Boulder, CO-based counselor helps elite athletes, and the rest of us, decide what’s best for our bodies.

By Courtney Holden

Modern athletes have an abundance of options regarding how they fuel their bodies. Do they opt for a banana or a pressed-fruit bar? Gel pack or squeeze pouch? Carbs or no carbs?

Sports nutritionist Ashley Whittemore is an expert at navigating these confusing waters, and she’d better be. After all, she’s doling out advice in Boulder, CO, a town known for its professional cyclists, Olympic runners and an “amateur” athlete population that knocks out a 10-mile run before work.

Whittemore sat down with SGB to discuss the role of a nutritionist, the benefits of “real” food and what’s on the horizon for the sports nutrition category.

How did you get interested in sports nutrition? A lot of my passion for performance nutrition started with backpacking. I was trying to carry the least amount of weight for the most calories, and it was interesting to start manipulating that aspect of calorie-to-weight ratio myself. When I moved out to Colorado from the East Coast, I started working at Essential Nutrition and doing private counseling. I was also running marathons and doing adventure races, which are very demanding for calorie expenditure. That’s when I really thought, “sports nutrition is something I need to look more into.”

Is it intimidating being a nutritionist in a place that’s repeatedly ranked as the healthiest city in the United States? It’s more interesting than intimidating. There are constantly new studies and food items that clients bring to my attention to review. It is rewarding to work with a demographic that is so highly motivated to always improve on their health and wellbeing.

What are your clients typically looking to get out of a visit to a sports nutritionist? It’s usually either an athlete who wants to perform better or someone who is struggling to eat well. A lot of people are looking to decrease their mass, but increase their power. They want to be more explosive and increase their strength, but since muscle weighs more than fat, they have to avoid getting so heavy that they slow down. It’s a very fine game of titrating how many calories are necessary for their activity level, while making sure that all the foods are being utilized so it’s not an excessive intake.

How frequently do you see your athletes take their eating to an extreme of some kind? My practice is about 50 percent eating disorders and 50 percent sports nutrition, so I see it often with my clientele. There’s a lot of orthorexia, which is an unhealthy obsession with eating healthy. We also see over-exercising and under-eating, which may be done on purpose or because the athlete has a naturally suppressed appetite due to training.

You’ve said that you’re keen on a “food first” approach to nutrition. Tell us more about what that entails. I don’t go on many soapboxes, but this is one I’ll go on. I always try to push real, whole foods first. If it’s not from the ground or a tree, then it’s not what I’m considering a real food. There are great protein bars out there that are organic or natural or made without preservatives, but it’s still not a real, whole food. I’d much rather do fruit and nuts or peanut butter — which is “processed,” but it’s still a whole food — than something made in a chemistry lab. That’s always my first approach because that’s what your body needs; it’s what we were intended to eat.

Is there ever a time when a bar, gel or energy drink might be appropriate? There’s a misperception that you need a synthetic edge in order to be bigger and faster and stronger — which shows the marketing companies have done a good job. There’s definitely science behind these products, but with that over-marketing, suddenly we have five-year-olds in peewee soccer who think they need Gatorade. You don’t actually need those products unless you’re on a really long training run or doing a marathon. If you’re going to be exercising for a long period of time and burning a lot of calories, eat whatever you’re comfortable carrying, maybe a couple bars or gels.

Liquid, solid, gel or gummy … What form is best? Soft solids and liquids are already mechanically altered so your stomach doesn’t have to digest them as much. It’s easier on the stomach. So if you want something as you continue running or cycling, go for the soft solid or liquid form. When hiking, I personally much prefer a bar because it’s more satisfying.

Does it make a difference whether or not the supplement is natural, organic, carb-free, etc.? Supplements that are natural/organic tend to have a shorter shelf life and do not hold up as well in more intense conditions such as high heats, etc. For an athlete, carb-free is the worst choice. Their power comes from glycogen, and during physical activity, those glycogen stores are used up. The only way to replenish that glycogen is by eating carbs.

What’s the “next big thing” in sports nutrition? Rather than an “eat this, not that” mentality or a hype around some particular food, it’s going to be more about the portion size and timing of consumption. For example, awhile ago, research came out saying the optimal amount of protein for the body to absorb is 30 grams at a time. That means, if you need to get 90 grams of protein in a day, don’t eat 60 grams in one sitting and 30 grams in the next. Instead, eat three servings of 30 grams of protein. So the new “trend” is going to involve athletes reading nutrition labels, being mindful of the last meal they ate and paying attention to the composition of their meals and snacks.

Have any tips on what food to pack for a weekend-long backpacking adventure? I bring high-calorie foods like nuts, seeds and dried fruit because they’re non-perishable. I definitely take a pocket-rocket stove and any type of dehydrated meal because they’re lightweight — so they don’t add a lot of pounds to my pack — but provide the calories and protein I need. Plus, they taste great.

Photo courtesy Ashley Whittemore