Zack Rickenbach, ski racer turned plant-based ultrarunner

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Zach Rickenbach stumbled into ultra running in 2016 as a way to stay connected to his roots in the mountains after starting a new job. Not only had he not run an ultra before 2016, he wasn’t even a runner. Fast forward three years, and he’s completed more than ten ultras, finished 2nd in the McDowell Mountain Frenzy 50 Miler, and cracked the top 10 at the Broken Arrow 52k Sky Race.

We asked him to share some of what he’s learned along the way balancing full-time work and running, his approach to training and his go-to foods as a plant-based athlete. Zach also lays out the gear, devices, books and other tools in his kit. He now partners with rabbit running clothing, Sunski sunglasses, and COROS wearables.

The Journey to Ultrarunning 

Prokit: How were you introduced to ultrarunning?

Zach Rickenbach: I started running over the summer in 2016 to stay fit after starting a desk job and commuting an hour each way. I was 24 years old, and ran to avoid traffic. A co-worker asked if I was training for something since I was running 12 miles a day, so in the fall of 2016, I signed up for a 50k.

From there, I made ultra running part of my identity and it’s given me an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors while pursuing a career. We tend to be complacent or stay in our comfort zones, and ultra running pushes me into the uncomfortable zone.  

What has your sport meant to you?

Ultrarunning has allowed me to explore new and unknown places physically and mentally. It has taught me a lot about life, nutrition, health, and how the little things matter the most. It has brought me opportunities to travel the world to places I’ve never been to.

Were you an athlete as a kid?

I’ve always identified as an Athlete. I grew up in Squaw Valley, California, and wanted to be a professional ski racer. I reached an elite level, but after my senior year of High School racing, I choose to pursue education. 

Zach at a ski race in 2010 in Jackson Hole, WY

Hardest race?

My first ultra’s (50k and 50M)! I cramped, threw up, and asked myself why am I doing this. 

Race, result or experience you’re most proud of?

Every ultra I do, I come away more humble, more determined, and ready to tackle the next one. Each race reminds me I have so much more to learn. You finish an ultra, and you always come away telling yourself I could have done this better, could have eaten at this point, etc. 

Long-term goal(s) you’re working towards in life or as an athlete?

I want to be a top Ultra Runner for the United States and run some of the hardest Ultra’s around the world, including Western States from my home valley.

Training: Your Approach and Philosophy 

How do you think about and structure your training, and what specific shifts do you make throughout the year or racing season?

Beginning of the year is a lot of speed/efficiency workouts; mid-year is big/long days in the mountains; towards the end of the year, I start planning out the upcoming year and what races I have left in my legs/motivation. 

Here’s a sample week:

  • Strength: 2-4 Hrs. a Week, Gym Strength specifically on core, glute, and upper body. I’ve found incorporating gym strength routines has improved running form
  • Agility/mobility: 30min-1hr a week, usually during strength session
  • Injury prevention: Eating well, rolling put every night and morning, and Reboot Compression Boots most evenings
  • Rest and recovery: Ice Baths on Sunday’s (10-15 minutes) and 7-9 Hrs of sleep every night. Listen to your body and treat it well.

And a sample weekly training plan:

Running growth over the years

Do you incorporate other sports throughout the year?

I’ll backcountry and downhill ski during the winter. 

What you wish you knew when starting?

To become a good runner, you must be ready to enjoy the journey. Also, the nutrition aspect is harder and constantly changing. You can’t be hard on yourself. 

Nutrition: Your Relationship with Food

What’s your philosophy with nutrition?

I’m plant based (Vegan) and find it helps with the inflammation from running big weeks. I believe it’s better for the planet but overall I feel better-eating plant-based. 

Go-to breakfast, lunch, dinner; snacking:

  • Breakfast pre-workout: Banana on nut butter + toast, dates
  • Breakfast post-workout: Protein smoothie (banana, blueberries, kale, pea protein, chia seeds, flax seeds)
  • Lunch: Big salad, or healthy grain bowl. 
  • Dinner: Big bowl of veggies, grains, and boom sauce
  • Drinks of choice: Water
  • Guilty pleasure: Banana cookie and sweats (gelato, cookies) 

Favorite recipes, foods or ingredients and how you use them?

SWEET POTATOES — In every meal. Baked, sautéed, you name it. 

Caffeine and alcohol; anything about their role in your life or training?

  • Caffeine = I love my coffee, and it can also help you get out of the bonk mid-run.
  • Alcohol: Occasionally, I’ve been really into Kombucha Alcohol that has 7%.  

Pre, during and post race food; tweaks you make for length/type; specific rules you follow?

When I have a long run planned I always make sure to get something in my stomach before the run. Most runs under 60-90 minutes I don’t’ do anything pre-run.

Biggest rule I follow: Try to get food after work out ASAP. I find when I don’t, recovery slows down dramatically, especially after big days. 

How do you manage nutrition while traveling?

Always pack healthy bars and nuts when traveling for random hungry surges. 

What you wish you knew when starting?

Make sure your post-run meal is ready can really help with recovery. And eating foods that help with inflammation. 

Mind: Your Approach 

Strategy and importance of mental health in your life, work or sport?

It’s important to enjoy the process. Every time I’m out on the trails I’m practicing the mental aspect. Each run I’m learning/taking something away from the experience. 

Habits, routines, practices that help keep you grounded, balanced or focused?

Journal after each workout to understand where I’m improving.

Rolling out: That’s the time for me to meditate. 

Influences or role models you turn to who have impacted your approach?

Rich Roll — I find his story inspirational in how to overcome weakness and find a new direction in life. 

Motivation and goal setting; what’s your approach?

My motivation is to push myself harder every day and every race.

Goal Setting: Finish each race stronger and faster than the last and always take away something new from the race. 

Anything specific you’re working on now?

Racing Smarter, not going out hard and finishing the race strong and fast. 

What have you learned about how to maintain the mental health of young athletes who are coming up?

If you enjoy the process, have fun on the trails or road, then you’re mentally going to be healthy. There will be times when it’s hard, but that’s when you learn the most about yourself. 

Resources: How you do what you do  

Things you can’t live without or that help you throughout your athletic life?

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