Is pickle juice really a way for runners to stop muscle cramps? Or is it just an urban legend? Find out the facts in this post!
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The latest and greatest trends are always hot topics in any local running group. From beet juice (yay!) to the ketogenic diet (not my personal fav), you’re sure to hear athletes recount what’s working for them and what fell flat.
One of the newest crazes? Pickle juice for runners. Many athletes are using it as their magical drink to alleviate cramps. And believe it or not, it might actually work – but not for the reason you may think.
Now there’s actually only one peer-reviewed research study that I can find which looks specifically at administering pickle juice when cramping. Researches compared drinking water versus pickle juice during a cramp, and measured the total time the cramp lasted. Drinking pickle juice led to cramps that lasted about 49 seconds shorter compared to drinking water.
It might not sound like much, but if you’ve ever had a Charlie horse or hamstring cramp while running, 49 seconds is a looooong time. Am I right?!
In addition to this one research study, it’s thought that around 25% of athletic trainers use pickle juice to help treat cramps in their athletes – so there’s definitely some anecdotal belief in this too.
The immediate assumption by most athletes is that pickle juice must help with cramping since it’s loaded with sodium. However, research shows most cramping in runners is not associated with electrolytes. Even in a 161 kilometer ultra-marathon, impaired sodium intake didn’t seem to be associated with cramping. Instead, most cramping is actually related to neuromuscular fatigue.
Plus, if you think about the relatively immediate effect that pickle juice has, it just doesn’t make sense for it to be related to sodium. Your body wouldn’t have enough time to go through electrolyte shifts in the 1-2 minutes that you’re seeing an effect on cramping after ingestion.
So how does it work? The key ingredient appears to be the vinegar.
While the exact mechanism is unknown, it’s thought that the vinegar stimulates a reflex that causes an inhibitory response in alpha motor neurons. Essentially, these are part of the nervous system that are involved in muscle cramping. The theory is that when neuromuscular fatigue occurs, there is additional stimulation and activity of these alpha motor neurons. So if pickle juice causes an increase in inhibition of those neurons / decrease activity of those neurons, it can alleviate cramps.
A similar type of reflex mechanism is behind the use of mustard packets (vinegar) and hot shot products (pepper).
Pickle juice for runners – is it worth it? The verdict:
(Disclaimer – I’m an RD, I’m not an MD, and this doesn’t constitute medical or individual nutrition advice. This is for informational purposes only…)
If you don’t mind the taste, give it a whirl! As long as you’re using it in normal portions (most research looks at 2-4 ounces), there is likely no harm to trying it out.
While some exercise scientists and doctors have expressed concern over pickle juice related to risk of exacerbating dehydration or hyperkalemia – the research that’s available using small portions does not appear to support that. A 2009 study, a 2013 study, a 2014 study, and a 2015 study all found negligible effects on plasma volume, electrolytes, and/or dehydration risk.
Of course, don’t overdo it, and if you have any medical conditions that might be affected by the high sodium or vinegar content of pickle juice, ask your MD first.
Here are a few pickle juice products that you can grab on Amazon:
–> Pickle Juice Shots (12 pack of 2.5 ounce shots) – I like this as an option for testing the waters with pickle juice. The shots are the right size for addressing muscle cramps, and the product has excellent reviews. They’re small enough that you can throw one in a running belt pouch to carry with you.
–> Best Maid Dill Pickle Juice (1 Gallon) – If you’re looking to be a bit more economical and stock up, you can grab a full gallon of pickle juice here. It looks slightly like a container of anti-freeze, but the comments on Amazon assure me it is in fact pickle juice. 😉 If you have a fuel belt, you can consider filling up one of your bottles with this for a few sips mid-run when you experience cramping.
–> Bob’s Pickle Pops – You guys – these are freezable pickle juice ice pops! For those of you who are worried about cramps during those hot summer runs, these might be just what you need.
And of course, you could always go with the standby method of just drinking the juice right from the bottom of that pickle jar in your fridge. 🙂