We know. It’s impossible to say the word chia without stutter-singing the Chia Pet jingle and envisioning a terra cotta pig, porcupine, or Homer Simpson head sprouting tiny green leaves. It’s equally as impossible to imagine anything that fraternizes with The Clapper, the Ove-Glove, and the Incredible Pasta Pot once powered mighty Aztec warriors and was considered more valuable than gold.
Yet after five hundred years of relative obscurity, chia seeds are making a popular resurgence due to their wide-ranging health benefits, from weight loss to gastrointestinal health to mental wellness to, yes, sustained endurance for athletes. The nutritional and medicinal properties of chia seeds have made cameo appearances in mainstream media such as CNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and the Dr. Oz Show, as well as magazines like Trail Runner and Running Times. Chia seeds have even made their way onto the NFL gridiron; Baltimore Ravens’ star linebacker Ray Lewis tosses a handful in his shake every morning. But the superfood really skyrocketed to fame with its starring role in the best-selling book, Born To Run, which describes chia seeds as the indigenous (and seemingly magic) dietary staple of the Tarahumara Indians, a tribe of super-runners in the savage Copper Canyons of Mexico, who can chalk of hundreds of miles with Scott Jurek speed, virtually no rest, and shoes that would lose a fistfight against a paper plate and some twice-used dental floss.
So what gives chia seeds their super powers? Well, the list is long, and it reads like a who’s who of vital nutrients: Omega-3 essential fatty acids, antioxidants, protein, calcium, iron, potassium, vitamins A, B, E, and D, as well as other key minerals. Even better, all that punch is wrapped up in a small package, making chia one of the most nutrient-dense foods on the market. Just two tablespoons of chia seeds contains 10 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein, more calcium than milk, more Omega-3s than salmon, more iron than spinach, and more antioxidants than blueberries. (It’s easy to see why ancient tribes used chia seeds to pay tributes and taxes to Aztec priests and nobility.)
But before you start grazing off the “Mr. T” Chia Head sitting in your windowsill (actually, don’t do that—the seeds in the Chia Pet package and the seeds in your local grocery store are not one and the same), remember that even a superfood is terrestrial; there’s no such thing as a magic running potion (sadly). But chia seeds do provide a boatload of nutrients absolutely essential for runners, nutrients that improve endurance, fight fat, reduce inflammation, and accelerate recovery.
We’ve compiled a list of ways chia seeds can enhance your training and improve your overall health. We’ve even included some easy ways you can incorporate chia seeds into your diet. Because, let’s be honest, any food that can give you an extra boost in the final miles of your marathon is a superfood indeed.
Provides sustained energy. Chia seeds are extremely absorbent, expanding up to ten times their original size when soaked in water and forming a gel-like substance. Because of this gel-forming action, chia seeds slow the conversion of carbohydrates into sugar, meaning the carbs you eat will be able to fuel your body for longer periods of time. The regulation of carbohydrate release also stabilizes blood sugar levels. (Keep in mind that because chia seeds have almost zero carbs, you’ll still need to take energy gels before and during your workouts.)
Combats dehydration. Because chia seeds absorb thirty times their weight in water, they help regulate body fluid levels and retain electrolytes, both key in the battle against dehydration. For long workouts in high heat and humidity, chia seeds are a handy way to prolong hydration.
Reduces inflammation and joint pain. Omega-3 essential fatty acids (think fish oil) are a proven anti-inflammatory, and chia seeds are full of them. In fact, the Aztecs ate chia seeds to relieve knee pain. In addition to battling aches and joint pain, the essential fatty acids found in chia seeds alleviate skin problems, promote brain health, and have even been show to decrease the symptoms of hyperactivity disorder and hypertension.
Promotes weight loss. Because chia seeds are so high in fiber and nutritionally dense, they help you feel fuller faster and longer. The absorbent qualities regulate carbohydrate conversion, preventing blood sugar spikes and providing sustained energy. Recent studies have shown that, in addition reducing body fat, chia seeds also help prevent high cholesterol and high triglycerides.
Accelerates post-run recovery. Amino acids are the “building blocks of protein” while antioxidants are the ultimate defense against free radicals. Chia seeds are full of both. Eat them soon after your workout to jumpstart recovery.
So how do you eat chia seeds? Any way you want to. Chia seeds are ready to eat straight from the bag, unlike flax seeds, which have to be ground up in order to be digestible. Pour a tablespoon or two in your cereal, oatmeal, or smoothie. Sprinkle some over your salad, pasta, cous cous, or rice. Mix them in some cottage cheese or yogurt. The possibilities are endless.
Many people like to make a chia seed “drink” by soaking 1 or 2 tablespoons in a glass of water or fruit juice for 5-10 minutes. (As a rule, think 1-part chia seeds to 7-parts liquid.) The chia seeds will expand, forming a gelatinous mixture. The seeds have a very mild, slightly nutty taste. (If you drink the mixture in gulps, you wont taste them at all.) For super hydration, add electrolytes to the drink by opening a few Endurolyte tabs and pouring the contents into the chia seed mixture.
As always, know your body. Don’t try anything new on race day or before key long runs. Remember that chia seeds are high in soluble fiber; that means they are filling and can impact your digestive tract. You may want to try chia seeds in small amounts until you learn how your body responds to the superfood.
“Chia Fresca” Recipe
Whisk the seeds into the water and allow them to soak for 10-15 minutes. Stir in lemon or lime juice and honey and whisk. Enjoy! (Head’s up: Chia fresca does have a slightly gelatinous—some would say “slimy”—texture. If you’re sensitive to strange textures, consider yourself warned!)
Note: Chia seeds contain almost no carbohydrates or sugar. That means you’ll still need to continue your regular routine of energy gels or chews during your long runs. Also, if you need a quick boost immediately before a workout, skip the chia seeds and grab a snack that will provide some simple sugars without weighing you down. A spoonful of regular honey (or, if you want something with a bit more oomph, Honey Stinger gels or Honey Stinger Waffles) works wonders, as does a handful or raisins, a banana, or even a few bites of dark chocolate.
Amy L. Marxkors is the author of The Lola Papers: Marathons, Misadventures, and How I Became a Serious Runner and Powered By Hope: The Teri Griege Story. Click here to receive Amy's weekly article via email.