Can Pickle Juice Reduce Muscle Cramps?

By Jennifer O'Donnell-Giles | Nov. 07, 2016, 6:12 p.m. (ET)

pickles

Pickle juice has been all the rage on the race circuit during the past few seasons. I have seen it offered at race expos, received sample bottles in my race packets, witnessed fellow racers sipping it before toeing the line … and even seen athletes downing some in transition. They all have one common goal with taking it: to stop and/or prevent muscle cramping.

I don’t need to tell you that a muscle cramp can quickly lead to a DNF. It can ruin a workout and even cause havoc during a race. There is no question that muscle cramps negatively affect sports performance.

Does pickle juice help? Well “it seems to” is the short answer. But it may not because of the reasons we think. Kevin C. Miller, Ph.D., is a professor of health, nutrition and exercise physiology at North Dakota State University and has investigated whether pickle juice affects muscle cramps in the laboratory. The usage of pickle juice among athletes is high — as is the recommended intake of pickle juice from athletic trainers and coaches because of the belief that the high electrolyte content will help control/eliminate muscle cramps.

Miller teamed up with researchers at Brigham Young University and studied subjects in an exercise lab. They induced muscle cramps via dehydration tactics and muscle stimulation. When the subjects drank nothing at the onset of a cramp the cramp lasted an average of 2 minutes and 30 seconds. The second time a muscle cramp was stimulated, the subject drank either 2.5 ounces of pickle juice or water (in a double blind experimentation model). They concluded that the pickle juice drinkers felt a relief in muscle cramps 45 percent faster than the subjects who drank nothing and 37 percent faster than the water drinkers. Here’s the interesting part: blood samples were also drawn before and after so they could compare electrolyte profiles of these subjects. The study showed no significant changes in the blood following ingestion of either water or of pickle juice.

This means that dehydration may not cause muscle cramping after all. And since the pickle juice never left the subjects’ stomachs during the experiment, it is not possible that it was the remedy for the cramps. This result led them to conclude that muscle cramps were most likely caused my muscle exhaustion and that pickle juice ingestion sets off a “neurological phenomenon rather than a metabolic one.”

So what are we as triathletes to do? Well if you ask Dr. Miller, he suggests drinking pickle juice if you enjoy it, but to do so in moderation as you would do with anything that was high in sodium. He suggests stretching and strengthening if you are prone to cramping.

I think we will see further research on pickle juice in the near future due to its popularity among triathletes and the continued belief that sodium intake lessens cramping.

Sources:
Dr. Millers research was published in the “Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise,” “Journal of Athletic Training,” “Muscle and Nerve” and “Athletic Therapy Today.”

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, May 2010 - Volume 42 - Issue 5 - pp 953-961
http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Abstract/2010/05000/Reflex_Inhibition_of_Electrically_Induced_Muscle.15.aspx

Journal of Athletic Training, Vol. 44, Issue 5 (Sept. 2009) pp.454-561
http://www.journalofathletictraining.org/doi/full/10.4085/1062-6050-44.5.454

Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles is a Registered Dietitian-Nutritionist and a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics. She is involved in all things sports nutrition including serving on the U.S. Olympic Sports Dietitian Registry, working as a media spokesperson for Kind Bar and racing on the Rev3 ambassador triathlon team. She has a dual master'ss degree in nutrition and exercise physiology from Columbia University. She has been in this field for over 20 years and is an accomplished endurance triathlete in her own right having competed in multiple 140.6 and 26.2 races as well as represented Team USA at world championships three times. She works with athletes all over the world ... the most important being her triathlete husband and four very active children. Learn more at jenngilesrd.com.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.