I sat down with Zach Bitter, ultrarunner and coach, holder of the 12-Hour World Record, 100-Mile American Record and numerous course records, to discuss how switching from a high-carb diet to a low-carb lifestyle has impacted his athletic performance and overall health.
Typically, high-carb diets and “carb loading” before events are par for the course for endurance athletes. As an ultrarunner, why did you decide to embrace a low-carb diet?
In 2011, I decided to go all-in with my ultramarathon running in terms of how I trained and peaked for races. As a result, I ended the year by doing three 50-mile races in a nine-week span, and I started to notice a few negative side effects that high mileage was taking on me, including big energy swings, sleep problems, and swelling and inflammation. In my eyes, I had to reduce the amount of training and racing I was doing or look into other modes to prevent these negative side effects, and I decided I would explore different nutrition options. Like most endurance athletes, I followed a high-carb diet. But, after some research, I decided to start my low-carb journey. I’ve optimized this approach to work best with my lifestyle, which I would describe as a personalized Atkins. One key figure who really helped me succeed with this approach is Jeff Volek, who is an expert in the science behind low-carb diets and co-author of The New Atkins for a New You, plus he’s also a former competitive powerlifter who continues to follow the principles a low-carb lifestyle while training.
How has living a low-carb lifestyle benefitted you?
Within the first month, I began to have more consistent energy during the day, I was sleeping through the night, and the swelling and inflammation I had been experiencing had mostly disappeared. I also noticed that my recovery from workouts and races seemed to be quicker. Plus, the higher amounts of fat I was consuming did not affect my lipid profile; in fact, during my annual screening, the nurse commented on how great my numbers looked!
In the past, I based my diet heavily on things like whole-grain oatmeal, starchy vegetables, fruits of all kinds, and modest amounts of lean meats and dark leafy green vegetables. My pre-race meal would usually consist of a bowl of oatmeal with honey. Post-race, I would eat lots of whole grains and potatoes, or maybe a homemade pizza. My current approach is much more sustainable and consistent. I no longer experience any of the negative mental and physical fatigue that I would experience after a big training block or race.
You’re coming up on a big race. How are you preparing?
It is a bit of a unique event, because it’s not only an ultramarathon, but it’s also on a 400-meter track. The general preparation principles that I use to prepare for a 100-mile race apply here, but I try to shift a good portion of my runs to the track to prepare my body for the tighter turning and flat hard surface. I spent most of the summer and fall building a strong aerobic base; which I do by monitoring my pace at a given heart rate and/or perceived effort. Once this got to where I feel my aerobic base is solid I start introducing some specific workouts like: tempo runs, progression runs and interval sessions.
Zach Bitter’s low-carb meal plan:
It varies quite a bit depending on where I am in my training but I love to make is a stir-fry with dark leafy greens and lots of coconut oil, ghee or avocado oil. I’ll often add a meat source to it as well, such as beef, chicken or salmon. (Try Thai Basil Chicken Stir Fry.) When I go out to eat, I’ll order a steak with non-starchy vegetables or a salad. A quick snack includes eggs with avocado. (Try Two Eggs Cooked Any Style with Avocado or Eggs with Avocado and Tomato.)
Here’s are the other go-to items that I always have in my kitchen:
- Avocado, raw
- Coconut oil
- Sweet potato
- Russet potato
- Almond milk
- Cream cheese
- Butter (real, not margarine!)
- Cottage cheese (highest fat content available)
- Mixed nuts
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