Yesterday I bought two jars of pickles. And not just any pickle. I bucked up and paid for the “all natural, no preservatives” kind that set me back $7.99 a jar. I am not really a fan of pickles, but that doesn’t matter. Pickles and specifically pickle juice seems to be all the rage of the ultra running world as a way to “instantly relieve” muscle cramps.
I first hear about using pickle juice to alleviate cramps while I was at an ultra in Montana, Old Gabe (beautiful course, one to put on the list!). At the finish, the RD, Tom Hayes, kindly offered me some pickles. “No thanks, sounds terrible” is what I said. But curious, I asked why there would be pickles at an aid station, as it seemed like an unlikely food to offer. Salty yes, but there is where the cravings would appear to end. Tom told me that there have been studies showing that pickle juice immediately alleviates muscular cramps. Must be the salt, I said. But he countered that the research is showing that the pickle juice works at the nerve level, somehow inhibiting the impulse to the muscle to contract. But since he didn’t have the research paper in hand, this is where speculation started.
Since then I’ve been bouncing the idea off of other athletes – professional mountain bikers and triathletes, fishing for some info and to see if anyone has tried it. One speculated maybe it’s the vinegar that acts as an alkalizing substance in the body. Another, because he had heard of using mustard to alleviate cramps, thought it might be a shared ingredient such as turmeric. But 0 for about 10 on test subjects.
So, being the smart ultra runner that I am, and knowing I had the Vermont 100 coming up three weeks after the Montana race, I did nothing to either research or test out the pickle juice theory until the day before the Vermont 100. Although I usually don’t have any problems with muscular cramps during races I knew that the conditions at Vermont would be humid and possibly quite hot, I thought pickle juice might be a nice back up strategy.
With temperatures in the 90’s and the air feeling like you could cut it with a knife, I went to the store in Vermont and stocked up on jars of pickles (dill, not sweet). I then disposed of the pickles and put all the pickle juice into one large left over orange juice container and instructed my crew to offer a cup at every crew point with my theory being “Why wait for cramping to set in if I could potentially head it off.”
On race day, temps hit a high of 91 with 65 percent humidity. I stuck to my normal electrolyte routine, but then I added in the pickle juice. At 40, 50, and 70 miles I managed to get down two, maybe three ounces of pickle juice. I can’t say it was a pleasant and sought after taste experience. Then at mile 80 my taste buds revolted. I took a swig and then immediately spit it back up. There was no way I was getting any down. But, I was also not experiencing any cramps. And I ran a course record on a very hot day with an un heat conditioned body. Interesting. I have to say though, I have never vomited during or after an ultra, but after Vermont, there was profuse vomiting. Don’t know why. But pickle juice was definitely a suspect.
So, I forgot about pickle juice until this week. Since my race in France, my legs have not been their normal self. They have felt heavy and full, even though they seem to be able to run well. I surmised it must be some level of depletion from my hypothermic episode. But no amount of hydration or electrolytes seems to address the issue. To top it off, in Flagline 50k, even though I was following my normal hydration and electrolyte strategy, I experienced some muscle spasms – something that has never happened to me in a race.
So, I bought two jars of pickles, saddled up to my laptop and started doing research by googling “Pickle juice cramping.” Frankly, the mystery is still unsolved. Many articles point to a recent study done on 10 healthy college aged males at Brigham Young University in Utah. You can read about it here in a NY Times blog.
Basically the subjects cycled until they lost 3 percent of their body weight through perspiration. Then one big toe was hooked up to a device that sent an electric impulse, which induced a cramp. In the subjects that drank pickle juice, their cramps were relieved in 85 seconds. For the poor souls drinking only water, their cramps lasted 134 seconds.
But apparently scientists are at odds at what in the pickle juice is responsible for the relief of cramping. After further exploring the issue, there are also many varying points of view as to what actually starts cramping – is it tired muscles, is it dehydration, is it a loss of electrolytes?
I found one article to be very interesting and in my unscientific mind, maybe a building block for the pickle juice mystery.
According to Health 911 “Cramps are sometimes caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates your muscles to work. Mustard and pickle juice both have acetic acid which helps the body make more acetylcholine. ” A quick search on the web identifies vinegar as also having acetic acid. Looking up acetylcholine confirms it is involved in the function of muscle contractions through the nervous system.
In my grand study of one (myself), I decided to see if maybe my body was lacking acetic acid – again in my mind, tied back to my hypothermic experience in France. So five days after Flagline 50k, I planned on doing a track workout. I bought the pickles with the intention of drinking the pickle juice the day before the track workout. My muscles were still funky, so I thought what do I have to lose?
As I opened the jar and smelled the smell of pickle juice, I had flashbacks to Vermont. I realized I couldn’t just drink the juice, so I ate two pickles. A couple of hours later, my stomach wasn’t right. I felt nauseated and thought I’d have to cancel the workout the next day. A good nights sleep seemed to help out, but I still could not bear to drink the pickle juice with my breakfast. So I reached for the apple cider vinegar. I figured one teaspoon of vinegar was more palatable than two ounces of pickle juice. So I added some water and down it went. Horrible. My eight year old daughter asked me why I didn’t like the wine I was drinking, and I quickly corrected her to tell her it was vinegar, not wine. I could just see her telling her playmates that I drank some bad wine for breakfast.
The nastiness of the vinegar didn’t linger too long in my mouth and didn’t cause the nausea that the pickles seemed to cause. I headed out to the track about an hour later. Warming up I kept assessing my legs…do they feel normal?…do they feel heavy?…I wouldn’t know until I actually got on the track. And a pleasant surprise it was. My legs were back to normal!!! Solid track workout, no muscle spasms, just smooth contractions. Very unscientific, no placebos, no control group, just me. Could it have been coincidence? Or did the vinegar really work? Being cautiously optimistic… I vote for the vinegar.