Guest blog by John Davis (RunnersConnect)
Last week we took a look at what causes exercise-associated muscle cramps, the painful and seemingly random muscle spasms that can fell everyone from recreational marathoners to professional basketball players.
Popular wisdom holds they’re caused by a lack of electrolytes, but scientific research shows that it’s more likely that muscle cramps are due to the failure of a neuromuscular mechanism that usually keeps extreme muscle contraction in check.
Like any ailment that affects athletes, there’s a veritable arsenal of remedies and tricks that runners and athletic trainers swear by to prevent or clear up a muscle cramp. Some of these remedies end up being subjected to scientific testing to validate or refute them.
One simple trick—gently stretching out the cramping muscle—proved to be quite successful, and gave researchers a clue as to the real mechanism behind cramping.
Today, we’ll be examining another remedy that has some surprising implications: drinking pickle juice!
Pickle juice for muscle cramps
Yes, believe it or not, old-school athletic trainers swear by gulping down a mouthful of pickle juice as a rapid cure for muscle cramping.
The logic behind this was that the liquid left in the pickle jar is incredibly salty and full of electrolytes.
But here’s the paradox: as we saw last time, there’s fairly strong evidence that your body’s electrolyte levels have no bearing on whether or not you develop muscle cramps during exercise.
So pickle juice, despite its reputation, shouldn’t do anything to alleviate muscle cramping.
What happens when you put pickle juice to the test?
Exercise-associated muscle cramps can be tricky to study in a controlled environment, because the cramp location and severity can vary from person to person. A better way to study cramps in a controlled environment is to artificially induce them.
By electrically stimulating a leg nerve in just the right way, researchers can cause cramps on demand. Then, by using an electromyography machine, or EMG, they can quantify the length and severity of a muscle cramp.
A 2010 study using just such a protocol was published by Kevin Miller and colleagues at North Dakota State University and Brigham Young University.
In the paper, the researchers used an electrical current to induce foot cramps in a group of 12 volunteers. Two cramps were induced, each separated by 30 minutes.
The first cramp was a baseline test to establish what a “normal” muscle cramp looks like in terms of its EMG signal and its duration. Then, a second cramp was induced, and the subjects immediately ingested two to three fluid ounces of either water or pickle juice.
A week later, the experiment was repeated with a cross-over design, meaning the subjects who received water the first time got pickle juice the second time, and vice versa.
To guard against any possible placebo effect, the researchers used nose plugs to prevent the subjects from smelling the liquids they drank, and even blinded themselves to which solution was being administered to which subject.
The effects of the pickle juice were rapid and impressive: The control cramps and the cramps followed by water consumption lasted over two minutes, while cramps followed by pickle juice consumption lasted less than a minute and a half—a reduction of almost 50%!
Are cramps really due to electrolyte loss?
So, do the impressive effects of pickle juice revive the “cramps are because of electrolytes” hypothesis?
Miller and his co-workers designed another experiment to test this idea.
This time, nine healthy men underwent three trials where they were given two to three fluid ounces of pickle juice, a sports drink, or plain water.
After ingesting the liquid, Miller et al. took blood samples every few minutes over the course of the next hour, then analyzed the water and electrolyte content of the blood samples to observe the impact of each liquid.
None of the three liquids produced any substantial changes in electrolyte or hydration levels, which is perhaps not surprising considering how small the ingested volume of liquid was (2-3 fluid ounces) when compared to the amount of water in the entire body (several gallons).
Miller et al. conclude that any explanation of the efficacy of pickle juice that is related to electrolytes or hydration isn’t satisfactory—the electrolytes in 2-3 ounces of pickle juice are negligible when compared to sweat losses during exercise.
Further, there’s no way the electrolytes could make their way into the blood within a minute or two after ingestion.
The researchers propose that the acidic pickle juice triggers a reflex when it hits a nerve center on the back of the throat. This reflex sends a signal to the nervous system to shut down the overactive neurons causing the cramp.
So, in a roundabout way, investigating the “pickle juice cure” leads to two surprising conclusions:
- First, it works very well! You can expect a shot of pickle juice to decrease the length of a muscle cramp by almost half.
- Second, because of how quickly the pickle juice acts, this result provides more evidence that muscle cramps are caused by a malfunction of the nervous system, a glitch that leaves a muscle unit (usually the calves in runners) stuck in an “on” position.
If you’ve had major cramping problems during your workouts or races, it might be worth giving pickle juice a try.
The procedure from Miller et al. calls for drinking 2-3 fluid ounces of pickle juice—in the studies, strained from regular Vlasic dill pickles—as soon as possible following the onset of a cramp.
Obviously, carrying around a glass pickle jar isn’t practical.
You’ll have to find a tiny, 2-3 ounce plastic bottle to carry some pickle juice with you when you do a work out or race you anticipate might cause cramping.
Fortunately, this is small enough to tuck into your waistband or put in a pocket.
Someday I’m sure a budding entrepreneur will come out with GU-packet-like pickle juice shots for people prone to exercise-associated muscle cramps, but until then, you’ll have to improvise!