Tarahumara Pinole: The Best Fuel For the Long Run

Reading this, I guess you have a hard time finding the right fuel for your long-distance runs. Don‘t worry, all aspiring marathoners have. It is part of the process, you are on the way to become a better runner. If you have been looking for something that will give you energy and improve your running endurance without making you feel jittery, hungry, or tired, stop here.  Your solution might be Tarahumara Pinole. It has worked for me flawlessly.

You may have heard about Pinole from the famous book Born to Run. Author Christopher McDougall talks about his experience with the Mexican tribe of Tarahumara, known for being some of the best extreme distance runners in the world. This is also partly due to this ancient food they have been eating for generations. If Tarahumara Pinole sounds like something that might be interesting for you to try out, read on!

Who are the Tarahumara people

Tarahumara tribe

The Tarahumara or Rarámuri is an indigenous Mexican tribe that lives in the Copper Canyons in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, which is a mountainous region known for its deep canyons.

They have been known for being some of the best extreme distance runners in the world, running distances up to 100 miles long. They are also known for being one of the most isolated tribes in North America.

What is Pinole

Tarahumara Pinole

Pinole is a traditional food of the Tarahumara tribe. It is a nutritious mix of water and cornmeal with added chia seeds, agave, dates and cinnamon. Pinole is a great source of complex carbohydrates, fats and proteins which provide sustained energy for endurance activities, especially for running.

Plenty of carbs, some fat and some protein mean plenty of energy for your workout. Pinole contains everything your body needs to keep your muscles working for an extended period of time. Remember, it is extremely important to have a refilling strategy during your long runs. And you might have just found one.

You run only as good as you eat

If you want to run a long-distance, food is one of the few most important things. It’s not just about eating anything and everything – it needs to be nutritious so that your body has what it needs for sustained performance.

Eating prior running

Fueling yourself before the run is crucial. If you eat food with high levels of fat, fiber and protein, your risk cramps and tiredness as your body will struggle with digestion instead of properly fueling your running muscles. Therefore avoid cheese, red meat, high fiber vegetables and fruits (beans, broccoli, apples, pears) or any caffeine prior to your run.

Instead, look for easy-to-digest snacks that contain quick fuel in the form of carbohydrates before running. I personally prefer bananas, toasts with butter or a simple and extremely nutritious smoothie (check this Spirulina-based green smoothie recipe).

Eating while running

Similar logic applies to fueling yourself during your run. Simply digestible and nutritious carbohydrates are the key. While running, most of the blood moves away from your stomach and intestines towards running muscles and skin to help to distribute oxygen and regulate body temperature. That is why many runners experience cramps or even diarrhea. Your digestive system is simply not able to digest most of the foods or even absorb as much water as it usually does. That is where experimenting becomes important. You have to find a fuel that:

  • you can digest while running to avoid cramping
  • gives you enough nutrition to fuel your running muscles
  • refills your body with minerals in order to be able to absorb water

As you have probably seen, most of the runners are using running gels, that contain quick sugars which are the most favorite fuel for your body. While this is definitely an option, be prepared to experiment a lot as it takes time to find the gel that works for you. Also, be prepared that gels cost some money – the brand I used ranged from 25-30$ per 24 piece package and these are the cheaper ones (but good ones).

The food I definitely advise to try for long runs is Tarahumara Pinole. Not only it is tasty, but it is powerfully nutritious and easy to digest. Before we get to Pinole’s nutrition details, just remember:

  • foods that provide good nutrients allow the runner to continue running for hours without feeling exhausted or fatigued.
  • a vast majority of food sources do not have enough protein, vitamins and minerals needed by runners in order to fuel themselves properly for long periods of time
  • experiment with what could work for you. To quickly replenish your energy, your body needs simple easily digestable carbs (sugars) and plenty minerals

Pinole nutrition values

According to USDA data, one cup of cornmeal has 461 kcal that mostly come from carbohydrates (76%), fats (14%) and proteins (10%). While these are amounts ideal for runners, they are also very similar to wheat flour nutrition values. So why you should consider cornmeal-based nutrition instead of, for example, wheat-based bagel? There are some differences worth noticing.

During the long run, your body loses minerals such as sodium, potassium and iron. These minerals are critical for proper water absorption (avoiding dehydration and temperature rise) and therefore oxygen distribution to your running muscles.

A cup of cornmeal contains double the amount of sodium comparing to wheat flour (4,8 mg vs 2,5 mg), more than double the amount of iron (3,6 mg to 1,5 mg) and very high levels of potassium (386 mg vs 134 mg). While a wheat-based snack is also a great way to refill during the run (many runners eat pretzels for example), most of the runners who really dig in details prefer to go with cornmeal.

Did you know that Eliud Kipchoge’s nutrition plan is cornmeal-based as well?

Chia

Chia seeds is unofficially a superstar ingredient in the running community. These little black seeds originally coming from Mexico (the word „chia is actually an ancient Mayan word that means „strength“) will give you a powerful nutritional punch. But more importantly, having a low glycemic index, chia seeds are an incredibly sustainable source of energy ideal for long performance.

Just a quick list of some of Chia seeds nutrients in 100 grams (3,5 oz) serving

  • Calcium 631 mg (some of the most calcium rich foods such as milk, ricotta or sardines contain about 300 mg per 3,5 oz serving)
  • Magnessium 335 mg (magnesium rich foods such as spinachi or almonds contain about 270 mg per 3,5 oz serving)
  • Phosphorus 860 mg (this is spectacular as for example chicken which is phosphorus rich contains about 200 mg of it per 3,5 oz serving)

Chia is definitely worthy of more serious nutrition analysis and I will do that in a separate article J. For now, keep in mind that Chia seeds should be a key ingredient in your kitchen if you strive to boost your nutrition.

Other Pinole’s ingredients such as agave syrup (alternatively rice syrup) or dates are nutritious sources of quick sugars, that are essential for energy production in your cells. They are natural sweeteners so they make your Pinole sweet and tasty.

How can you make your own Pinole at home

As I got used to taking Pinole with me for a run, I prefer to prepare it by myself as cookies. They are light and easy to bear in your pockets. But as you will see by yourself, this meal is so tasty that I often find myself eating them at home instead of a snack. 🙂

This three-step recipe is quite simple and it will not take you more than 30 minutes of preparation.

To make 3 – 4 Pinole cookies (in my case fuel for 20-40 km run), you will need

  • one cup of regular cornmeal
  • 2 tablespoons of chia seeds
  • 2 tablespoons of agave syrup (alternatively rice syrup)
  • 5 chopped dates
  • 1/3 cup of water
  • pinch of cinnamon (optional)
  • bit of lime juice (optional)

Step 1

Roasting cornmeal

Firstly, you will need to roast cornmeal and chia seeds. Mix both ingredients together to a pan and roast for 6-9 minutes over medium heat. This step is crucial and you need to pay extra attention as it can be tricky. If the heat is low, the cornmeal will not roast. If the heat is high, cornmeal will burn. Don’t forget to stir regularly. Once cornmeal starts to smoke a lot, it is ready.

Step 2

Let‘s move to the second step. Put the cornmeal and all other ingredients together in a bowl and mix it until you get a thick paste kind of mixture. Don’t be afraid to adjust the number of ingredients you use to your taste. If you prefer the cookies sweeter, add more syrup and dates. Alternatively, put fewer sweeteners and more lime juice to get a less sweet result. And the last tip. Don’t add too much water! Add it slowly and in small quantities instead. You want to make a thick mixture, not a liquid one (too liquid does not get baked properly).

Step 3

Baking Pinole

Finally, let’s get to the baking! Try to form 3-4 small round cookies with an approximately 5-inch diameter (as you see it in the picture). Place them on the tray (ideally using baking paper) and bake for 10-12 minutes at 350ºF (180ºC).

Once you notice that cookies formed a solid crust and small cracks appear on top, your amazing homemade Tarahumara Pinole is done!

Extra tip: If you eat your Pinole at home, add some peanut butter on top. Not only it gives you some additional fuel before a long run, but it will also add some extra taste, and trust me, you will simply love it.

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