This week we're giving you all an insight into the lives of one of our contributors: Nicola Joyce. Superstar writer by day, fitness extraordinaire by night, amongst other things, I'm sure.
To begin with, can you tell the Pull Up Mate readers a little bit about yourself?
In my day job, I'm a freelance fitness copywriter, helping clients in the industry communicate their marketing messages with their customers. I've been freelance full time since 2004, and I mostly work from home (home is a little house I share with my dog, near the seaside in Kent). But I guess what's more interesting for Pull Up Mate readers is the fact that I do strength and physique sports. I've dabbled in Strongman comps and Powerlifting, but my main sport is competitive bodybuilding. Only at an amateur level, obviously, but it's a hobby which takes a lot of my energy and focus.
So what kind of things have you achieved?
In bodybuilding, I've come 2nd in two British Finals (to the winner, who won the Pro Card). I've been to two World Championships as the amateur female on Team UK, and won the World Title both times. I first competed in 2011 and most recently competed in 2016 and I think I've done 16 competitions (including qualifiers) in that time.
When did you start competitive bodybuilding?
My first competition was in July 2011 but I started training with bodybuilding in mind in 2010, and started dieting for the comp in early 2011. By the way, that is not a long time to train! I should point out that I came from an athletic background and already carried a decent amount of muscle.
What made you think ‘ah yes, bodybuilding, I could do that’?
A friend! I'm not sure whether to thank her or curse her, haha! She was a bodybuilding competitor herself, and offered to coach me through a short fat loss diet in 2010. This was before I really knew what competitive bodybuilding was. I hadn't ever considered doing it. I was still doing endurance sport at that time (distance running and triathlons). I followed the plan she gave me to the letter and dropped a decent amount of body fat. And what it revealed was a balanced and symmetrical frame with a good amount of muscle (considering I had never trained for hypertrophy). She made a throwaway comment that my natural shape and symmetry was just what bodybuilding judges look for. I took the idea and ran with it! I had zero knowledge about natural bodybuilding. I did a lot of research, contacted people within the sport, learned to pose (...some people who were at my first show might argue that point) and went for it! I only ever intended to do one show. To be honest I didn't think I'd enjoy it, especially the free posing bit where you are by yourself posing to music. But I loved it. And I won... and got invited to the British... then the same happened with another Organisation. So, that was 2011! Bodybuilding, all in.
Aside from physically (!), how do you think competing at the upper levels in this sport has changed you as a person?
I think bodybuilding - like any challenging solo sport - highlights your strengths and your weaknesses. I don't think it changes you, but it brings certain aspects into the spotlight for you to examine and come to terms with. Bodybuilding strips you right back, and reduces you to your best - and your worst.
I think bodybuilding showed me how strong I am, what I am capable of, and how I cope (or don't) under extreme pressure. Once you've got through a bodybuilding prep, you realise you can pretty much get through anything if you set your mind to it. I am now much more aware of what my personal "red flag" warning signs are. I know what I can deal with, and what is too much. Bodybuilding takes unwavering resolve, steely determination, and the ability to be selfish without driving everyone away! But it's the bit after the competition that's most interesting, if you ask me.
When you’re at peak training for a competition, what would be your daily routine?
Training changes throughout "prep" (which is what we call the dieting phase leading up to a competition). I usually weight train 4-5 times a week, on a bodypart split. I train legs twice a week, and then prioritise any body parts that need extra work. I train in the typical hypertrophy range of 8-12, and I keep things as heavy as I can all the way through. I don't believe in backing off, using light weights, or going very high rep. In terms of cardio, I already walk a lot because I have a dog. But I don't count regular daily activity as cardio. Personally I add in cardio as an extra "tool" when fat loss slows down. I eat 4-5 times a day when I'm dieting, and I try to get to bed at a reasonable time otherwise my sleep really does suffer!
So you swam the English Channel; impressive achievement! How long did it take?
Thanks! The first time took me 14 hours 15 mins, the second time took 14 hours 27 mins. And I landed (finished) in almost exactly the same place. Which is weird, given all the variables. Different years (2004, 2008). Different tides (one neap, one spring). Different conditions (one had force 6 during it, one was flat as a pancake). No Channel swim is the same, obviously. So it's funny that I took roughly the same amount of time and ended up in more or less the same place!
How long did you train for and what kind of things, aside from fighting sharks, did you have to practice?
Sharks, I wish! (I'm a bit obsessed with them). Training to swim the Channel is very monotonous and soul-destroying, like the swim itself. I used to say that the swim would knock you out, but the training would kill you.
Not literally, obviously. But the training is worse than the actual swim. It's very cold, especially in April which is roughly when you'd want to start training in the sea. Don't forget, Channel swimmers do not wear wetsuits.
I swam in the sea every Saturday and Sunday, every weekend, from April until my swim (July and August respectively). You end up doing 7 hours each day.
You have to practice not going mad, not wanting to get out, ignoring the voice in your head that is telling you you're freezing. You have to practice swimming with "claw hand" (technical term) when your hands get so cold they cramp up into a claw shape.
Generally you have to practice being cold and not giving up.
<-- That's Gertrude Aderle, by the way. First woman to swim the English Channel in 1926. / Admin.
Any tough moments during the crossing or was it all just [ahem] plain sailing?
The tough moments are all in your head. I did have some rough patches of sea during my first swim, but I wasn't going to get out unless they physically hauled me out with a pole. I did get stung by jellyfish, but it's just another sensation and to be honest you can't feel much when you're that cold. I didn't see sharks, sewage, or anything scary. The toughest bit is the final stage. You're so close you can see the beach, but you might have 2 or more hours left to swim, if the tide is holding you back. You really do just have to put your head down and keep going until you touch land.
For these two disciplines in particular, not everyone can make it work like you have. What do you think are the primary personal qualities you need to succeed?
Confidence (even if it's blind confidence at first!)
- Self-belief (even if other people doubt you)
- Tenacity (you absolutely must stick with it)
- The ability to stay calm (some people rage their way through challenges, but I find a serene energy is more useful)
- The ability to be selfish (for a while) and be fine about it
- Self-awareness: knowing yourself well - and knowing how to handle yourself - is key.
Just for the record, tell us some of your PBs (lifting, squat, etc.)
Bench 62.5kg (frustratingly bad!);
And deadlift 150kg (I did get 160kg to my knees once in comp!)
Other random gym numbers: front squat 82.5kg, overhead press 65kg
So what’s on the horizon for Nicola Joyce? Any more competitions coming up?
Nothing in terms of competitions this year - I have a lot going on with family, business, and life. Never say never, I certainly haven't retired! I still train several times a week, but at the moment I'm enjoying more flexibility (yoga, Pilates, kayaking...) But I'm always working towards some kind of goal. I like doing bike sportives in the Summer, and I enjoy doing the online rowing challenges via the Concept2 website. In fact, I think I'll do the August one... yep, that's decided!
Phew. Great stuff, thanks Nicola!
If you have any more questions for Nicola you can post them up here or contact her via social media or her website:
Nicola Joyce - Fitness Writer