“There were silly things that I used to do in my nutrition back when I was a college runner,” professional OCR athlete and former Spartan World Champion, Faye Stenning, admits.
Stenning says that during her college running career, she tried her best to follow a less-is-more approach to eating, restricting calories with the intent of being leaner and lighter.
As far as common mistakes, it wasn’t just nutrition: Stenning once held the belief (like many of us) that the low-heart-rate, "fat-burning zone" illustrated in graphics on treadmills and stationary bikes was the optimal intensity to burn fat.
Stenning would realize through study, athletic experience, and ultimately coaching others that the low-intensity, fat-burning zone idea falls apart pretty quickly when you take in a broader understanding of exercise metabolism.
An Evolving Understanding of Performance Nutrition
Stenning, who has a degree in kinesiology, says that her approach to nutrition has steadily evolved since her days of running track and cross country for the University of Calgary.
“I’ve changed a lot as I’ve developed into more of a strength-endurance athlete,” Stenning says. “Rather than wanting to be smaller and lighter to be faster, body composition is the focus.”
Within the context of body composition, Stenning keeps her eye on cellular metabolism and the importance of lean muscle mass. Being lighter at the expense of muscle, she says, has both health and performance consequences that percolate upward from the metabolic level.
An American Journal of Clinical Nutrition review offers immense support for this line of thinking. Lean muscle mass is crucial to health, longevity, and athletic performance — including prevention of common chronic diseases.
When Stenning moved away from restricting calories and purposefully eating more carbs, not only did her performance improve, but her overall health did as well.
“When I added 1,000 additional calories per day to my diet, I felt a lot better for one thing," she says. "My hair got thicker and my eyelashes grew longer. It’s not like you have to eat as many calories as Michael Phelps, but I found eating more — even on a light training day — to be beneficial. Fueling isn’t just about turning over your running legs; it’s about metabolic processes.”
For Stenning, the bottom line is this: Lean muscle mass is going to ultimately result in being healthier and also — over time — in being stronger, leaner, and faster.
For Endurance Athletes, Carbs are King
These days — against the low-carb/ketogenic trend that has gained a lot of attention in the media — Stenning tries to get her fair share of all of the macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats), but she openly prioritizes carbohydrates.
For non-exercisers, restricting carbohydrates to enable better health is one thing, Stenning says, but adds, “For endurance athletes, you need carbs for energy.”
Stenning gets assurance on her dietary approach through discussions with her business partner and 2016 Olympian, Jessica O’Connell. (Stenning and O’Connell own and operate Grit Athletic Coaching together).
“She’s a great sounding board,” Stenning says.
O’Connell, an exercise physiologist, won the 5,000 meters for Canada at the Summer Olympic Games in Rio, and holds the Canadian national record for the indoor 3,000.
“When you're exercising at a moderate-to-high exercise intensity, carbs are king,” O’Donnell says.
The Post-Workout Snack: Don’t Procrastinate
Another key principle that Stenning and O’Donnell emphasize is nutrient timing: the post-workout recovery snack.
As an example, let’s say that you just cranked out an anaerobic threshold workout — say, 25 minutes at your individual pace — it’s a mistake to let hours go by before you eat something. Stenning and O’Donnell will tell you to get after it immediately, when your body’s metabolism is on high alert and ready to absorb nutrients.
To take advantage of this recovery window and speed the overcompensation phase of training (in other words, improve your capacity for endurance performance), eat something immediately after the workout. Ideally, a food with a 4-to-1 carb-to-protein ratio. Chocolate milk is a simple and effective pick. Stenning and O’Donnell also talk affectionately about peanut butter and jam sandwiches.
How does Stenning's thinking on nutrition hash itself out into daily application? It’s pretty simple.
“I have two big meals a day and light snacks in between to get by,” she says.
Here's what that looks like.
Stenning's No-B.S. Nutrition
— Granola bar
“Before my morning workout, I like to get a little bit of fuel in my stomach,” Stenning says.
— Breakfast sandwich with eggs, beans, avocado, and more.
This is Stenning's first big meal, and the sandwich is giant.
“I get the full-shebang sandwich — everything in it,” she says.
Pre-Strength Workout Snacks
— Fruits and nuts
“I’ll train weights in the afternoon," Stenning says. "I don’t like to feel too full, so in general I’ll snack on fruit and nuts to tide me over until dinner.”
In particular, she eats immediately after her strength workout.
— Glass of wine
— A big dinner with approximately ⅓ veggies, ⅓ proteins, ⅓ grains
— Dessert, which may be a few pieces of chocolate
Stenning, who lives in Manhattan, takes advantage of New York City’s fast array of restaurants and eats out most nights. Equally advantageous to the New Yorker is that many restaurants deliver.
“I get a protein source every night,” she says. “I’ll have fish twice a week, steak twice — that kind of thing. As far as veggies, since I’m eating out most nights, I’ll eat the vegetables that they’re offering.”
When her training volume is high, Stenning says she will “pound” carbs, and that might even mean digging into a big piece of cake.