Midway across the pool, my calf muscle seized up. I grabbed hold of the lane line, pulled my toes back towards my shin and waited for the charley horse to release.
Unfortunately for me, the experience has become a familiar one. It seems that whenever I’m in the thick of training for a road race (and now my first triathlon) or biking a stage ride, I’m wracked with muscle cramps, the worst of which wake me from a sound sleep at night. For relief, I’ve been told to eat bananas. Bananas are rich in potassium, and muscle cramps are commonly attributed to a sodium and potassium deficiency caused by dehydration. I’ve even tried potassium supplements.
But I was surprised last week when I read on Well, the New York Times health and fitness blog, about the latest recommended remedy—pickle juice. That’s right, the sour brine of your classic Vlasic dills. Apparently, athletic trainers, without scientific proof of the elixir’s powers, have been doling it out to athletes pretty regularly. Some readers of the Well blog posted comments saying that they had swigged pickle juice or other homespun remedies—yellow mustard, apple cider, straight vinegar—to ease cramps before.
A study published in the May issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, the official journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, provides the first evidence beyond the anecdotal that pickle juice relieves muscle cramps. In the experiment, volunteers biked 30-minute intervals until they reached a level of mild dehydration, had electrical shocks sent to their big toes and then drank either nothing, water or pickle juice at the first signs of their toes cramping. The results showed that pickle juice relieved a cramp 45 percent faster than drinking nothing and about 37 percent faster than drinking water.
There isn’t a consensus among scientists on the cause of muscle cramps. (Or the slang name for a leg cramp for that matter. It’s called a charley horse, after American baseball player Charley “Old Hoss” Radbourn (1853-1897) who once limped from third to home base with a leg cramp, in North America; pferdekuss, or horse’s kiss, in Germany; and ijsbeen, or ice leg, in the Netherlands.) But this particular finding befuddles experts even more. If the pickle juice alleviates the cramp so soon after intake (about 85 seconds), too soon to have replenished the needed nutrients in the muscles, then it’s possible the juice activates nerve sensors in the throat or stomach that send out signals to the muscles to relax instead. Hopefully, future studies will sort it out.
In the meantime, I guess we can add pickle juice to the slew of recovery-specific cocktails, like Gatorade Recover 03 and Muscle Milk, that seem to spring up at every race.
If it makes it more appetizing, there’s always the Pickle Sickle?