Tarahumara: Tribe of Superathletes

Next up for The Training Table is a look to the past. I want to investigate some of the traditional cultures that have lived a plant based lifestyle while producing great atthletes. First up are the Tarahumara, an indigenous tribe living deep in the Copper Canyon area of northern Mexico. They were made famous in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, but they were also mentioned by Scott Jurek in his autobiography Eat and Run, since Jurek also played a role in McDougall’s story. For those unfamiliar with McDougall’s book, it is well worth a read, even if it gets a bit overwrought at times. He tells the story of a low key ultramarathon put together to bring some norte americanos to race the Tarahumara on their own turf. Hmmm… American ultrarunners (already a loony breed) dodging narcos and the other dangers of Mexico to race for a prize of … one thousand pounds of corn.

You have to read it to get all the adventure, and the many scientific tangents McDougall takes, like barefoot running, physiology, persistence hunting, and evolution. But the Tarahumara have been a subject of interest for quite some time, despite their reclusiveness. Their name in their own language has been translated as “the running people” or “those who walk well.” I suppose there is not much linguistic differentiation between walking and running, since they are the only transportation they had. But it hints at their great endurance. In fact, their culture has a made a unique sport out of ultrarunning unlike anything I have heard about. They play a game of kickball, where a group of runners chases a ball that gets kicked around from canyon to canyon. These “games” or “races” can last a whole day. Or two. To excel at this sport one must have phenomenal aerobic fitness and running economy. And they do it without modern shoes, sports drinks, supplements or training methods.

What makes the story even more interesting is that the traditional Tarahumara diet is plant based, with only tiny amounts of animal food sneaking in on occasion. This is another reason they attracted the attention of the modern world. While we live with cardiovascular disease as the number one cause of death, the Tarahumara have none. They have other health issues related to infections or food insecurity, but they don’t die of heart attacks or cancer, and they don’t get diabetes.

The Tarahumara diet is traditionally made up of 90% of calories from

TWO FOODS:

CORN

BEANS

That’s the McDougall starch based diet right there. All meat, dairy, oil, even fruits and vegetables fall into the 10% category. Let’s contrast that with the Standard American Diet: 

90% of calories from: refined flour, sugar, oil, meat and dairy

10% of calories from fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds

See where we went wrong? See how simple it could be?

So for this week at The Training Table, we will eat like Meso-Americans of the last 1000 years. It will be corn, beans, quinoa and New World produce like peppers, tomatoes, squash, avocados and fruit.

Now, if I eat this way can I too run the Western States 100? Seriously, I’ll eat beans, and more beans, and more beans . . .

About vegpedlr

Plant powered off-road triathlete
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2 Responses to Tarahumara: Tribe of Superathletes

  1. I had beans on corn tortillas last night for dinner – yum! But that was after only running 14 miles, not 100 😉

    • vegpedlr says:

      I’ve been practicing making my own tortillas. It’s not as hard as I feared, but it is harder than cooking a pot of rice or baking potatoes! What I don’t know is if I could refuel with tortillas and beans during an event as the Tarahumara do.

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