brandy talamoni photographed at the san luis rey river trail in oceanside ca on november 20th, 2021
After years of fighting her body, Brandy Talamoni has let go of weight loss—and it’s made her happier than ever.
Maggie Shannon

Paige Roberts knows exactly where her toxic relationship with weight began. As a high school sophomore, she qualified for the one- and two-mile races at the Colorado state track championships. Based on her performance, her coach, a math teacher with no formal training in exercise physiology or sports nutrition, decided that she was at her “optimal running weight” and cautioned her against getting heavier. He even discouraged her and other teammates from joining the swim team in the off-season, she recalls, telling them that it would make their thighs too big.

Although weight gain is typically part of healthy physical development at that age, her coach’s words left her terrified of it. Over the next months, Roberts drastically restricted her food intake and was ultimately diagnosed with an eating disorder. She cut out all but a few foods and ran 10 to 15 miles a day. When she developed painful shin splints, she pushed through them. During a race later in her sophomore year, a stress fracture in her fibula turned into a full break. She wore a cast for six weeks, but that wasn’t the wake-up call it should have been. Her leg healed in time for the next season, and she jumped right back into high-volume training, weighing herself at least twice a day and purging after meals if she ever crept above her so-called “optimal running weight.” Her shin splints became so painful that she ended up sitting out her senior year in an effort to fully recover before competing in college. She also began seeing an eating disorder counselor, although her fixation on weight remained.

paige roberts photographed in colorado in 2021
Paige Roberts still suffers the consequences of underfueling in her teens and early 20s.
Jovelle Tamayo

When she joined the cross-country team at Colorado Mesa University, she mentioned her weight goals to her coach, who had an exercise physiology background. He was confused. “He was, like, ‘Running weight? There’s no running weight.’” She was surprised—no coach had ever told her this before.

Roberts continued seeing an eating disorder counselor and learned about nutrition and recovery from her coach. Eventually her weight settled to about 15 pounds higher than what she had viewed as her running weight, and she was able to maintain her best times. She still gets angry when she thinks about how her high school coach talked to her about her body. “It was brainwashing, essentially, and it started this eating disorder that I have had to live with my whole life,” she says. Although Roberts considers herself recovered, an eating disorder never goes away completely. Twenty years later, she goes to therapy twice a month, in part to make sure she doesn’t revert to disordered eating behaviors when she feels stressed or out of control.

For many runners, an intense focus on achieving or maintaining a certain weight can cause immense mental and physical damage. As more evidence shows that weight is not a reliable indicator of health, and that a focus on body weight is harmful, it’s clear that we—the running community, and society at large—need to change the conversation on weight, performance, and well-being.

Underfueling Has Serious Consequences

Though she didn’t know it at the time, Paige Roberts was experiencing Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S), a disorder that occurs when someone doesn’t have enough energy available to support their activity level. Dennis Cardone, MD, a sports medicine doctor at NYU Langone Medical Center, explains that RED-S has three main characteristics: disordered eating, hormonal changes, and decreased bone density. Women with RED-S often lose their periods, which can lead to irreversible bone loss after just a few months. In the short term, that increases the risk of stress fractures; over time, it can lead to brittle bones and osteoporosis.

“When I was trying to lose weight and get faster at the same time, I started to dread running.”

Once referred to as the female athlete triad, it’s now understood that men can also suffer from RED-S. In that case, it’s primarily a decrease in testosterone that leads to bone loss. Other symptoms, like fatigue and irritability, also occur in
athletes of both sexes.

While significant weight loss or weight fluctuation is one criterion in screening for RED-S, it can happen regardless of a person’s body size. Anyone who is not consuming enough calories to support their training is at risk of RED-S, which is why Cardone does not recommend weight loss as a way to get faster or increase endurance.

Even with the threat of RED-S, many athletes still believe that losing weight will make them faster. This is complicated by the fact that, very broadly speaking, body size can be correlated to running performance. It takes less energy to move a lighter body, so naturally smaller people who maintain a low body weight without overtraining and underfueling have an advantage, particularly over longer distances. But being in a calorie deficit, where someone consumes fewer calories than they’re burning, decreases energy levels and increases the risk of RED-S, which will likely negate any long-term performance benefit that might come with weight loss, Cardone says. “Whether it’s running or any other sport that we know, the key [to performance] is proper nutrition and proper training.”

Weight Loss Is Not the Answer

Brandy Talamoni served four years in the Marine Corps. There, twice- yearly weigh-ins instilled in her that maintaining a certain weight was crucial for athletic performance. But staying within the range required by the military was a struggle. “I was scared to eat food,” she says. “I had no energy. I was always tired and cranky.”

At 23, Talamoni left the military and became pregnant with her first child. After giving birth, she stayed about 60 pounds heavier than she had been. So she took up running and started eating less in an attempt to lose that weight. She lost about 10 pounds, but felt sluggish and couldn’t seem to improve her pace. She trained for her first marathon, but was afraid that eating while she ran would cause her to gain weight. On race day, she didn’t bring any mid-run fuel. She felt herself slowing by mile 7, and had to alternate walking and running. She was pulled from the course near mile 20 due to time limits.

Forcing her way through low-energy slogs was miserable. “When I was trying to lose weight and get faster at the same time, I started to dread running,” she says now. With weight loss as her goal, increasing her food intake wasn’t an option.

brandy talamoni photographed at the san luis rey river trail in oceanside ca on november 20th, 2021
After years of fighting her body, Brandy Talamoni has let go of weight loss—and it’s made her happier than ever.
Maggie Shannon

Three years later, Talamoni moved to a new city and decided to train for a marathon again. She joined a run club for support. The members there encouraged her to eat more to power her miles. “They were like, You gotta eat, you gotta eat, you gotta eat,” she remembers. She upped her food intake from two to three meals a day and included carbohydrate-rich foods like pasta and bread, which she had previously avoided because she thought they would lead to weight gain. She allowed herself to eat between meals when she was hungry. She also learned to fuel long runs with gels, applesauce, and rice balls. It worked: She took 20 minutes off her half marathon time, and finally completed a marathon in 2019, two years after her failed attempt.

Talamoni has since stopped trying to lose weight—it wasn’t working, and it made running feel like a chore. Now she’s able to love running again. “I run because I just feel like it; because it makes me feel good,” she says. It’s precious alone time where she’s able to step away from her kids and listen to a podcast. And because she eats enough to support her activity level, she feels energized, not sluggish.

With the exception of her second pregnancy, Talamoni’s weight has been stable over the past five years. But she’s continued to progress as a runner: She ran her first 50K ultramarathon virtually during the pandemic, and she’s training to run 30 miles on her local trails for her 30th birthday next year.

Talamoni’s experience with trying to lose weight is not uncommon. Intentional weight loss isn’t sustainable for the vast majority of people, runner or not. One oft-cited statistic, from a 2005 review study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, states that roughly 80 percent of people who lose weight will gain it back within a year. Another more recent meta-analysis, published in the April 2020 issue of The BMJ, found that while most diets lead to modest weight loss in the first six months, most people will begin to regain that weight within the year. Exercise research tells much the same story: A 2014 review study in Progress in Cardiovascular Disease found that increased exercise is rarely associated with significant weight loss.

This isn’t for lack of willpower. One explanation, known as the set point theory, suggests that we’re preprogrammed to stay within a certain weight range that’s unique to each person. That could explain why weight loss triggers physiological adaptations like a slower metabolic rate and a decreased ability to burn fat for energy. It can also lower production of leptin, a hormone that signals fullness, and increase production of ghrelin, a hormone that makes us feel hungry. That said, there are so many complexities and unanswered questions when it comes to what exactly determines a person’s weight that even set point isn’t a perfect answer.

Marci Braithwaite has experienced firsthand the body’s fight to stabilize after weight loss. She started running after a doctor told her she needed weight-loss surgery. She left feeling defiant, and she lost about 80 pounds in seven months by running and restricting calories.

"I run because I love it. I run because of the mental health benefits. I run because I feel damn good when I do it."

marci braithwaite running in seattle 2021
Braithwaite encourages her athletes to run for the joy of it, and because consistent movement feels good.
Meron Menghistab

But 12 years later, Braithwaite’s body has returned to its original size. She’s embraced it: She has started a run coaching business and branded herself “The Fat Athlete.” (She, and many other athletes with bigger bodies, aim to reclaim the word “fat” by using it as a neutral descriptor, rather than an emotionally charged insult.) Her training plans are made for athletes of all sizes, but are geared toward other runners with bigger bodies, who don’t feel welcome elsewhere. “I have changed my mindset about running,” she says. “I run because I love it. I run because of the mental health benefits. I run because I feel damn good when I do it.” She ran her first marathon in 2019, and now has her sights set on a 50K.

The Power of Exercise

Like Marci Braithwaite, many people start running in an effort to improve their health by losing weight. It’s a misguided impulse—research shows that losing weight generally has little direct effect on health. But fitness itself, without any change in weight, can have massive benefits for overall health and longevity.

In September 2021, Siddhartha Angadi, PhD, a cardiovascular exercise physiologist and professor at the University of Virginia, and coauthor Glenn Gaesser, PhD, a professor of exercise physiology at Arizona State University, published a review study in iScience that championed the benefits of physical activity, regardless of weight. They found that increased fitness is consistently associated with a lower risk of death regardless of a person’s weight. In comparison, weight loss had an inconsistent and lower effect on mortality. And while the idea of encouraging physical activity and fitness without weight loss is still considered fairly progressive, Angadi believes that more experts in the exercise science community are starting to change their view.

Angadi recommends that runners take a weight-neutral approach to fitness: Accept that body size and fitness are two different things, and prioritize health instead of weight. That means measuring health directly using such evidence-based markers as blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, and vascular function—all of which can be tested by primary care providers—instead of making assumptions based on body size.

Just one single exercise session can reduce blood pressure and improve blood sugar control, Angadi says. Engaging in moderate- intensity exercise, such as brisk walking or easy running, for at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week is enough to reap benefits. These can include improved mental health and cognition, better sleep, reduced blood pressure, increased strength and endurance, and a lower risk of early death and chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Higher-intensity exercise, like running fast enough to have difficulty talking, will yield the same benefits in half the time—a total of 75 minutes each week.

Martinus Evans has run eight marathons, but he doesn’t have a single marathon T-shirt. Many of the races he’s participated in only hand out shirts up to a size extra large, which is too small for his 300-pound frame.

"It may not look like what you see in the mainstream. But it’s running, and you should celebrate yourself."

martinus evans for runner's world photographed in brooklyn ny on november 14, 2021
Evans’s Slow AF Run Club is designed to be a safe space for back-of-the pack runners.
Drew Reynolds

To be clear: Evans is fit, but he has no plans to ever wear a size extra large. For years he struggled with his weight. He studied exercise physiology in college, in part because he wanted to learn how to transform his own body, which had always been larger. But, as is so often the case, that transformation didn’t come. In 2012, he felt a sharp pain in his hip as he walked into work. Evans says that when he went to have it checked out, the doctor immediately blamed his 400-pound frame and started ranting about how he was going to die. This wasn’t based on an examination or any results from his blood panels, which Evans says have always been relatively normal. “The doctor was just being an ass,” he says.

When Evans told the doctor, sarcastically, that he was going to run a marathon, he says the doctor laughed. “He had, like, the biggest laugh that I’ve ever heard anyone have. Like, You? Run a marathon?!

Determined to prove the doctor wrong, Evans started running. Although he could barely last 15 seconds at first, he gradually increased his mileage, and documented both his training and his weight loss journey on social media. In October 2013, less than a year and half after that doctor’s appointment, he was 100 pounds lighter and running his first marathon in Detroit.

Soon after, he was sidelined by a car accident and regained much of that weight. He missed running, but began to realize that his focus on weight felt toxic. Even as he was losing weight, he started to resent the pressure of posting his weekly progress on social media. And because people had been so complimentary of his weight loss, he constantly worried about what the people around him were thinking when he started to regain it, which he says made him depressed and even suicidal at times. When he was cleared to run 10 months after the accident, he decided to continue sharing his experiences, but without weekly weigh-ins. That approach resonated with people. Now Evans is full-time run coach and influencer with an Instagram following of nearly 50,000 people. In his social media posts, he talks sometimes about the health benefits he’s experienced since he started running that have nothing to do with his weight. His mental health has improved tremendously; his blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels remain in the healthy range; he’s able to move around more easily; and he doesn’t get out of breath climbing stairs the way he did before he started running.

martinus evans for runner's world photographed in brooklyn ny on november 14, 2021
Martinus Evans running in Brooklyn, NY.
Drew Reynolds

His Slow AF Run Club, an online group that now boasts about 8,000 members worldwide, provides training plans, workouts, and advice specifically for plus-size runners and those who run slowly. There are other groups that cater to these runners, but Evans says that too often they’re focused primarily on losing weight and getting faster, as if you’re only allowed to be a fat runner if you’re actively trying to get smaller. His group is a safe space for people who want to run without feeling ashamed, or pressured to change their body size and improve their pace.

How Food Fits In

A nutritious diet is the backbone of a weight-neutral approach to health, and it doesn’t need to be complicated or overly restrictive. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans—which haven’t shifted much in recent decades despite the ebb and flow of fads like low-carb and caveman diets and “clean eating”—highlight a few straightforward ways that many people can improve their eating habits. Eat more fruits and vegetables—only one in 10 American adults currently gets five servings a day. Choose whole grains instead of refined grains at least half the time—swap out white bread for whole wheat, or snack on an oat-based granola bar instead of pretzels. And cut consumption of saturated fat, which is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, by getting protein mostly from lean meat, fish, and plant-based sources, and choosing low-fat dairy or dairy alternatives.

Following these guidelines can lower the risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and certain cancers, but won’t necessarily lead to weight loss. People metabolize food differently for a variety of reasons: genetics, gender, age, weight, muscle mass, activity level, hormone levels, and more. Some people might be able to eat far more calories than their size would suggest without gaining weight, while others might restrict for years without seeing substantial change in their body size. But just as with exercise, eating a nutritious diet can improve health without affecting weight.

While Paige Roberts still loves to run, her legs have never fully healed from the injuries she sustained during years of calorie restriction as a teen. “I can only run occasionally at this point,” she says, before her shin splints start to flare up. Now 38, she works as a sports psychotherapist, helping athletes perform at their best without succumbing to the weight-loss pressures that exist in so many sports. All too often she hears about coaches pressuring them to maintain a certain body weight, just as hers did years ago. Most coaches don’t have advanced training in exercise science or sports nutrition, and they don’t realize the harm—and potentially permanent damage—that intense training and body scrutiny can cause their young athletes.

Instead of fixating on achieving a certain weight, runners and their coaches should focus on boosting performance through smart training and proper fueling. When runners stop obsessing over body size, they’re far less at risk of serious consequences like those associated with RED-S. And when the running community as a whole is able to embrace a weight-neutral approach, all runners will be able to reap mental and physical health benefits, and experience the joy of running, without constant anxiety about what the scale says.

Martinus Evans believes that, in addition to promoting health, it’s also important to create a safe space for people in larger bodies who want to run. Many people feel nervous when they first start running, he says, because they worry that they don’t look the way a runner is supposed to. But he and his run club want people to realize a simple fact: Every body is a runner’s body, and the benefits of movement can be reaped at any size.

“It may not look like what you see in the mainstream,” Evans says. “But it’s still running. You should be able to celebrate yourself.”

How to Fuel Your Run

Runners, like everyone else, should aim to get a mix of protein, carbohydrates, and fat from mostly whole, unprocessed foods. A good rule of thumb is to fill a third of your plate with a starchy carb, a third with veggies or fruit, and a third with protein, plus some fat from nuts, cheese, avocado, or oil, says Roxana Ehsani, a sports dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. For dinner, that might look like a big scoop of rice with a stir-fry of vegetables and chicken cooked in oil and topped with crushed peanuts. To make sure you’re eating enough overall, estimate your energy needs by adding your basal metabolic rate (BMR) and total energy expenditure (TEE) using an online calculator.

To fuel for performance
, Ehsani recommends a preworkout snack that’s rich in simple carbohydrates (which are easy to digest), 30 to 40 minutes before every run, no matter the distance. A banana or half a bagel are two great options. For runs that last an hour or more, replenish depleted glucose stores during the run with something high in sugar, like a full-calorie sports drink or a sports gel; this prevents the body from breaking down muscle for energy.

To refuel after a run
, Ehsani recommends a snack or meal that contains roughly a four-to-one ratio of carbohydrates and protein, like chocolate milk or a fruit smoothie made with yogurt.