Why Tarahumara ultrarunners fuel endurance with chia seeds
Made famous by Chris McDougall’s Born to Run, the ultrarunning legends Tarahumara Indians of Mexico credit chia seeds as the fuel behind their epic endurance feats. But what are chia seeds and how do they boost performance?
Chia seeds. One of just four ingredients - and the primary foundation of - 33Fuel’s chia energy gels.
Chia seeds in Born to Run
Chris McDougall’s book is what introduced many of us not only to the ultrarunning prowess of the Tarahumara Indians, but also to the endurance-boosting capabilities of chia seeds.
McDougall famously described chia seeds as “10,000 year old Red Bull”...though we’d have to query that slightly, as chia seeds are nothing but good for you!
McDougall, in response to questions over why so many athletes started using chia seeds for performance after reading the book explained “Until then, runners had been told over and over that they needed high-tech, processed stuff like cushioned shoes and PowerBars…Chia and bare feet suddenly offered a traditional alternative that was actually more effective.”
What is a chia seed?
Derived from the plant salvia hispanica, chia is a little black seed which has been cultivated in Central America for over 3,000 years. So revered for its nutritional punch, chia seeds were offered to Aztec gods in religious ceremonies.
Many endurance runners - just like the legendary Tarahumara Indians of Mexico - rely on chia seeds to fuel endurance performance
Nowadays, chia seeds are added to a variety of meals as a way of boosting the nutrient profile. It’s no surprise: chia seeds are nutrient dense and just two tablespoons contain:
- 140 calories
- 4 grams protein
- 11 grams fibre
- 7 grams unsaturated fat
- Minerals potassium, sodium, calcium, zinc and magnesium
- More omega-3 than salmon, pound for pound
- Potent antioxidants
This is why they’re fundamental to our energy gels.
How do the Tarahumara Indians use chia seeds?
Based in northwest Mexico, the Tarahumara subsist largely on a plant-based diet of beans, avocado, tortilla and vegetables. They have long been known for their phenomenal endurance running capabilities – even the word Tarahumara means ‘those who run fast’ - and credit chia seeds as their main source of fuel for these feats.
Setting out to cover an astonishing 100 miles non-stop, a Tarahumara runner would take little more than chia fresca or ‘iskiate’ – simply water mixed with chia seeds (though sometimes they’d add honey or lime juice) – for stamina and hydration during these long jaunts in hot climes.
Who knew such a little seed could contain so much goodness?
Why chia seeds are great for endurance athletes
Of course, chia seeds alone will not transform performance, but they do bring a range of benefits that’ll really ramp up your ability to perform over long distances whether that’s swimming, cycling or running:
1. Chia seeds provide slow-burn energy
Chia seeds help the slow-burn of carbs in a very clever way. Being extremely absorbent – the expand up to 10x their original size when left to soak in water or juice for 10-minutes – they turn into a gloopy, gel-like consistency.
This gel lines the stomach and acts as a barrier to slow the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar, stabilizing blood sugar which mean athletes can enjoy more stable and sustained energy levels.
One study - whose aim was to determine if chia seed loading is a viable method of enhancing sports performance in events lasting longer than 90-minutes – concluded it is “a viable option for enhancing performance for endurance events lasting >90 minutes.”
Looking for something to fuel your next trail race? Chia seeds may be your not-so-secret weapon
2. Chia seeds hydrate
Due to the high water content of chia seeds (once soaked) they assist hydration and ensure endurance athletes are better able to replace electrolytes lost through sweat.
3. Chia seeds are great for recovery
You wouldn’t think it but chia seeds contain lots of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. They’re also high in antioxidants which combat free radicals – molecules responsible for cell and tissue damage – this helping reduce inflammation and improve recovery.
How YOU can use chia seeds to fuel endurance
Chia seeds are virtually flavourless meaning you can add them to any assortment of dishes to boost their nutrient content. We love adding them to smoothies, baking recipes and sprinkling on our porridge.
Chia seeds are great to add to porridge or smoothies
Being flavourless, they’re a perfect foundation for our unique chia energy gel. The gels are shipped to you ‘dry’ meaning you’re free to customise the flavour to your taste. Shipping dry also reduces weight, meaning we’re able to reduce our carbon footprint.
Our customers like to flavour chia energy gels with:
- Water – straight up natural
- Coconut water – to add a few more natural electrolytes
- Juice – pineapple and apple seem to go down well
- Coffee – for a caffeine kick on those tougher days
Chia seeds for endurance – conclusion
However you make them, you can rest assured that you’re fuelling your body with a centuries-old, tried and tested food proven to boost endurance. Not only that, but you’re also improving health with a natural, nutrient-dense superfood.
If you’re looking for something with a few more carbs, you can’t go wrong with Better Fuel Energy Blend: 25g all natural, slow-release low GI carbs per serving plus a heap of electrolytes