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By David Pickle
If Minnesota Duluth volleyball opponents checked out the Bulldogs bench, they probably wouldn’t notice the 5-foot-9, 159-pound assistant coach.
But when it’s time to stand out, Christyn May does it like few others.
In May, she won the North American Pro Championship for body building. Winning was an accomplishment in its own right, but it was especially notable since May is in only her third year of the sport.
“I basically needed a new challenge in my life,” she said. “I had done triathlons, I had done marathons, and competed in volleyball and basketball in college.”
But she had never let loose of the Olympic-lifting side of training, which she still enjoyed. Body building became the perfect intersection of need and interest.
May’s commitment to the physical side of body building was no big deal. She knew she had the body mass and the physique to succeed, and she certainly possessed the work ethic.
The challenge had to do with food. The end result of body building leaves the impression that it’s all about weight training, but May said it’s more about managing a complex diet. In her case, she said it makes up 85 percent of training.
For many body builders, diet compliance is strict and boring. “The stereotype is that you drink water and eat tuna,” she said.
When May committed to body building in her mid-30s, she knew she had to choose her own terms for food.
“My husband helped me design my own food regimen,” she said. “It’s basically clean eating but incorporating in cheat meals and cheat days during the week.”
What does that mean? The cheating part is the way it sounds. May is free to stray from the rigid requirements at particular times, although most people likely would consider her waywardness a healthy diet. As for what she can eat as she consumes 3,000 daily calories: “It’s everything in the food pyramid. Obviously I eat a lot of protein at every meal. I have a ton of veggies; veggies are limitless. What I really cut out of my lifestyle are sugars and processed foods….That’s been the key to my fitness success.”
Her husband, Justin, is the former strength and conditioning coach at Minnesota Duluth, but when it comes to Christyn’s diet, he chooses to be an observer rather than a follower.
“We don’t share her diet,” he said. “I did some small-scale body building a long time ago in a faraway place and cannot eat that strictly anymore. I commend her and am very proud of her. However, I want nothing to do with the food.”
While Christyn avoids processed foods, she does consume dietary supplements. In fact, she said the $1,000 prize for the North American Pro Championship helped defray her extra food expenses and also the cost of her supplements.
Since supplements might be regarded as the ultimate processed food, how does she reconcile the conflict?
“A performance athlete in any sport has trouble getting all the nutrients we need to keep our tanks on full from food alone,” she said. “For example, I try to get 140 grams of protein each day. That is the equivalent of about five chicken breasts. By supplementing my food with whey protein, I can achieve a balance where hopefully my body is never in a muscle-wasting state.”
That, however, leads to another matter, which involves the purity of the supplements. NCAA drug-testing experts say that student-athletes should avoid supplements because they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. May acknowledges the concern (“Unfortunately, anyone who takes supplements doesn’t know for sure,” she said) and said she sticks with familiar and trusted brands to avoid trouble.
But she quickly added that too many people err by concluding that all body building is based on steroids.
“The pictures that (people) see of the Miss Olympias and the women who look like they have a man’s physique, that’s where that stereotype comes from,” she said. “Those women are definitely using steroids. There’s no doubt about it. I had never done steroids in my life and I knew I didn’t want to go down that road.”
So, she affiliated with the North American Natural Bodybuilding Federation, which claims to oversee body-building competitions in a drug-free environment. May said that not only are the athletes urine-tested at each competition, they also must pass polygraph examinations about drug use.
While diet makes up most of May’s training, the time in the weight room is important.
“I have a six-day-a-week training routine, with one day off,” she said. “I hit all body parts twice a week. So, for example, Monday is my chest/shoulders and triceps day. Tuesday is a leg day. Wednesday is a back and biceps day. And then I repeat that.”
Justin, who now heads Minnesota Duluth’s sports marketing efforts, said it’s been interesting to contrast Christyn’s training with that of the athletes who were under his watch when he was strength and conditioning coach.
“It’s very different,” he said. “An athlete at our level spends a ton of time in the classroom and watching film, along with trying to watch their diets and work on their physical conditioning. Christyn puts that same amount of time into preparing her food and structuring her workouts. Every athlete is driven in their own special way, and the reason Christyn loves doing this is the structure that body building takes. She loves structure.”
Though she has succeeded at the highest level, Christyn said her team has been only modestly interested in her exploits. She said they are mainly interested in getting her input on diet. She doesn’t encourage or discourage them from pursuing body building, saying it’s a later-in-life avocation that attracts only a few people. She said it requires special commitment and also meaningful disposal income.
But even though her athletes may not be future body builders, she can certainly speak with authority to them about weight training. If ever there was a lead-by-example coach, she’s the one.
“It certainly doesn’t hurt since she can do everything they are asked to do in the lifting environment, and more,” said head coach Jim Boos. “Unfortunately, I am not similarly driven from a physical standpoint, so they can still look at me and say ‘you couldn’t do this’ – and they would be right.”
May will always be somewhat limited in body building competitions since the season runs from May to October and therefore overlaps with volleyball.
But she’s still getting the structure she needs, perhaps in a more well-rounded way than may be apparent. She continues to pursue other physical activities, including a lot of sprint training, and said she has knocked 13 minutes off her best half-marathon time since she began body building.
In fact, she is a bit of a physical outlier (she describes herself as compulsive-obsessive), enough to raise the question of whether her athletes can ever meet her expectations. She said that is not a problem; she and Boos simply recruit young women who are similarly driven.
“We’re very, very lucky that the kids we have at Minnesota Duluth have a tremendous work ethic,” she said. “The seniors each year do a great job with the incoming freshmen and say ‘This is what we do.’ They take a lot of pride in walking in the gym and looking very strong, as well as being very skilled on the court.”
No matter how strong they may be, they’ll know there’s somebody just as strong pushing them to be better.
“Christyn serves as a great role model for the girls,” Boos said. “She shows that working hard and setting your goals high can result in great things.”Last Updated: Oct 30, 2012