Ultra distance runner, coach, researcher, and podcast host Zach Bitter talks about what keeps him going
By Chris S. Cornell
On August 24, 2019, Zach Bitter spent a solid 12 hours running laps around a 443-meter track at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on his way to setting world records in both the 100-mile and 12-hour runs.
Zach claimed both records with his performance during the Six Days in the Dome event. His 100-mile time of 11 hours, 19 minutes and 13 seconds, shattered the 2002 world record previously held by Oleg Kharitonov, by nearly 11 minutes.
For those without a calculator handy, Zach's pace for 100 miles was a touch under 6:48 per mile.
After establishing the 100-mile record, Zach continued running for another 40 minutes and improved upon his own 12-hour distance world record by more than three miles with a total distance covered of 104.8 miles.
Both of those records were eclipsed last year by Lithuanian ultramarathoner Aleksandr Sorokin, but for Zach, the pursuit continues. He’ll be back at it on the same track in August, trying to go faster and further.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Zach about how he ended up as one of the very best ultra-distance runners in the world, what it was like being a guest on the Joe Rogan podcast (not once, but twice), and how he’s built his own Human Performance Outliers podcast into one of the leading resources for people interested in pushing human limits and improving their own performances.
Zach discussed his research into fueling his own body, including the low-carb approach that has allowed him to burn fat more easily and consume less during his races.
He also talked about things he has learned that can be applied by anyone looking to get more out of their efforts, athletically and otherwise.
Early days, the first mile
Zach recalls first becoming interested in running during his middle school days when his PE class would participate in the Presidential Youth Fitness Program.
“That was really my first exposure to running as an independent sport,” Zach said. “It was at that time that I was able to get a peek into where my strengths and weaknesses were for the first time in my life. And the thing that stood out to me the most was that when we did the mile run, that was my favorite, and it was the one where I competed best amongst my peers.That's where I was first clued into the idea that distance running would possibly be a focal point for me.”
As a freshman at Manitowoc Lutheran High School in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, Zach competed in track, running the 1,600 and 3,200 meters, and he joined the cross country team the following year. By the time he was a senior in high school, Zach qualified for the state cross country meet individually and led his team to the state meet as well.
Zach’s best 5k time in high school was 17:08.
Zach walked on to the cross country team at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point and began to develop a thirst for learning more about running.
“That's where I really started to learn about running versus just kind of doing what I was told,” said Zach. “I started learning about the different components of training for a 5k, a 10k race, or any endurance race for that matter. I think a lot of times when people think of distance running, they just think of running long and running slow.
“But in reality, most people are going to do a periodized schedule where they're going to do short intervals, and they're going to do longer intervals, or what you might call tempo runs, or do long run development, and race specific pacing and things like that.”
Stevens Point is a member of the competitive Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and Zach found himself competing against some elite athletes. “I would describe myself as a very average runner among that kind of grouping,” said Zach. “My college experience involved learning where my limits were with those distances, learning the sport, and just generally appreciating how fast some of these guys and gals are at these Olympic distance races. I was good enough to make varsity and good enough to compete on our conference teams, but I wasn't going to be standing on the podium at Nationals at the collegiate level at those distances.”
In college, Zach’s fastest 10k was a 32:02 (track), and he turned in a 5k time of 15:28.
It was in college that Zach discovered he had a growing interest in running longer distances.
“I started gaining an understanding within distance running, which areas I was strongest at and that kind of led me to really appreciating the long run and identifying that as the one that I actually enjoyed the most.”
“After college, I started focusing more on just developing my long run capabilities, and focused quite a bit on just building my tolerance to volume for a couple of years.”
Getting into ultra distance running
After college, Zach said the biggest change was no longer having the team atmosphere, so he had to rely primarily on his own self motivation.
Zach ran a few marathons, but in the fall of 2010 he was looking for a race to sign up for, and he discovered a 50-mile race not far from where he was living in Eagle, Wisconsin.
“So I ended up just saying, Hey, I'm gonna try this and see what it's like. My thought process was that I would probably return to marathons and shorter distance stuff, but at least I'd have that experience and know what I was getting into when I did eventually want to go to ultra marathons. But that experience was so rewarding for me that it just jump started my ultra marathon running career.”
Zach finished first in the race, the North Face Endurance Challenge, in a time of 6:02:37
“I was basically training specifically for marathon or ultra marathons from that point forward,” said Zach. “That distance definitely had a draw to it, just the experience of running for six hours versus, you know, half an hour or 15 minutes, or whatever the distance happened to be. It was such a different kind of mental and physical experience. And I really loved the training for it.”
During our lengthy discussion, I asked Zach a long list of questions on a wide range of topics. Here are some of them, along with his responses:
The process of improving performance
The work you've done to figure out how to fuel your own body has been innovative and impressive. What can you tell me about how you developed that ability?
Zach: Yeah, I think I've always been curious, I really had a chance to explore that curiosity when I was in college, I was doing social studies, history major type stuff, a lot of research projects, learning how to look for information, collecting, gathering primary sources, secondary sources, and things like that. So that sort of a process wasn't something that was foreign to me by the time I finished that portion of my life. And I think that just added to my curiosity. it gave me. But it's one thing to be curious, and it's another thing to know what to do with that curiosity or where to direct it. So now, I think I had the tools to be able to explore different stuff.
So you started applying the process to your running. What kind of existing information research was there in the area of distance running?
Zach: So, you know, ultra marathon running is a sport that is fairly undiscovered in the sense that there's just not a lot of high quality research done on it. It's very difficult to really study what's going on in the context of a race that takes all day or longer sometimes. And, you know, up until recently, there really hasn't been very much interest in the sport really at all. So getting the funding to do high quality research has always been a hurdle that you would need to get over.
I started by looking at what most people (in distance running) do, and looked at how that worked for me personally, and if it does, great, if not, then I need to explore alternatives. I was kind of in that latter category where I started out following a lot of the research and a lot of the kind of practices of what you would see a standard endurance athlete doing with the nutritional profile and training. And when I ran into issues, I began fine tuning.
Nutritionally, I went a different direction than most endurance athletes. I think that has a lot to do with both myself as an individual, and perhaps the nature of a race that is done for so long that the intensity has to come down, opens up a lot of doors for a variety of different fueling strategies. For me, it was a matter of finding the low carb category and working within that framework to figure out how I would maybe organize things throughout the different periods of training. And you know, what works in one phase may not work as well. And I was able to adjust things and follow the results I was getting in training and workouts and races in order to formulate what I thought was going to work best for me.
As you have become a skilled researcher, have you expanded that skill into other areas of your life?
Zach: Yeah, I think the biggest thing I've learned with all this stuff is if you dig into any topic far enough, you start to realize there are averages, and averages aren't absolutes. I think we live in a world where people feel like they want absolutes. They want it to be black and white, right or wrong. They want easy directives, turn left, not right, you know, that sort of stuff. Whereas when you really start researching things and digging in, you find that even if you have a situation where the averages point in one direction, if you as an individual are falling within a category that isn't that majority, then it doesn't really matter what the population data says for you as an individual.
And I think once you start separating those two things, that's where you start to actually learn what is going to be best for you at the individual level. And then from there, it's just a matter of how much do you want to dig in, and how much do you want to actually study yourself. There's always going to be obstacles there, you know, there's so many variables in life that muddy the waters. So you do have to acknowledge that nothing's ever going to be 100% precise. But I think if you're honest with yourself, and you track things closely enough, you can answer some questions, and I've always looked at performance as being the guide there.
That process has bled over into the way I navigate life, with the biggest difference between my life now versus my life when I was in my youth is the access we now have to information. You have phones in your pocket where you press a couple buttons and have an answer to a question. But I try to avoid just following the first headline I see and saying, okay, well, that must be what it is. I try to think about it in a deeper way, even though that can take a while sometimes.
Advice for Individuals
Do you have any specific advice for those looking to get a better return from their efforts?
Zach: Yes, I think routine and consistency are two of the most important things, and they kind of blend with one another. Once you get a routine, the consistency usually follows. You know, whether we're talking about nutrition, whether we're talking about training, whether we're just talking about navigating life, things are messy, mistakes are made, and that's just part of learning. So rather than thinking I need to be 100 percent or this isn't worth it, I think you need to focus on becoming more consistent, and trying to get the routine right as often as you can. And doing it that way I think gives you the opportunity to make mistakes. You should be very open minded in the sense that when you make the mistakes, look at them very closely, even more closely than your successes in order to figure out why that happened, and what you can do differently next time, because those are really the learning experiences. Give yourself the flexibility to fail from time to time, so you can learn from those mistakes and really learn what does and doesn't work for you as an individual. And then you're going to get where you want to go.
Any thoughts about helping people with their goals?
Zach: I usually tell people to start out by figuring out what it is you're trying to do. And that's kind of your big, kind of overarching goal. But then once you have that goal, you need to kind of set up benchmarks to take you from the start to when you finally get there. Because when it comes to training for a race or when it comes to accomplishing any goal in life, that initial drive to achieve the goal is great, so it motivates you to get started. But then once you kind of get into the thick of it, the goal is too far away to continually motivate you the way it did initially. So I like to look for little benchmarks or little wins that you can target that are more short term. These short-term benchmarks keep you motivated as you move from one to the next. And they keep you from getting overwhelmed by how great or big your end goal may be.
Are there any common challenges or problems that seem to affect a large percentage of the people you coach? And if so, is there anything you can offer them that can help?
Zach: I think the biggest thing I see probably is that people set goals, but they're not set sustainably. Sometimes maybe the patience isn't quite there, or the framework to get where they want to be isn't set up optimally. So for example, a person has all these goals. And they focus intently on getting the workouts done, as well as everything else that comes with life. And then they end up creating an environment where they're sleeping two hours per night, far less than they probably should. And you can kind of white knuckle your way through that lifestyle for a little while, but eventually, I think that catches up to you. So what I like to tell people is we need to really look at your lifestyle and what you're willing to kind of sacrifice, as well as what you're willing to not sacrifice. Once we have those things in order, we can start looking at what's the best training plan for you to get where you want to be. That may be different from what your friend has, or what someone you're following on Instagram has available to them. Everyone's going to be unique. Some people have families and more demanding jobs, other people have a lot more time and flexibility. Each situation comes with its own unique challenges, and its own unique advantages.
And you customize plans to reflect those different situations?
Zach: Learning about those differences is important as a coach, because then I can structure a plan that it's going to put them in a position where the plan is sustainable, and they're going to be able to kind of get to their goal, do it and then be motivated to continue to do it, versus being a one-off runner where they do the race and then get so overwhelmed by everything that occurred during the six months that they never do it again.
Can you describe the coaching options you offer?
Zach: Sure. So I have a battery of different options, from things as simple as pre-made plans, where if someone is training for say, a marathon, they can go and they can get pre-made training plans at one of three different levels. (the options include four-, five-, and six-day per week structures). If someone wants a little more support, I do personalized coaching, where they send me a detailed questionnaire and I build a plan around their lifestyle and their goal events—everything that goes into their week. And then I can offer more hands-on stuff, if they want more access. I do consultations and email collaboration and everything along the way. So it can really range from something as simple as here's my philosophy to something as detailed as we're going to connect multiple times a week to really make sure things are heading in the right direction.
My consultations also are sometimes just one-offs where people have a lot of people have a lot of questions. They may want more details about the fueling strategy I'm using, and they want me to help them kind of navigate that, so they're not making the same mistakes I made.
Burning More Fat and Eating Fewer Carbs
You're well known for your low carb diet. Can you explain why you have adopted low carb as a nutrition strategy and what it has done for you?
Zach: I like to look at fat adaptation or fat oxidation rates as a spectrum versus all-or-nothing because I think sometimes when people first take a glance at low carb, keto, versus moderate carb or high carb, they think they’re either going to be burning sugars or they’re going to be burning fats. In reality there's a spectrum, so finding where on that spectrum you need to be is going to be the key. The goal on race day is going to be defending muscle glycogen. So you have a situation where even the leanest endurance athletes on the planet have plenty of body fat relative to what they have in terms of glycogen. So then it just becomes kind of a math problem more or less about where my fat oxidation rates are at the intensity I'm trying to perform. And when you know that number, you can have an idea of how much carbohydrate you're gonna need during a race or a long workout in order to stay on top of muscle glycogen.
That’s enough science to make most people’s brain hurt. Why are you trying to reduce the amount of carbohydrates you consume?
Zach: So for someone like myself, the goal is to improve fat oxidation rates to a point where they are high enough where I can minimize the amount of carbohydrates I need in the race to defend muscle glycogen. And what that allows me to do is eat less during the race itself. And the reason you may want to consider that would be because over half the people who participate in these long endurance events are going to experience some sort of gastric digestion issue, or gastrointestinal issue.
So how far do you go with respect to lowering your carb consumption?
Zach: You really have to know what you can get away with. So for me, I learned from experience, during a race, I can push up to maybe about 40 grams of carbohydrate per hour, and feel pretty rock solid digestively. And I can almost guarantee as long as I don't mess up my hydration or go out way too fast, I can basically eliminate that potential obstacle. And what that means for me then is I need to have my fat oxidation rates high enough so that there is going to be enough fuel to consume and defend my muscle glycogen.
So how much fat are you able to burn, relative to carbohydrates, in a long race?
Zach: So when you think about my 100-mile personal record, for example, I'm probably burning somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 to 85 percent fat at that intensity. And what that means is, I'm going to need to defend that 15 percent or so carbohydrate or glycogen dip, because over the course of say, 12 hours, you know, that's going to add up and get me get to a point where I may start to lose a gear if I let that deplete too much by not consuming any carbohydrates.
So the amount of carbohydrates required varies as the intensity goes up or down?
Zach: Yes, you're going to have different ranges for people based on the intensity of the events they are doing. There are now ultra marathons that are multiple days in length and the intensity is low enough you can start entertaining things like no carb diets and strict ketogenic diets and things like that. I just had a consultation and recorded a podcast with a guy who's going to do a 2,700 kilometer track through Antarctica, self supported, and he's going to pull a 400-pound sled. For him, the efficiency of keto is not having to constantly fuel and not having to carry extra weight in his sled. So he wants his fat oxidation rates literally as high as you can get, and that’s strict keto.
So how would you best describe your own way of eating?
Zach: I think removing the labels can be helpful, I think making sure that you're doing things for your original goal is important. With my lifestyle, and my goals having performance as the main driver, I find that being a little more flexible is probably going to be in my best interest. I try to remove myself from this mindset of the 24 hour day, because a lot of times we tend to use that as the template where I need to eat a certain number of grams of fat, carbohydrates and protein per day. And while there are probably annual averages that stay relatively consistent, when you zoom in a little bit further, I find it a lot more valuable to start looking at the specifics. So if I'm going to do like a really big workout or block a couple workouts where I'm doing something that is a little more taxing two days in a row, I might just look at it, say through a three day window and say, well, when I'm going to be doing these higher intensity, more taxing workouts for these two days, I might eat a decent amount above my average carbohydrate intake for those two days. But since that training load is so large in those two days, that third day is oftentimes going to be like a rest day or something incredibly low intensity, where carbohydrate isn't really necessary for me to be able to do those activities. That gives me the opportunity to average things out over time versus targeting a specific amount of carbohydrates every day.
Human Performance Outliers Podcast
Tell me about your Human Performance Outliers Podcast and why you started it?
Zach: The Human performance outliers podcast has been a vehicle for me to kind of fill that gap that came when I stopped teaching. I had no skills when it came to recording, software, editing, and stuff like that. And if you tune into any of our earlier episodes, it was very obvious. So you know, learning that side of things has been kind of a really cool thing for me. And then there's the actual podcasts themselves where I have this opportunity to talk to people who I otherwise wouldn't.
What do you look for when you select your guests?
Zach: One of my focuses with Human Performance Outliers is I want to include my passions with running and ultra-marathons, and have ultra marathoners and extreme endurance event type stuff embedded into the podcast theme. But I also want to bring in things that are completely different from that so I have something that feels like I'm stepping away from running for time periods where it's not like my entire focus. I love having on strength athletes, nutrition-based stuff, people who found success and reclaimed their health. I like to use the podcast as both an opportunity to learn what people are doing and what they're finding successful. And just hearing their stories and then sharing them with other people.
Do you have an episode you would recommend for someone new to your podcast?
Zach: Yes, absolutely. I just recorded one recently, that I put pretty high up there on the list. It was actually a three-person interview I had with Dr. Mike Nelson, who has been on three times now, and a guy named Akshay Nanavati, a United States Marine veteran, who is planning to go out on a 2,700 kilometer, 105-day expedition through Antarctica. We brought Dr. Mike in to help because he's gonna use a strict ketogenic diet on this self-supported effort.
It seems as if running for hours on end might become tedious or monotonous, to say the least. Is that the case and, if so, what do you do to cope?
Zach: Yeah, it's pretty shocking to see what little things that would normally not motivate you at all that will motivate you when you're deep into a 100-mile race on a track. Little things like changing what you eat. Like, for example, if something has a different texture or taste. When you're in a very controlled environment, you're always looking for something different because the course itself isn't going to provide any difference. So that's where I start to get maybe a little more strategic about things. I may have something that's slightly sweeter tasting, but then I'm going to have something that's maybe a little more salty, savory, and you start strategizing when you're going to do those things in a way where it kind of gives you a little goals to hit so you're not necessarily sitting out there after like two laps around the track thinking about how you have 400 more to go. I think you go into these things with a certain amount of mental currency. And every time you start overthinking stuff, you're spending more of it than then you need to be. So anytime you can find little things to focus on, that are short-term goals, short- term benchmarks, that kind of saves a little bit of that mental currency. And then if you're able to do that, if you're able to do that successfully over the course of a long day, at the end, you might be able to burn a few more matches, so to speak.
When you're running for 12 hours, do you focus on the race the entire time, or do you ever find yourself drifting away?
Zach: Yeah, that's a good question. I think usually, on a race, I'm limiting my thoughts towards a couple things. I'm thinking about things like, you know, where am I at? Am I hitting my splits? What do I need to do, and just trying to stay a step ahead, so I don't fall back on something like hydration, nutrition, if it's hot, like topical cooling, that sort of stuff. And then I'm usually trying to pull from experiences I had in the buildup. I've probably spent four to six months or 16 to 24 weeks preparing for it. So if you pay attention during that stretch of time, when you get to the race itself, you have a lot of different things you can kind of think back to, and really, you're just playing a game with your mind of trying to stay as positive as possible. When you start getting negative, it can spiral and it gets really hard to reverse that. So you go in with a lot of thoughts that are going to bring you either gratitude or positivity, and that’s going to give you more opportunities to redirect when that sort of stuff does happen. And just going into the race with that attitude, I think really helps kind of take care of the thought process over the course of a long day out there.
Is there a song you find yourself listening to on repeat when you train?
Zach: Right now, Ted Nugent’s, Fred Bear. It’s a great running song. I’ve had it on repeat for longer than I’d like to admit on some runs.
Which book is currently at the top of your recommendation list?
Zach: Okay, I’d recommend Once a Runner. It’s a book that will really get you excited about training. I wouldn't necessarily recommend following the training strategy of the character in the book, but you could definitely get you motivated.
You’ve been a guest on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast two times. What was it like being interviewed by Joe Rogan?
Zach: Those were fun experiences. It was awesome, because I was listening to his show for long before I went on. To sit down and actually talk to him in the format that I had listened to so many times was a really interesting and fun life experience. It's great to see someone who's that well known actually being themselves versus just mimicking a narrative.
- Joe Rogan Experience Podcast Episode #1392 https://open.spotify.com/episode/1vEfKR8mNSZTMnB4...
- Joe Rogan Experience Episode #1110 https://open.spotify.com/episode/1vEfKR8mNSZTMnB4...
Your wife Nicole is also a successful ultra-distance runner. What can you tell me about what that’s like?
Zach: Nicole is a little less public facing with the running because her day job is also quite demanding, whereas my day job revolves around running and coaching and things like that. So I'm completely immersed in it, whereas she's a lawyer who does health care compliance for major companies and stays busy with that, so running is a little bit more of her outlet. She's, she's better than I am at it, though. So she's able to juggle two major things, whereas I have to focus on one.
I've read about how you help and support each other in races and training. How important is that to you both?
Zach: When you get into these bigger races, you’re looking to minimize as many obstacles as you can and get yourself to that finish line as quickly as possible. Having a crew and sometimes a pacer is a real valuable piece to that puzzle. So when Nicole is going to try to peak for a race, I try to make sure that I'm not peeking for a race at the exact same time so that I can be out there to help crew, which basically means going from aid station to aid station with whatever she needs, from fueling hydration, change of clothes, shoes, any of that stuff. And then possibly, if the event permits it pace, which is just running with them for a certain portion of the race, usually the end part of an event. And then it's kind of the same thing in the other direction, where when I'm peaking for a race, Nicole will oftentimes be that person for me.
Are there any notable differences with respect to the types of races you each run?
Zach: Nicole's interests and my interests in race environments tend to be a little bit different. She'll often find herself doing mountain ultra races, where it's a logistical challenge to get from spot to spot, but really exciting to do as a crew member, whereas I find myself a lot of times on the short loop courses. So there are times where she has to kind of just stay put in one spot and watch me go in circles. And then just constantly being bombarded by whatever it is I happen to need at the time. So it's kind of two different dynamics, but it works well for us to have each other supporting each other, and that's been a fun thing.
Do you ever train together?
Zach: In terms of training, we do do a fair bit of running together. A pretty big chunk of training for an ultra marathon is done at a relatively low intensity, so we can pair up a lot of workouts if we really have things organized, so we usually find at least a couple times a week to run together. We’re getting to the end of this conversation.
Can you tell me how you deal with disappointments? You know, you've had a couple of races where you didn't finish?
Zach: Yeah, a couple of things, One thing I like to look at is the reality that if you have a bad race, it doesn't mean everything you did to prepare for it goes away. So there is the the long term development that comes with endurance sport, and knowing that I put in like a solid build up of training, I'm adding to that foundation. I'm adding to that experience, I'm learning things along the way. So those things carry over into the next build up. So I try to look at as okay, maybe my progress that I saw in training didn't get highlighted during this particular event. But if I'm patient, it will eventually. And then the other thing is it gives you an opportunity to reassess what works and what doesn't work, and better fine tune the process that is going to work for you. So if I have a bad race, and I identify, say three things that went wrong, I can maybe identify what I need to do in my next training cycle to remedy that, so it doesn't happen again. And over time, when you have enough of those experiences, you just get much more sharp about knowing what is the strategy that's going to work for you versus what won't.
Okay, and I'll just kind of finish up asking what you see on the horizon as something that is really driving you forward?
Zach: One of my big focuses right now is I definitely think I can run a faster 100 mile than I have. So at the moment, that's kind of where I'm preparing. I'll probably take a few swings at it over the next couple of years, just finding like the right spots to do it and then put in the work. So that'll be a big focus.
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