Sometimes, tweaking how you eat isn’t always a good thing, as ultramarathoner Reylynne Dela Paz discovered the hard way

Illustration by Alysse Asilo

My friends wondered how I could run back-to-back ultramarathons on a weekly mileage of up to 60 kilometers and with the kind of diet I maintained.

I stopped eating rice in 2010 and became pescatarian (that is, one who eats no animal meat except fish and seafood) in 2011. I was performing well and was even winning, so I thought I was doing great. I attributed my victories to my diet until I started experiencing back-to-back DNFs and bad races followed by sickness that made it hard for me to recover.

In 2013, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, a condition that made me gain weight, gave me weak and heavy legs and, a weird appetite for carbs, insomnia, palpitations, and depression. Basically everything a runner wouldn’t wish on himself or his worst enemy.

Although my doctor did not completely attribute it to my diet, she said that extreme or improper pescatarianism contributed to my condition. In other words, converting to pescatarianism is all right, provided it’s done the right way.  If only I consumed enough of the right protein, iron, carbs, and fat, and gave myself a decent amount of time to rest and recover after races, I would have been okay.

I was performing well and was even winning, so I thought I was doing great. I attributed my victories to my diet until I started experiencing back-to-back DNFs and bad races followed by sickness that made it hard for me to recover

Here are my tips for those who are thinking of becoming vegan, vegetarian, or pescatarian:

Know why you’re doing it. I adopted my diet to maintain my weight since it felt easier to run light. There was nothing wrong with that, except that it went ahead of being healthy, which should have been my priority.

Consult your doctor. Switching to another kind of diet is actually changing your lifestyle, therefore it’s important to have a baseline of your health condition before making any major change. If I knew that I had a thyroid condition and eating too much of the food that was part of my pescatarian diet would make my hormones go crazy, I would not have proceeded. Your doctor can recommend food to replace whatever nutrients you might miss from not eating meat, which is a rich source of protein and iron. The specialist can also give you an idea of how your body could react to radical changes in your food choices.

Strike a balance. When I started my diet, I could predict the food I ate at a specific time on a daily basis. Because I did not eat balanced meals, the organs that processed the food I ate received the most stress without recovery, thus the adrenaline fatigue and hormonal imbalance. This can be made in reference to your mileage or workout. Replace energy and nutrients used in training so you have enough strength and endurance for your next workout. Allow yourself to rest to give your muscles time to recover.

Take supplements, if necessary. When the doctor saw me, she knew at a glance that I was sick based on my color. I lacked iron and she said that unless I eat iron-rich food on a regular basis and in large amounts, I would suffer from anemia terribly.

Listen to your body. Pain is not always the best sign that something’s wrong. I wasn’t feeling anything for quite a while until my condition was severe. Sometimes being an endurance athlete increases tolerance to pain, so it was easy for me to ignore irregularities in my body because I could mask them and overcome them by mere motivation.

The operative word is balance. It’s not impossible or wrong to not eat meat but make sure your goal is to be healthy. If you feel that it’s not taking you towards that direction, then take another route with proper guidance.