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Running, Chia Seeds And An Incredible Trip With The Tarahumara People

A trip to learn about the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico inspired this chef-writer to cook with more chia.

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I remember picking up Born to Run back in 2012 when I first laced up and started running. The book by Christopher McDougall outlines the running culture of the incredible Tarahumara people. This Native American tribe in northwestern Mexico is famous for their ability to beat some of the best distance runners in the world. Even more impressive? They do so in sandals made from old pieces of rubber and leather straps that wrap around their ankles.

Last November, I went to the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, to live, eat and run with the Tarahumara who tend the chia crops for Health Warrior, a brand of energy bars coming out with a new Spicy Mexican Chocolate flavor this year.

Visiting the Tarahumara almost felt like traveling back in time with small hints of the 21st century. For example, the area largely relies on well water and latrines, but you can find TVs in many homes. When it comes to endurance running, Western culture focuses on the best technology, from state-of-the-art running shoes to GPS watches—and yet somehow the Tarahumara still manage to come out on top.

Why? The Tarahumara perceive running differently. Many runners—myself included—will train for months for a race, to the point where the activity turns into another chore. But it was clear from living with the Tarahumara that they love to run. Though, from what I saw, they rarely ever “train.”

They walk everywhere and only run in two situations: when threatened or while racing. The concept of running as a constant grind is absent from their culture—instead, it embraces a passion for movement. No Tarahumara would get upset if he or she didn’t hit a mile repeat right on target or had to miss an “important workout.” They run for fun and for practical reasons.

Living with the Tarahumara was a reminder of the things we often take for granted. A new pair of running shoes is great, but not as much as time spent in nature—or with family. My trip to Mexico made me yearn to seek joy in relationships, experiences and adventures more often. The Tarahumaras live with the essentials, which is practically nothing, but they were the happiest people I have ever come across.

Interestingly, for the Tarahumara, breakfast, lunch and dinner all look more or less the same: beans, tortillas, avocado, salsa and some type of vegetable. I took some time to speak to a Tarahumara chef—or, as the locals call her, Mama Tita. She informed me that they eat little to no meat, and it’s reserved only for special occasions. They drink chia seeds in “chia fresca,” or iskiate, as I remembered from Born to Run, and they add them to corn tortillas that they make fresh and cook over an open fire.

Their abundant chia harvest is mostly for export, and they attribute the increase in creative ways to consume the healthy chia seeds to Americans. Known for their ability to retain water and hydrate, chia seeds started to gain popularity as a “superfood” a few years ago. Now you can find them in almost any grocery store and on many restaurant menus. These small, powerful seeds are packed with nutrients like healthy omega-3s, which boost energy levels, deliver antioxidants and increase bone health. Stay tuned for some of my favorite recipes that include the seeds from the fields of the Tarahumara.

Check out some recipes from author Running on Veggies:

Chia Chocolate Pudding

Apple Cinnamon Granola

Chia Toast Spread

Chia Overnight Oats