Chia Seeds: Runner’s Oldest And Best Friend?

Chia seeds are an ancient super food touted as the endurance fuel source of the Tarahumara running tribe of Mexico. This tiny seed has been adapted by modern runners hoping to receive the same endurance benefits. But will chia actually improve your run?

September 30, 2015
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If I had a dollar for every fitness fad I’ve seen come and go over my short 10-year career in the fitness industry, I’d be writing this article from a gold-plated laptop, swinging in a hammock on the shores of my own private tropical island.

Maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but the point is that fitness fads come and go so quickly and frequently that it can be hard to keep up with them. One minute a new supplement hits the market promising that it is the weight loss solution we’ve all been looking for, and the next minute it is completely forgotten as another supplement comes along promising to be even better.

The running world, of course, is no exception to this phenomenon. I’ve seen everything from spring-loaded sneakers claiming to make you faster to herbal supplements that supposedly increase your lung capacity. Rarely do any of these claims hold true.

Back in 2009, author Christopher McDougall published his best-selling book Born to Run. In this book, McDougall highlighted the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s Copper Canyons and their almost inhuman ability to run for incredible distances. This book not only catapulted the barefoot running movement into the mainstream running world, but also introduced many of us to a supposed super food just perfect for runners:

Chia seeds. 

Yes, the same chia seeds used to grow hair on the infamous chia pets. It turns out that these seeds are not just for growing grassy hair on clay figurines. They are edible, and the possibilities for their consumption are endless. From smoothies to salads, tea to snack bars, suddenly it seemed every runner everywhere was raving about chia. After all, if this ancient seed could fuel the Tarahumara and help them sustain incredible distances, it just had to help the rest of us too. Right?

Well, sort of. 

Although there has been no concrete evidence proving that chia seeds alone will help improve running and endurance, there is no denying that chia is an amazing super food that can benefit any runner’s diet. Chia seeds are rich in omega-3 essential fatty acids, antioxidants, protein, calcium, iron, potassium, vitamins A, B, E, and D…just to name a few. In fact, a two-tablespoon serving of chia contains about 200 mg of calcium, seven grams of fiber, and four grams of protein.

And while chia alone won’t transform your running overnight, these tiny, yet powerful seeds might help you become a better runner. Here’s how:

Sustained energy. Chia seeds are extremely absorbent, expanding up to ten times their original size when soaked in water, forming a gel-like substance around the seeds. Turns out that goopy gel is useful: It coats the stomach and works as a barrier between carbohydrates and your stomach’s digestive enzymes, which break down carbohydrates and convert them to sugars. By slowing that breakdown process, chia seeds provide runners with a longer period of time before their blood sugar levels drop, causing them to feel tired or lethargic. 

Note: While chia can help sustain energy, chia seeds in and of themselves are very low in carbohydrates and sugar. So if used while running, chia seeds alone won’t give you the energy to sustain a long run. Your best bet? Make a gel or bite-sized chew (like this recipe!) that contains chia in addition to other nutritious energy-sustaining foods. 

Hydration. Because chia seeds are so absorbent (anywhere from 12-30 times their weight, depending on who you ask), they help regulate body fluid levels and retain electrolytes, both of which can help prevent dehydration.

Recovery. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, while antioxidants fight against free radicals (molecules responsible for aging and tissue damage). Chia seeds are full of both amino acids and antioxidants. 

Add to this list the countless non-running related health benefits, such as possibly combating diabetes or improving blood pressure, and it seems chia is not simply another fitness or nutrition fad. 

So while these tiny seeds might not have you effortlessly running the canyons of Mexico, the nutritional punch that they do pack is certainly enough reason to give them a try.

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