Written by Bruce R. Copeland on December 11, 2009
Tags: blood sugar, calories, carbohydrate, corn meal, distance running, energy, honey, nutrition, pinole, tarahumara, ultrarunning
The breakout bestseller “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall has stimulated a number of recent ultrarunning blog articles extolling the biomechanical virtues of Tarahumara (Raramuri) Indian running style (see e.g. Proper Running Technique Can Improve Performance, and Elements of the Perfect Trail Running Shoe). But the Tarahumara Indian approach to eating on the run is equally intriguing. These runners use pinole (a form of corn meal) as a primary energy source when distance running. Interestingly American Indians and 18th and 19th century Mountain Men (all known to rapidly cover long distances on foot) also often subsisted on pinole supplemented with pemmican or jerky. For a couple months now, I’ve been experimenting with pinole as my carbohydrate energy source on longer runs. For me, pinole seems to work every bit as well as—maybe better than—gel.
Pinole is easy to prepare. Preheat an oven to 400 degrees F. In a mixing bowl, blend 2 cups corn meal, 1/3 cup honey, 0.5 teaspoon lite salt, and 0.25 teaspoon table salt. Spread the mixture uniformly on a cookie sheet (with sides) and bake for about 15 – 20 minutes until medium golden. About every 5 minutes, you will need to use a spatula to mix (breaking up any big lumps that remain) and spread the pinole on the cookie sheet. This keeps it from getting too browned, and the corn meal mixes more easily with the honey as it gets hot. When the pinole is medium golden, remove the cookie sheet from the oven and let cool. Store the pinole in a closed container at room temperature.
Corn meal contains about 160 calories per ounce by weight. So in energy terms, pinole is pretty much a direct replacement for gel on a volume basis. I find that gel flasks are a convenient way to carry pinole. Simply unscrew the flask top, and pour about an ounce volume of pinole into your mouth. Pinole tastes like a slightly sweet, crunchy version of popcorn. Chew and swallow most of it; then chase with 6 – 8 ounces of water. It takes somewhat longer to digest cornmeal than maltodextran or simple sugars, which are used in many gels. In this respect pinole is more comparable to gels based on brown rice syrup. If you’re one of those runners who wait until your blood sugar starts to dive before consuming a gel, pinole probably won’t work very well for you.
The Indians mix some cinnamon with their pinole. I don’t particularly like cinnamon, but it does help modulate blood sugar. Regular corn meal works fine for piñole, but if you can find blue corn or one of the other maize meals, go for it!