For those obsessed with food, this story is for you.
When it comes to fueling for ultra distances–whether it is swimming, rowing, or running–there is a nutritionist who stands out amongst the rest. Sunny Blende is a renowned endurance-sports nutritionist who has gained such a reputation from a combination of her science-based methodologies, her long-term Ultrarunning Magazine nutrition column, and her personal experience living and fueling as an ultra athlete.
I could have spent all day asking Sunny questions. “What carbohydrates are best in a race?” “Should certain people abstain from dairy products?” “What is the real deal with cholesterol?” Like many, I just want to say: “Okay, tell me everything you know. I’ll do it, no questions asked.”
But it is not that simple and Sunny cannot be that easily played. “Many people just want a meal plan, ‘Just give me what to eat and I will eat it,’” she told me. “That is not teaching somebody. I want to teach people things because that is how it becomes a habit.” Nutrition is not taught by saying, “I am not going to eat sugar anymore,” she said. “It has to be a habit.”
Sunny, age 65, has a lifetime of personal experience in athletics, health, and food, which have molded her habits into a way of life from which she will never fully retire. Though she is now professionally retired, she calls it “semi-retired” because she cannot seem to break the “habit” of publishing articles, traveling the country to speak, and volunteering for organizations and at events.
She attended the University of Southern California for dental school, worked as a dental hygienist for 33 years, and then in 1996 went for a human-nutrition master’s degree from the University of New Haven in Connecticut.
“My hands began to give out,” she said. “Thirty-three years is along time to be a dental hygienist, not many people go that long.” Nutrition seemed like a natural path for her after that. “I was always fascinated by nutrition, partly because of being a dental hygienist,” she said. Most of her fellow nutrition graduates went into working for food companies, but Sunny wanted to be more in the health and sports industries. She decided to open her own sports-nutrition practice.
Sunny expected that she would have masters-age clients who could afford a nutritionist and a trainer, but instead her main athletes have been in high school, college, and ultrarunners of all ages.
She also taught a class at College of Marin in Kentfield, California where she had a slew of students, all interested in sports nutrition for different reasons. “I had a lot of swimmers and runners in the class,” she said. “But I also had a lot of parents of those student athletes who had no idea what to feed their kids.”
Her program with students and non-athletes tended to center around the same structure. She started with basic nutrition–macro and micronutrients–for all-distance athletes–sprint, middle, and ultra–as well for team “start and stop” sports, such as volleyball and baseball. The main thing for everyone was the emphasis on real food and not relying on products made by sport-nutrition companies.
When Sunny began writing for Ultrarunning Magazine in 2006, her career took off within the ultra world. Before then, there was not a lot of education available on fueling for a race longer than a marathon. “Marathon nutrition didn’t work great with ultras,” she said. “You can last two to four hours, but it is not great for 12 to 20 hours.”
Her ability to explain things in a way that everyone can understand, rather than in scientific terms, is something she prides herself in and is a skill for which many commend her. Tia Bodington, a previous iRunFar profilee, the Miwok 100k race director, and a former Ultrarunning Magazine editor, used to edit Sunny’s nutrition column at the magazine. “I was always amazed that she could take such complex topics and explain them in a way that the layperson could understand and implement,” Tia said.
Sunny said that, since she was running ultras by that time as well, she was able to start developing a program specifically for ultra distances based on how she herself felt. However, the biggest thing she has learned from the last 10 years of coaching is that there is no one way when it comes to nutrition. “There are actually many ways that work,” she explained. “You just need to work with the athlete and find out what works and what doesn’t. Some people can eat 24 gels in a 100-mile race and be fine with that. And I have had several runners throw up on me at mile 65 because they could not take another gel.”
It is through trial and error, she reminds everyone, that we navigate ultra nutrition. “I tell people to experiment and what I tell clients who are under-fueling–which is the usual problem since people don’t take in enough calories at the right time–in long training runs, eat till you throw up. Eat till you get sick!” she said. “They are like, ‘What?’” She then explains that perhaps he or she can eat more than they think, allowing them to get in more calories than they originally thought.
“Try something different,” she added. “Really, throwing up–in my definition–is erasing the blackboard and starting over.”
The goal is to get her athletes to think of fueling as a separate entity from eating. “It is not the same food we enjoy at dinnertime,” she said. Fueling, in Sunny’s terms, is something to help sports performance and something that can be sustainable down the road.
Over the years of training clients, watching races, and competing herself, Sunny realized the great deficit between the amount of calories we consume and expend during long bouts of endurance exercise. She began closely looking into how our body uses the fuel we put into it. By figuring out how to maximize the greatest number of calories, she stumbled upon the science of metabolic efficiency, or what is commonly referred to as fat burning.
“We all carry some fat no matter how lean we are,” Sunny said. “But how do we tap into it?” In a nutshell, Sunny trains her clients’ bodies to utilize stored fat, rather than just the instant carbohydrates we traditionally consume during exercise. It is a process, unique for every athlete, but one which offers an advantage to many kinds of athletes. She asked her clients to slow down for a period of eight to 10 weeks and told to lose the bad carbs. She hopes she shouldn’t have to say what those bad carbs are, she added.
Sunny says that the system only works with slow running, wherein the body doesn’t have to use many carbs due to the lack of the intensity. Sunny said that since she has begun working with the research, she has noticed more and more people catching on to the low-carb diet. This was especially spurred by the Paleo Diet trend since early 2000.
The Paleo diet, when revised years later, added in more carbs for athletes and reduced the amount of saturated fat, especially the bacon grease, she said. “Athletes weren’t competing well on just the Paleo Diet,” Sunny said. “My point on all diets is that all diets do have some good points to them, but use your common sense. As for a vegan diet, I have no problem with a vegan diet except that it is harder and you have to watch if you’re getting enough protein and iron.”
Sunny doesn’t tell people to cut out all carbs and run 20 slow miles a day. No, she makes suggestions like upping fruits, veggies, and protein, as well as switching up your regular pasta meal. “Instead of two thirds pasta and one third sauce and veggies, switch it up,” she said. “Do one third pasta and pile on the veggies!”
There is evidence from her everyday life. Fresh-caught fish from her lake-house property in Idaho and an entire head of asparagus, usually meant to feed five or six, split between her and her partner Randy Hixon. “We eat what is available and what is in season,” she explained. “And we use tons of different spices. We went to Morocco and fell in love with the spices, like turmeric and cumin.”
She only drinks water since juice, she claims, is barely a step above Coca-Cola. “Eat the orange and let your gut be the juicer,” she said. “Eat the food as close to the source as possible, like a carrot rather than carrot juice.”
“The only exception is carrot cake,” she added in, laughing. “That’s my favorite.”
Another big issue in the diet are dairy products, yet Sunny says, once again, use common sense. “We need to choose dairy wisely,” she said. “Yogurt for instance. I have a big beef with the nonfat flavored yogurt because when you take the fat out, then they up the sugar you are putting in your body, which is inflammatory and spikes your insulin.”
Sugar. The ingredient every nutritionist and dental hygienist loathes to see. When switching over to more fat, protein, and real food during races for herself and her clients, the role of sugar in one’s health was another main factor she kept an eye on.
“Most athletes who are good in their sport don’t have a weight problem and don’t have to worry about eating a lot of carbs and gaining weight,” she said. “But if you ask me, it is the health as well. When you look at a long-term athlete, say 35 years long like me, exercising six or seven days a week for one to two hours a day and taking one to two gels a day, that is a lot of sugar I am putting into my body. And that is very inflammatory.”
Sunny doesn’t just teach these lessons. She tries to live them. Sunny has more than 30 years of single-scull rowing, years of distance swimming, mountain biking, hiking, and trail running. Add in paddleboarding too, another hobby she picked up about three years ago. Sunny is mostly a rower and runner. She grew up and still lives in southern California where she was a part of a very athletic family who traveled and hiked throughout the country.