Quick Hit Summary
In this interview with the expert, we have the privilege of talking with ultra endurance athlete extraordinaire, Zach Bitter. Amongst other things, topics discussed include how he got involved with ultramarathon running, a breakdown of his training week as well as the nutritional strategies he uses to fuel performance.
About Zach Bitter
Dec 13, 2013 Update I extend a full blown congratulations to Zach Bitter. On this date, while competing at the Desert Solstice Invite in Phoenix, AZ, he set the new U.S. 100 Mile Open Track record record in 11:47:21. Additionally, he set the 12 Hour WORLD record with 101.66 miles. For those keeping track at home, that's just over 7 minutes per mile!
Figure 1. Zach Bitter, crossing the finish line after winning the 2012 USA Track & Field (USATF) 50 mile Road Championship. Image used with permission.
In this installment of Interview with the Expert, we have the privilege of talking with Zach Bitter, ultramarathon running extraordinaire. In 2011, Zach ran the fastest 50 mile (80.5 km) ultramarathon in the USA with a time of 5:26:52 (hr:min:sec). He followed up his successful 2011 campaign with an equally impressive 2012 season, being crowned the national champion in the event after winning the USA Track & Field (USATF) 50 mile Road Championship. Likewise, he has a personal best marathon time, as of April 2013, of 2:31:29… which he set while running on an indoor track none the less! (If interested in checking out more of his accomplishments, CLICK HERE.) Even more impressive, he has accomplished all of this while holding down a fulltime job as a middle school special education teacher. Recently, he was gracious enough to sit down and share some of his experiences with us…
(For reference while reading this interview, 1 mile = 1.6 km; 1 km = 0.62 miles)
First off, I want to thank you for taking the time out of both your running, coaching, social & academic scheduled to join us today. We are honored with your presence.
Thank you for welcoming me to CasePerformance. It is my pleasure.
Curious, what first stoked your interest in endurance training? How did it progress to the point where it is today, competing in ultra-marathons?
I guess I was intrigued by endurance events at an early age. In 6th grade, when my class did the Presidential Physical Fitness challenge, I ran the mile and really enjoyed it. I guess that snowballed into high school cross country and track, college cross country and track, some road racing after college, and ultimately ultra racing. I noticed that I got a little more competitive as the race distances increased. I suppose that was a big determining factor in why I decided to do ultras. A second factor is that I just love the activity of running for the sake of running. Ultra training seems to make sense in that case.
As a runner, what achievement/experience are you most proud of to date?
That’s a good question. It’s hard to pinpoint a specific race, or training block, because even the ones that go bad seem to teach some valuable lessons. That said, I would probably say my race at The Door County Fall Classic in 2011 is one worth noting. I say this because I never anticipated racing it. I fell short of my expectations at the North Face Midwest Regional five weeks earlier, so just wanted to get back out and redeem myself. I never thought going in I would run the fastest time in America for the 2011 season!
Are there any short and/or long term goals that you have with respect to endurance running?
Yes, I would love to participate on Team USA at the 100k (62.1 mile) distance and the 24 hour team. I also, plan to run a flat 100 miler (160 km) in 2013. Right now, based on where I live, my skills are definitely skewed towards flatter terrain. In the short term, I would like to win the Mad City 100k this April, which ironically would accomplish a long term goal as well, by qualifying me for Team USA’s 100k team.
Zeroing in a little bit more specifically to your training and nutrition strategies…
Speaking in terms of generalities, can you briefly describe what your training loads/volume looked like 12, 6, 3, & 1 week out going into the 2012 USATF Championships, held at Tussey, that you won?
For a race like Tussey I do much more speed than I would for say a mountain or trail race. Although, Tussey is 75 percent gravel it does lend itself to good footing and fast paces. In terms of training loads, here is what things look like…
I am still focusing on mainly base miles [Editor’s note: Base refers to the 1st stage in an annual training plan (ie – periodiazation)]. I have reached up to 189.5 miles in one week in the past during base. Usually it’s closer to 130-150 miles on the upper ends of the cycle. I don’t simply just slog it out every run though. I like doing something called base speed. It is very brief, but I feel it readies me for the speed work ahead. An example of base speed workout would be what I call the 20/40. It’s a 20 second build up to full out sprint, followed by 40 second recovery jog. Usually in base I don’t do more than 20-30 sets of this, but have gotten up to 60 reps during speed. I am not afraid of the weight room. I usually do weighted lunges, squats, leg extensions, leg curls, box steps, box jumps, body weight upper body work, and weighted core lifts.
I am deep into speed training. This includes tempo runs, 400 repeats at 5k race pace, 30 second intervals at max effort, fartleks (typically mile on, mile off at 5:15-5:45 per mile), 20/40s, 5k repeats (usually 2 or 3), progression runs (speed up a little each mile), and hybrid runs (a mixture of two or more of the former mentioned speed sessions). I continue with the weights pretty much through week six.
Three week’s out is when I usually start to think about tapering. Usually I will not drop my miles too much, and have often hit 100 miles this week. I back off the intensity a bit, and focus on just staying sharp. Weights usually back off to just body weight stuff not to exhaustion. I love to get in the pool or a leisure bike ride during this week.
I really listen to my body. I don’t plan anything. Usually I end up going into race day with 30-40 miles logged for the week. They are all really relaxed with maybe a few strides. I will do some resistance, but no set beyond 75 percent exertion. It’s mainly just a glorified stretching session to make sure everything is where it needs to be for race day.
Breaking your training down a little bit further, what does a typical training week look like for you?
It really depends heavily on what I am training for at the time. My main focus lately has been to target faster ultra courses, so I have a definite element of speed training. A typical peak training week when I am fully into training would look similar to this:
Sunday: 22 mile long run. (pushups, situps, pullups).
Monday: AM 10 mile easy run, PM 8 mile easy run
Tuesday: AM 10 mile tempo/progression run (average pace between 5:40-5:50 minutes per mile. PM 7 mile easy run. (squats, leg extensions, leg curls, weighted core work).
Wednesday: AM 8 mile easy run, PM 8 mile easy run.
Thursday: 18 mile workout (3 mile warm up, 6×400 meters at 70-75 seconds with half mile recovery jog between, 1 mile recovery jog, 2×1 mile at 5:30-35 minutes per mile with 1 mile recovery jog between reps, 1 mile recovery jog, 3 miles at 6-6:20 minutes per mile, 3 mile cool down. (pushups, pullups, situps, box jumps, lunges, body squats).
Friday: AM 10 mile easy run, PM 10 mile easy run.
Saturday: 23 mile long run. (pushups, situps, pullups)
Total: 134 miles
Although I have a rough idea of what my training will look based off the training cycle I'm in (as described in your previous question), I do not set my workouts "in stone." Usually I write my workouts 1 week in advance based and I'll "fine tune" the actual training session that day based off how I'm feeling; I'm not at all opposed to taking a day off if I feel I need it.
Does strength training play any role in your overall training cycle?
Definitely! I love to strength train, so I find reasons to do it. Typically, I lift heavier weights during base phase of training. After base, I usually switch to more plyometric type training, but I don’t completely abandon free weights. Near and during taper I begin to switch to more strength maintenance based workouts.
The role that resistance and plyometrics plays in my overall training is definitely evolving. Based off some talks with you, Sean, I will likely start including some more glute/hamstring exercises into my routine such as RDL's and similar as well as possibly tweak a few other variables in my resistance training plan. I also want to experiment with lifting weights prior to doing a speed training session.
With your training load, how do you go about fueling yourself for success?
I am definitely a high fat diet athlete and have been for 1 ½ years. This may come as a surprise to those who feel that endurance athletes need to have high carb based diets, but the research on this is not as cut/dry as one would believe and there is rationale for consuming a high fat diet; Namely it increases fat oxidation while completing endurance events while preserving glycogen (Yeo et al, 2011). In addition, it’s important to note that I’m on the far side of the aerobic-anaerobic pendulum. It’s not like I’m a 400 m sprinter who relies on glucose to supply high octane anaerobic energy.
With that being said, I would describe my intake as low carb, high fat, and moderate protein. When my training volume is low and/or less intense I dip down as low as 5% carbohydrate consumption. When I am in peak, high volume, high intensity training (like the week described above) I will allow my carbohydrate intake to creep up close to 30% on the more intense days. Most of my carbohydrates come from non starchy vegetables (primarily greens). On the days where I reach 30% carbohydrate intake I will mix in something like a sweet potato, cantaloupe, and/or raw honey. To better put these numbers into perspective, on higher training volume days I am consuming 4-5000 kcal per day; thus when my training is more intense, this equates to about 200-250 grams of carbs, 100-150 grams of protein, and approximately 310-375 grams of fat per day.
Prior to starting a low carb, high fat, moderate protein diet, I followed a high carb diet. For the most part, I avoided fat when possible. I listened to what a lot of “run of the mill” endurance nutrition was advocating. The whole high carb, low fat (with the the exception of a “healthy fats”), and just the right amount of protein to recover for my body weight and training volume; My macronutrient breakdown would have looked something like 60-70 percent carb., 20 percent protein, 10-20 percent fat. I was eating fewer calories. I don’t have any hard fast numbers, but can guarantee I was not reaching 5000 calories except for a few times per year. Staples of my diet included: potatoes, whole wheat/rye flour, honey, fruits (all kinds), vegetables (all kinds), beans, milk (fat free), lean cuts of meat (chicken breast), peanut butter. So, one could say my diet was pretty clean by conventional standards, but it certainly wasn’t allowing me to optimize rest and recovery, and tying into the “recovery” side of things, I always felt more inflamed while on it vs. current diet.
In terms of converting from a high carb to high fat based diet, there was probably a 2-3 week adjustment time period and I did feel "flat" during a couple of the workouts. However, it was well worth it. Since switching, I have found that a diet based on fats promotes quicker recovery, better sleep, and a more consistent level of energy throughout the day. My race times have consistently better since switching over as well.
I think many people have been misled to think that fats are bad, and that saturated fat is going to give them a heart attack. I believe that saturated fat is vital, and only becomes dangerous when you consume copious amounts of carbohydrate along with the saturated fat as shown in some of the more recent research studies. Dr. Steven Phenny and Dr. Jeff Volek point to some great scientific evidence in their book, The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance, which has heavily influenced my nutrition strategies.
Now with this type of diet approach that you’ve found to be effective, do you carbohydrate load, as done by traditional endurance dietary strategies, at all to maximize your muscle and liver glycogen supplies in the last couple of days prior to a race?
This is an excellent question, and one that my coaching clients are always eager to ask. I definitely carb load the days leading into a big event. I load much more if it is an "A" race as opposed to a lower key race, or key workout. Basically, I begin to add more carbs 2-3 days out from the race. I focus on carb sources that are gluten free. Sources include: starches (potatoes/sweet potatoes), fruits, and raw honey. I decide how much carb based on the intensity of the race. If I would be heading into a 100 mile race I would add much less carb, as my body would be more apt to remain in a fat metabolic state. A general rule of thumb when I carb. load is to always sneak in fat. I love coconut oil during carb. loading, because it’s medium chain tryglycerides help to promote fat utilization despite the increase in carbohydrate consumption.
Building off the last question, what type of approaches/strategies do you take with regards to meeting your daily nutrition needs?
I monitor my values using various apps to see that I am getting sufficient amounts of both macro and micro nutrients. With that said, I also don’t entirely rely on mainstream daily values. I think those daily values were designed for an individual consuming a typical western diet. I think you would agree, I do not consume a conventional western diet. For example, my sodium intake reaches levels of up to 8 grams in a day. Most dietitians would probably gasp at those levels but I perform and feel best with these intakes. My sodium intake is primarily from good quality unrefined sea salt sources. My blood pressure is solid, so I don’t concern myself too much with how much salt, but rather LISTEN to what my body is telling me.
[Editor’s Note – Yes, as a dietitian myself, I can say that most in my profession would definitely gasp at this intake; However, speaking in terms of generalities, the profession is quite conservative …which tends to get a few eyebrows raised when I share my thoughts in certain circles… even with research to support the claims!]
Any particular pre-, intra-, post workout nutrition/hydration strategies that you’ve found to be effective?
It is heavily reliant on what type of workout I am doing. If I am going out for a long steady paced run. I will do very little pre/during workout fueling. I will take in some amino acids in order to stave off any muscle catabolism, and water with some unrefined sea salt. Lately, I have been experimenting a bit more with pre-workout fueling, especially when I work out first thing in the morning. One reason for this is now that I have my diet down firm, and have become quite fat adapted, I run less of a risk of throwing off my fat utilization efficiency. I am also incorporating a more strategic use of the carbohydrate I do consume, by locating them before/after workouts; when muscle glycogen uptake is at its peak. This allows me to remain in a high fat utilization phase for more hours of the day then it would if I would eat my carbs during less active parts of the day. When I have an intense workout scheduled (400 repeats, with plyometrics) I will add more carbs before the workout and after in order to meet the higher intensity demands. After this I focus on lots of fats the rest of the day, as to promote quicker recovery, less inflammation, and better rest that night.
Any other supplements that you’ve found to be effective not listed above?
I do take supplements. Some of them I would take regardless of my training, while others I take due to the pure amount of physical stress I put on my body. Below I listed some of my primary supplements that I have personally found to be effective for me:
- omega 3 fish oil
- glucosamine chondroitin
- lactic acid buffer
- vitamin k12/D3
- whole food multi vitamin
- spirulina powder
- super greens powder
Outside of nutrition, is there anything else you do to help your body recover from the miles you put in?
I love my herbal teas. One in particular I use daily is Yerba Matte. It’s an adaptogenic herbal tea that contains amino acids as well as the adaptogen benefits that I feel helps with stress support. I try to be proactive in terms of stress, because I do work as a full time teacher, so I definitely am vulnerable to stress if I do not pay attention to it.
I am also a firm believer that stress levels are heavily influenced by the way you view events and process them. I try to keep a constant positive outlook, which I feel helps keep my body from going into stress mode.
Do you have any thoughts or advice that you can share with us here at CasePerformance?
I think that when it comes to performance nutrition and recovery (mainly sleep) are responsible for the majority of success. I'd rather skip a workout than sacrifice an hour or two of sleep if I'm tired.
Last but not least, I would urge anyone to look at these aspects and go out and find what works for them, using properly done scientific studies as a guide.
Great point there Zach! Letting Re-Search Guide Me-search is something that I stress here at CasePerformance as well. It’s great to hear that you’re continuously running your own “experiments” to see what works best for YOU!
On behalf of the CasePerformance community, I would like to thank you for joining us here today. I realize it takes time to answer these questions. Keep up the great work and for those wondering, where can they follow your training?
It was my pleasure! I think exercise and nutrition are so important to quality of life, and love to see others success and perspective, as well as share mine. You can find what I’ve been up to at my training website and blog
1 Yeo WK, Carey AL, Burke L, Spriet LL, Hawley JA. Fat adaptation in well-trained athletes: effects on cell metabolism. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2011 Feb;36(1):12-22.
2 Volek, J, Phinney S. The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance. Beyond Obesity LLC. 2012 April.