By Dr. Theresa DeLorenzo, RD
There are many factors when we determine if we have the freedom to run. Do we have the time? Many of us work 9-5 jobs meaning if we want to run if requires running in the dark. Many of us have other responsibilities that get in the way of being able to run such as kids after school activities and sports events. There are physical disabilities that prevent some of us from running. But, one factor that is ubiquitous to us all is the need for proper energy intake to making running and exercise of any type possible.
I have been a runner for almost four years. I, like we all do, have good days and bad days. Days when you feel like you can run forever and days when you feel like your legs weigh a million pounds. I run six days a week so they are obviously not all going to be good. I have done eight half marathons and will do my first marathon this year. So why at the age of 41 have I only been running for four years? It’s complicated.
When I was six years old, I started doing gymnastics. I am small and energetic so it was a perfect sport. Ball sports never interested me and in fact, they terrified me. Gymnastics just felt so freeing and powerful. When you stand on the balance beam you are precise and in control. When you swing from the bars, you are agile and free. When you spring from the springboard and glide over the vault you are powerful. Then, you get older and bigger and it isn’t so easy anymore. It all takes more energy and moving across the bean and swinging from the bars is more difficult and more awkward. Then there’s the pressure of what a gymnast should look like; the petite, 4 foot 7 person with no extra body fat and the bony figure. That may be realistic when we are ten years old but as we reach puberty that is no longer realistic nor is it healthy. Nevertheless, that is the expectation. As a 14-year-old gymnast, weighing 100 pounds was certainly not acceptable. A day that changed my life forever occurred. I would not change it because many good things have come out of the experience but it was not easy. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger right?
It was mid- summer after seventh grade. I was at gymnastics practice and my coach informed me that he would no longer be able to spot me because I was now too big. The comment hit me like a ton of bricks. I should’ve thought, “what a jerk, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Instead as an impressionable 14 year old I thought, I need to fix this.
My coach went on vacation and didn’t return for two weeks. During that time I decided that I would prove to him that I was still a capable gymnast. I started by going as long as I could without eating. I made it almost 24 hours before I broke down. I came up with a meal plan that would allow me to survive but maintain a very lean figure. I lost 13 pounds, kept it off for four years, and did not menstruate again until I was 18. There is a misconception that excessive exercise causes amenorrhea. It is actually inadequate calories to fuel that exercise that causes amenorrhea and the subsequent bone loss. During this time I began to break. I went to catch the bars on a mount and broke all of the bones in my right hand broke. That healed and I came back, dismounted the bars, and sprained my ankle very badly. On the small amount I was consuming, I was not strong enough to continue. My career in gymnastics had come to an end. So, what the heck does this all have to do with running? Just keep reading…
I needed to find a sport with a softer landing. As a junior in high school I joined the diving team. Landing in water felt safer. Maybe I won’t continue to break. I didn’t break but I gained weight because I wasn’t getting as much exercise. My slim frame of 87 pounds became 93 and then 98. I panicked. I was approaching the dreaded weight that was so problematic. I decided to join the track team so that I could get more exercise but my intake hadn’t improved so sure enough, illness struck. I came down with mononucleosis. After a month of having my dad read my assignments to me and eat as little as possible because I wasn’t moving at all, I decided it was time to go back. Was it actually time to go back? Probably not. Actually, it was definitely not time to go back. I developed walking pneumonia.
Fast forward to the present, I have obtained a bachelors, masters and doctorate degree in nutrition and have learned, amongst other things, that in order to use your body you have to fuel it. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. I love my career as a dietitian and never once have I wanted to be in any other field. It is an extremely rewarding field that allows me to help people of all ages become healthier, have less disease symptoms, live longer and perform better. Did I learn to eat perfectly and not have any fearful thoughts when it comes to food? No, but I got much better.
When I was 36 years old I ran a 5k with my best friends. I survived so we ran a four mile race on the fourth of July. They decided if I could run four miles that I could run six miles so we trained for a 10K. I knew from my gymnastics years that I gain muscle easily and saw the number on the scale slowly creeping up with my running so I decided to cut out meat. A boyfriend at the time even said to me that I should watch my weight because my body fat was 19% and much higher than his. There is so much evidence surrounding plant- based diets and how they stave off disease. I decided that would be the right diet for me. I claimed that I was trying to fend off disease but I was actually trying to keep my weight in a place where I was more comfortable. I ran a 10K and then a 15K and then several half marathons and then I was a runner. I ran daily only taking days off when coach Shelly told me to. It got easier and I got faster and each race went better than the last until it didn’t.
I had been running for almost three years and not eating meat for the same amount of time. Half way through a half marathon my world went fuzzy. I didn’t know what was happening. I was at mile three and Shelly said I was supposed to pick up my pace from 8:30 minutes per mile to 8:15 but I couldn’t. My legs wouldn’t move. I couldn’t see straight. I felt like I was floating for a minute and one of the volunteers grabbed me and made me stop. I was so disappointed because this was going to be my fastest half marathon yet. I started thinking about other things I had been noticing about my body in the past few months such as blurry vision, waking up with my hands and feet both asleep and my lips cut apart to the point that it was impossible to open my mouth without excruciating pain to know that I had a vitamin B12 deficiency. Vitamin B12 is only obtained from animal foods but I thought the eggs and fish I was eating was enough. Apparently not. I asked my doctor to obtain my serum level. Ideally, it should be over 800 ng/ml. Mine was a measly 180 ng/ml. I had done it again. I had depleted myself to the point that did not allow me to perform my sport the way I wanted to.
I decided that it was time to eat what my body told me to eat. I resumed eating meat again. My weight actually did not change. I am able to run and in fact, all winter I ran 40 miles per week and feel great. I run with friends who say “you just never know how a run is going to go.” I remember feeling that way but now that I fuel my body the way it asks me to, I rarely have difficult runs. I still believe a plant- based diet is a healthy way to eat and consume nuts, beans, tofu and tempeh on a regular basis but I believe that moderation is the way to go. If I don’t eat meat, my body does not allow me to exercise which is my stress release. Stress is more harmful than anything we can put in our bodies.
This year I plan to run my first full marathon and will listen to what my body needs. When we crave foods, there is a reason.
Listen to your body. It is smart. Happy running!
Theresa can be contacted by email at
Note From Shelly: Thank you so much, Theresa, for sharing your journey through weight control, fueling the body, and learning to listen to the body. I admire who you are and your care for others within your profession and home life. I’m a fan of you!