedicated to spilling the truth in this industry. I appreciate your willingness to join me in being honest with your struggles, in hopes of helping others. I know you have had your fair shares of ups and downs in this industry which is why I reached out to feature you, and congrats on your success! That being said, can you fill us in on a little background about yourself?
I relocated to the United States from Moscow, Russia when I was 15. At the time I could only say two worlds “Hello” and “Big Mac”. My mom was a traveling journalist who fell madly in love with Alaska during her work assignment and decided to make it her permanent residence. When I lived in Russia, I was a vocal singer and a piano player for 8 years and actually have formal music school education. I have competed in a total of 26 shows and didn’t place in only 3 of them. I am a founder of an online wellness coaching company called Sexyfit where we combine nutrition, fitness and accountability to help women get in the best shape of their life.
I know you were into beauty pageants prior to competing, so what made you transition to bodybuilding shows and when was your first show?
It’s a great question Amber. Actually, during my first year in the US, after piano and vocal singing was no longer occupying my free time, I somehow ended up competing in my first fitness show. To be honest it really wasn’t an accident. I just really wanted to have friends and lose a few pounds I gained eating lots of processed food. My friends were doing it and I simply agreed to the whole “shenanigan” not knowing what I was getting myself into. (I would like to also note that prior to training for the show, I never even ran a timed mile and my Russian friends still laugh at the fact I am an experienced competitor). As expected, my first show was a total fiasco but it ignited a new passion –fitness. I did about five shows before I actually competed for Miss Alaska Teen. I didn’t want to ask my mom or take a student loan and I knew that Miss Universe and Miss Alaska Foundations award a full ride college scholarship. After holding the title of Miss Alaska Teen for a year, I went back to competing.
I was a competitor before competing was cool or “a thing” to do. There was no Facebook, no Instagram and I basically was raised in an environment with old and grundy Powerhouse gym training and real big grungy bodybuilders.
When did you start to notice a difference in yourself and when do you feel you really hit your “rock bottom”? What was that experience like?
I LOVED my early years of competing but I wasn’t very strict about my diet during the first few shows I competed in. I would eat healthy year round and maybe work out 2-3 times per week and would train 2x per day and diet for only about 6 weeks before the actual shows date. I never did more than 45 minutes of cardio though and ate tons of carbs. Competing was fun for me. I loved the energy. I loved the people. I loved my coaches. I loved my body. When I was running for the state pageant, I didn’t even diet. Competing was a fun thing I did to stay healthy. It was never about turning “pro” or doing it to put another piece of hardware on the shelf.
In 2010, I won state show, placed top 3 at the USA’s and won Collegiate Nationals and placed top 5 at North Americans. I was in- season for 32 weeks! It was the first season when I trained intensely and dieted for such a long period of time. Tilapia, cardio, some binge eating after the shows for 2-3 days, but I was able to go back to normal life about 6 weeks after that. Honestly, It was probably the best year of my life. Everything was falling into place, I had a great time on stage and while it was harder and harder to diet down for every show, I still felt healthy physically and mentally. Actually, I was very productive in all areas of my life like my full time job, full time college class schedule and social life. However, competing in 2010 came with some sacrifices, I turned down an internship with the state Senator and living in Washington DC for the summer.
I skipped 2011 season entirely. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to compete but because every time I would start back on my competition “diet”, I would just binge 2-3 days into it and beat myself over it. I trained really hard in previous season and I felt like I really needed to up level myself this time around and bring a new “package” to stage. Mentally and physically, I just wasn’t there and didn’t really want to put myself though an exhausting year. I was told my coaches and local judges I was favored to be the next big PRO. OMG, guys? ME? PRO? At this bikini thing? WOW, must be awesome. I didn’t compete at all because I couldn’t get my shit together (as everyone was saying) and focused more on finishing my college degree and finding a job. I didn’t want to miss out on career opportunities again. I felt as a huge failure and like I let down a lot of my supporters, coaches, friends.
Rock bottom really hit when I came back in 2012 .Thats when my life really started revolving around food, show talk, gym, show prep. Competing was my life. Every single picture I have from my phone from 2011, 2012 is about competing. If you didn’t compete and want to talk to me about competing, I didn’t talk to you. I was “focused”. I lived around 6 meals a day. I lived around gym time. I lived around comparing myself to every other competitor out there and didn’t “reveal” my “physique” until the day of the show. I remember how excited I was but it was really hard mentally because that’s all I focused on. It was also hard physically because I spent a big portion of my life at the gym. It was hard socially too. I remember everyone in the office hating the smell of tilapia and I honestly thought at one point I was going to get fired for it :). I didn’t have a lot of friends at the time because all I talked about was THE show or my carb count.
At that time, I noticed that every bikini girl who turned pro had a breast augmentation (don’t ever even think that you need boobs to win a show). I was thinking, duh, you wanna win you get boobs! DUH? So I did, and 6 weeks after surgery I stepped on stage at Emerald Cup and placed 3rd. I already have dieted and done enormous amount of cardio for 24 weeks or so. I went on to two nationals and came home with nothing. In fact, I was dead last at both national shows. Now, I wasn’t even winning and I have do to all this? CRAP! LOL 🙂 I looked great but far from my best.
What happened I thought? I worked so hard to bring this new “physique” and new “package” and I just look worse? It’s 10x harder to maintain and mentally I felt like such a failure. I also should mention the confusion that was going on in my head. How come these girls do “this” and look like “that” and I do “that” and look like “this”. My coach just said eat less carbs and do more cardio… Sigh.
What actually happened was, my body was so starved and so depleted of nutrients that I got hypothyroidism and adrenal fatigue. I looked swollen, felt like I had no energy ever and had to take 2 fat burners just to stay alive and alert. I didn’t know this until 2013 really. It just how my body was, I thought.
I don’t have very many photos from that year. I literally felt because I wasn’t 114 pounds, I wasn’t worthy of a picture, a boyfriend or a compliment toward myself. Shopping – out of the question. Your coach tells you that this is normal and you should just be stronger then your mind. Your body SCREAMS otherwise. After last show, I ate so much that on the plane home I swelled up to like 25 pounds more. My cravings were so out of control it didn’t really matter what I ate. I was whatever was in the house. Beans and bread, ok! Tortilla and honey, alright! Whole plate of broccoli, sold.
I avoided the grocery store and never bought anything I could “cheat” with. I had zero self control and it was just really sad because I am not the type of person to lose control over anything. I would go out or to a party and eat a lot because “this is this one time I can have this”. Worst part about all of this that I would punish”myself for not having self control and literally kill myself with cardio the next day.
I know you had your fair share of different coaches along the way, including some “big names” like Kim Oddo of “Oddos Angels”, do you feel your money was well invested with these coaches or can you elaborate more on your experience with that?
Great question. I am one of the most stubborn people you will ever meet. The only way to win was to get on the winning team, right? So, I quit my job, packed my bags and moved to San Diego to be a part of the Oddo’s Angels.
It wasn’t the only reason I moved but it was a big part of the reason why I chose San Diego. That season, even though I was traveling internationally 90% of the time for my job, I pushed harder then I ever had before when I was coached by Kim. My life again, was largely about competing. I was lunging 70 pounds, squatting 150 and lifting the heaviest I possibly could. My diet was so on point, I ate on alarms. I didn’t do much outside of work and gym for like 2-3 month because I was so focused. I wanted to win and I wanted it bad!
I remember I had an epiphany moment standing in front of the mirror taking another selfie (go figure). I hated how I looked. I hated my big quads that didn’t fit into jeans. I hated that my back wouldn’t fit into coats. I hated taking a picture straight on because my shoulders got so much wider. I competed again, walked away 6th from the show. I promised to myself I will never ever ever ever again step on stage. It’s not Kim’s fault at all. I honestly wasn’t even following what he gave me to the T as far as my work outs go…
This is my advice if you invest in coaching. Follow the plan. Your trust that coach, you paid them money. Invest in yourself and if the plans seems reasonable ( no two hour of cardio a day or tilapia 5 times a day) stick with that plan.
What would you say your strongest and weakest moments or most significant moments in your journey were?
Best moment? When I stood in front of that mirror and I knew this wasn’t the life for me. I knew I was not meant to be the woman who talks about carbs and fats all day. I knew I shouldn’t spend 3 hours of my life at the gym, I knew I can do so much more with that time. I hated how I looked and that I compared myself to everyone else and wanted to be what judges wanted me to be. I thought, I have an MBA, I love art, I love hiking, I love all kinds of things and if I gave those things half the effort I dedicated to competing, where would I be? I knew this wasn’t ME.
Worst moment? I had all my hormonal levels checked and doc looked at me and said “you either have kids, or you compete”. GULP! My thyroid and my adrenals were barely producing any hormones and no wonder, I just kept gaining fat and craving everything that I could get my hands on.
When a doctor tells you that you can’t have babies thats a wake up moment. You should never lose your period ladies. NEVER. This helped me really see how messed up things were.
I took a nutritional certification which wasn’t bro-science. I completed another training cert. I studied under a naturopath for a few month. I basically did my own research instead of Googling my health.
As stated, this series of interviews are to really develop the underlying issues, physically, mentally, and psychologically that affect us on the inside and are often not seen from the outside. What would you say your biggest “hidden struggle” is today?
Honestly, I really want to compete again but I don’t like what “Bikini” class standards have turned into. I also know that I will never have a “winning set of glutes” (insert a laugh here). It’s all about big glutes, tight hamstrings, big quads and I don’t that. I like having small legs and I am totally ok with the size of my rear end. Therefore, if I ever compete again it would only be for me to show myself and others I can do in without ruining myself again.
I came to a conclusion after my last show that I will love me for me. There are no longer days where I stand in the mirror and pinch my side fat, poke my butt and wonder when it will grow or wish I had capped shoulders.
Now, I choose to I love myself for who I am. I love my body, my small butt, my current abs right now (not if i lose 10 pounds) and it took me a really long time to understand that its about becoming the best version of yourself.
We often times treat fitness as some sort of struggle. We try to fix anger, insecurity, prove a point and punish ourselves for something. It’s suppose to be fun! I treat my body and my ability to work out as a gift. I have a healthy enough body and mind not to ever put myself though competing again.
What advice would you give to someone in your position, what has helped you find some balance?
Mentally – look within yourself and see what you true motivation is to compete in a show. If it’s a negative emotion -proving her right, keeping the title, showing him what he lost, fixing anger, proving to yourself your self -worth or anything else along those lines, stop competing right now.
I see so many fitness competitors schedule shows and compete without job, careers, direction, education or any clue about they are doing with their life because they are in hiding from their own true potential. There is life outside of competing and it’s quite amazing actually.
Physically – try everything. I recently ran a half-marathon. I am thinking about doing a tri even though I can’t swim. I lift in supersets and light some days and heavy other days. I do kickboxing, yoga, spin, tabata, plyos or whatever else to mix up my routine. There is no one road to fitness.
Nutritionally – this is a hard one depending how messed up your hormones are. But journaling why you eat and when you eat really helps you see your patterns of behavior and cravings. Just be honest with yourself and eat when you are hungry.
What methods of nutrition have you or do you currently use to help with balance? IIFYM, Intuitive Eating, Fasting, Specific Meal Planning, etc?
I have three different nutritional certifications and every one of them taught me something different. I am a HUGE advocate of cleaner IIFYM. Meaning, you will never catch me dead pilling up fries, white pasta, cream, cheese, candy just because it fits my macros. I think industry flipped a great concept of having a balance and turned it into numbers game for how much junk food we can really have. I eat organic chicken, turkey, grass-fed beef only, organic eggs. I stay away from dairy and gluten because they are not the best sources of fuel for my thyroid. I recently did an online summit of world- class 35 experts about nutrition and fitness and I have a couple of GMO experts and a Washington lobbyist who really drilled down how the dairy and gluten process works and I tend to stay away from those sources of calories 99% of the time. I do eat a LOT of carbs. I tend to be at around 150-180 gr a day (used to be under 50 and no fruit). I got back up to my calorie count by reverse dieting. I also took on long distance running and do about 10-12 miles a week and on long run days my carbs are 220 gr. I track my food on MyFitnessPal when I start to skip meals. I have to have my 5 meals a day or I am sluggish and have zero energy. I like shakes and quest bars and occasionally drink wine or whiskey.
I don’t think enough competitors talk about their drinking habits because it’s either nothing or from 0- hero in no time because diet starts “next day”. Occasional glass of wine will not make you fat.
There is also one more thing to mention, when you compete your social life goes out of the window and you feel like it just throws you off track when you go out with friends. I am not talking about getting wasted at the club every weekend but just having parties with girlfriends or family. We lock ourselves at the gym on Friday and Saturday nights and think that we are so darn fit and dedicated for not going out. I think having a social circle is extremely important to feel like you have balance in your life. When I was in earlier stage of competing, I would still go out with friends and eat healthier options at restaurants and drink tons of water. When I “focused” and stopped socializing is when I really started to lose my mind.
I know you are big into hormonal balance. Can you elaborate your personal and professional experiences with hormone related issues you may have faced and what you have done to balance them?
I am really glad you asked me about this. I certainly believe that hormonal issues are largely discounted in the industry. They are usually perceived as lack of self- control or dedication. Here is the deal, if you think you are tired, sleepy, loopy, gaining fat for no reason, irrational, emotional and if you feel like the world is against you. “Oh, you are just carb depleted honey” or “it’s ok to lose your period” or “this is how things are supposed to be”. Do not listen. Your body will tell you everything you need to know.
There are three different types of tests that I recommend for all of my clients who have done at least 1 show. You need to know what your levels of progesterone, estrogen, adrenals, t4, t3 (thyroid hormones) are. They can be done via blood, saliva or urine. They are simple tests that you can request at your local clinic or OBGYN office.
It’s very common for fitness competitors to have hypo-thyrodism. Its a condition where you body does not produce enough thyroid hormone. I am about to get nerdy for a moment here but you really should know this information.
What is a thyroid? Thyroid gland is an endocrine gland that is located in front of our neck. Its responsible for metabolic rate, heart (temperature regulation), digestive function (constipation), muscle control, moods and countless other things.
Hypothyroidism results in decreased metabolic rate. This causes symptoms which include fatigue, intolerance of cold temperatures, low heart rate, weight gain, reduced appetite, poor memory, depression stiffness of muscles and infertility. (YourHormones, 2014).
When you over exercise and under-eat, as all of us do, this is the first thing that can explain uncontrollable cravings, unexplained weight gain, mood swings ( common during “carb- depletion”), fatigue (think of the weeks leading up to the show).
I see that HITT style training, plyometrics are becoming very popular during the last weeks leading up the show. But what trainers do not consider that yes, that style of training works really well shedding off unwanted pounds, but it’s not the most ideal type of training for women who have even a slight inclination toward not producing enough thyroid hormones. It can cause what is commonly known as “adrenal fatigue” or “ adrenal unsuffiency”. Essentially, it decreases circulating levels of stress hormones, or perhaps more frequently, decreased sensitivity to them. This has been supposed to be a defense mechanism against the catabolic and deleterious effects of training and stress-hormone release.
Dysregulated cortisol metabolism, caused by overtraining, is a major pathological inhibitor of training adaptations. During exercise, corticotrophin releasing hormone (CRH) from the hypothalamus stimulates growth hormone and adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) release from the pituitary gland. ACTH subsequently stimulates the adrenal gland to release cortisol particularly following exercise at high intensities. Acute elevations in cortisol are integral to training adaptations and actually go on to reduce inflammation via a negative-feedback mechanism16. Cortisol causes subsequent alleviation of catabolic stress responses when released acutely following high intensity exercise. However, chronic elevations in basal cortisol levels only serve to act as a continual catabolic stimulus and are involved with muscle wasting and a plethora of adverse health outcomes.
In an athletes who are constantly trying to drop body fat this can often become a vicious cycle of over training in order to achieve weight targets. The increased training exacerbates the adrenal issues and compounds the problems – in addition thyroid activity will lower in medium to longer term over training and excess exposure to stressors. The tendency in this case can be to administer thyroid hormone replacement therapy, which may worsen the adrenal fatigue as the whole system is pushed further by upregulating thyroid activity, when in reality the body’s defensive mechanisms are slowing the whole process down. Furthermore, supplementation with stimulant fat burning supplements will compound this problem.
Yes, HITT style training is extremely beneficial if want to shed unwanted pounds and increase your endurance, however we should be extremely cautious of this style of training if our thyroid isn’t functioning well.
I have to warn you. Do not self diagnose yourself. There also has been a lot of talk about so called “metabolic damage” and how every competitor who has ever stepped on stage has experienced it. I am not sure how metabolic damage is measured. I do know that if you know your hormonal levels and actively are taking vitamins, minerals and other proper supplementation, these issues can be fixed without medication.
How has your body image changed over time? Do you feel you are at a place of complete self acceptance within your body now?
I would say I have a healthy self image now. I don’t check out my abs in the mirror every daay and go “omg, i look fluffy”. 🙂 I love me for me. I don’t want to look like her and compare myself to anyone. This is HUGE. Everyone else is not you. What judges are looking for an what industry standards want you to look like are not the measurements of my self worth anymore.
Be proud of yourself every day. Show off your confidence. Take photos. Insecurities wouldn’t go away even if you are 10 pounds lighter. This is honestly mostly what I do with every competitor client of mine when they walk though the door. Competing beats you down because you are constantly comparing yourself to others.
What motivates you today? Has that motivation changed since you started?
A plan motivates me. When I lay out my plan and complete it, it keeps me motivated to do more 🙂 Running personal records are motivating. I was never a runner but now I love it. I recently flipped all my work outs to be in the morning and thats been quite a change but I love it. The more I challenge myself, the more motivated I am. But, I dislike the word motivation in general. You either do it or you don’t. Fitness really teaches you the art of follow though, committing to yourself and making time for yourself. Not in a selfish way but in a way that gives your strength and power to serve others things in life like your family, friends, career, faith, education. Fitness serves as a foundation for our life. It can’t be your life. It’s what you do in order to have mental and physical balance and yes, to look great. We tend to miss that when we compete and lose balance. Thats why so many eventually crumble because we put our eggs in one basket and expect to be happy. When we don’t meet our own expectation or expectation others placed on us, there is nothing else to fall back on and be happy about because there is no foundation. Do you know what I mean?
I definitely know what you mean Zlata! So I have to ask, if you could do it all over again, would you?
Absolutely. I would do it very differently now though. It was an amazing journey. Everyone should compete at least once to see how far they can push their body and their mind. I loved every minute on stage and being surrounded by so much love and support from friends and family. I learned so much about myself, my boundaries, self-esteeem, self-control, get shit done attitude, art of follow though, setting goals, inspiring other
What are your upcoming career goals, and how do you plan to pursuit your future with incorporating balance in your life?
I am so excited that I am full filling my dream to inspire other women to get healthy. I started Sexyfit in hopes to inspired, motivate and deliver the proper education to women of all shapes in sized to get in the best shape of their life. It honestly been the most rewarding experience and I am so humbled by all the women in our online community.
Since I mentioned Sexyfit, right now I am working on Sexy Through The Holidays campaign where I am motivating people to stay on track with their fitness goals during the season. Its SO HARD!
I wrote an e-book and recently released a 3 part video course. You can find it here Also, every Wednesday up until the end of the season, I am hosting LIVE Google Hangouts where I talk about eating healthy, working out, finding motivation, handling stress and enjoying the holidays.
As far as my fitness goals, I am running a half marathon again in December and in February 2015. Honestly, I would really love to do a triathlon. I don’t know how to swim or bike, this is going to be a challenge. But I am so ready for it 🙂
If you are interested in following Zlata’s story and her SexyFit Campaign, you can do so through the following social media channels:
Instagram & Twitter: @zlatasushchik