If you’re one of the few trail runners that hasn’t read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, you might be wondering what the heck Pinole is and why everyone has been talking about it so much.
First off, I highly recommend reading Born to Run. This book isn’t your typical running book and tells the story of the indigenous people of Copper Canyon in Mexico known as the Tarahumara tribe. McDougall shares the story and secrets of the most talented endurance runners in the modern world.
David Fleming from ESPN has said, “I’d be surprised if there’s a better book about the sport, spirit and science of endurance running than Born to Run…”
Who are the Tarahumara People?
The people of this unique tribe will run up to 50+ miles a day (day after day) just for the fun of it. This type of athleticism is otherworldly to many Americans who struggle to just find the time to exercise. McDougall dives deep into the Tarahumara way of life to discover how many of them can run for such long distances and easily recover.
The Tarahumara tribe is very isolated by the surrounding landscape, so they have been able to continue their ancient practices, diet, and medicines. This reclusive community is one of the healthiest in the world, as they have been able to remain immune to diseases that plague the rest of the world.
A lot of the Tarahumara’s incredible health, mental drive, and stamina comes from their ancient diet. The staple foods of the Tarahumara diet include a cornmeal mixture known as Pinole, and Chia Seeds. Both Pinole and Chia Seeds are so versatile; they can be consumed in many forms and flavors.
What exactly is Pinole?
Pinole is the mixture of roasted cornmeal with other spices to create a natural, dense ingredient used for many recipes in the Tarahumara cuisine.
The traditional base of Pinole is called Masa Harina. This is cornmeal that is prepared the traditional way – treated with lime (the mineral, not the citrus fruit). This traditional way of processing cornmeal actually makes the product easier for the gut to digest.
Easy digestion is the secret super-power of Pinole – all these great proteins, sugars, and nutrients packed into an easily digestible substance that won’t leave you with a sugar-crash. Cornmeal itself is a slow-burning fuel source that is perfect for distance running.
Typically, this roasted Masa Harina is combined with agave nectar, vanilla powder, chia seeds, cinnamon, and cocoa (for the chocolate lovers). The end result is Pinole.
How Can You Make Pinole?
Pinole is easy to make, and it is best to make it yourself so you can add whatever flavors and nutrients you want. You can also find pre-made Pinole online and in some international marketplaces.
The first thing you will need is finely ground Masa Harina. You can find Masa Harina at most world marketplaces. If you cannot find Masa Harina, or don’t want to spend time hunting it down, don’t worry! You can use normal cornmeal (it just won’t have the extra digestibility Masa Harina has).
Toast the Masa Harina or cornmeal in a wide pan. You must pay constant attention to the pan, making sure to stir often and keep the temperature at a moderate level (not too hot, not too cold).
Once the cornmeal is toasted, you can add in just about anything! The most traditionally used ingredients include cinnamon, Chia Seeds, agave nectar or honey, and vanilla powder. A popular ingredient to add if you are going to bake the Pinole is crushed dates. Put dates through a food processor, and this will act as a combining agent in the mix.
I personally enjoy adding a Chai Spice mix to Pinole for some added flavor. HERE is some information on making your own Chai Spice.
Chia Seeds are optional in Pinole mixes, but they are just as beneficial as the toasted Masa Harina mixture. Chia Seeds are becoming very popular among athletes and health-nuts because of their amazing power to slow the absorption of water in the body. Filled with plant-proteins and essential fats, these little seeds are the perfect companion for Pinole.
What Can You Do with Pinole After You Make It?
So, you have this weird mixture…what now? The possibilities are endless! There are several recipes online for cookies, bars, oatmeal, smoothies and other drinks.
Pinole “Juice”: While you can get all the benefits from Pinole by simply adding water and drinking it, cornmeal does not dissolve, so it takes some getting used to. It might not be the best texture, but this method is probably the quickest method of consuming Pinole while on the run.
Smoothies: The best way to drink Pinole is with smoothies. With a smoothie, you can add even more super-food ingredients such as nut-milks and fruit. Smoothies do take more preparation compared to just adding water, but it makes a great breakfast before a long run!
Oatmeal: Not really oatmeal, but you can create an oatmeal-like consistency with Pinole by adding a small amount of water. Don’t add too much, otherwise it will be too juicy. You can even add a spoonful or two of Pinole to one of your favorite oatmeal recipes.
If you are considering Pinole for a backpacking trip, adding a Pinole mixture into your prepackaged oatmeal/cereal breakfast baggies would pack your breakfast with even more goodness.
Cookies: The most common way to prepare Pinole; cookies are perfect to make in advance and bring along with you on the trail! Here is an amazing recipe for Pinole cookie bars. A bonus to making Pinole cookies, is that you have an excuse to add more sweeteners like cocoa and vanilla! Cookies are a perfect alternative to the gel-packets typically used for endurance running since these gels usually lead to sugar-crashes.
Bars: No need to buy expensive energy bars anymore! Here is a recipe for energy bars that you can adapt and add Pinole to. Bars like this are also easily portable and great to bring on the trail. For bars, you can add extra chia seeds and other protein-filled nuts like almonds and cashews. If you have a food dehydrator, you can dehydrate fruits, then chop them up and add them into the bar-mix.
Another Tarahumara Wonder: Chia Seeds
Along with cornmeal, Chia Seeds are another super-food with its own wonders. Chia Seeds may be small, but they are mighty. They are loaded with essential fats, fiber, plant protein, and antioxidants that are great for producing and storing energy and water, as well as helping with recovery after your run.
When you begin looking for Chia Seeds on the market, you’ll realize there are many kinds of Chia Seeds. White Chia Seeds are more expensive, but they are an older species of Chia Seed and have maintained more nutrients than newer, processed Chia Seeds.
A simple Chia Seed recipe you can try is known as Chia Fresca or Iskiate.
- A cup of water
- 1 Tbsp dry Chia Seeds
- Lemon or lime juice
- Honey or agave nectar to taste
Stir the ingredients together and let the seeds sit in the water for about five minutes. Stir again, and you can either drink it then or let it sit for longer. Chia Seeds gel in water, so the longer the concoction sits, the more gelatin the drink will be.
A more popular way to prepare these little seeds is by making a Chia Pudding. Chia pudding is not very portable for a mid-run snack, but it would be a great breakfast in the backcountry, or before an endurance run.
To make Chia Pudding, combine the following:
- ¼ cup Chia Seeds
- 1 cup water or almond milk
- 2 tsp honey
- Dehydrated fruit of your choosing
- Nuts such as almonds, walnuts, or cashews
To pack this snack for a backpacking trip, substitute the water/almond milk for almond milk powder. Put these ingredients into single-portion size baggies. Then, when you’re ready to eat the meal, stir in water.
For a more immediate way to consume these seeds, you can simply bring a small bag of them on the trail with you and put some in your water bottle whenever you need.
Pinole and Chia Seeds is a great additive to any athletic diet, whether you are just starting to run outside or are an experienced ultramarathon runner. If you are an experienced endurance runner who is used to slamming gel packets and energy bars, it never hurts to experiment with more natural ingredients.
It is also important to note that Pinole is a staple of this ancient community’s diet and can be consumed without the intent of running 50+ miles in a day. I am no ultramarathoner, but I love Pinole on backpacking trips. It is a light, but protein-packed substance that I can just stir in some water or eat as my morning oatmeal.
Experiment with Pinole and Chia recipes! Pinole and Chia Seeds are simply ingredients that can be used in limitless ways. Experiment and discover what works best for you and your athletic endeavors.
Daniell is a certified outdoor climbing guide with professional experience climbing throughout Colorado’s Western Slope region. She is based out of Fort Collins, CO and enjoys trail running, desert climbing and overnight canoe trips.