Leg cramps are, unfortunately, a common occurrence for many runners, causing pain so strong and sudden it’ll take your breath away. So what causes them, and does the popular pickle juice remedy actually work to relieve them? Learn about exercise-associated muscle cramps and how to use pickle juice for cramps to stop the pain.
That sudden, painful, intense muscle contraction can catch you off-guard and leave you grabbing your leg and trying to breathe through the pain as others nearby try to figure out what has caused your agony.
It’s a misery that many runners deal with on a regular basis.
In fact, there was a span of a year where I woke up with calf cramps nearly EVERY.SINGLE.NIGHT. It was horrible and more than a little terrifying.
I was not yet a running coach, this was long before we could Google everything…so I sucked it up for awhile and then saw a Dr who said “you’re fine”.
But it’s not fine and you shouldn’t be dealing with them. So let’s dig in to this fabled remedy juice and quick understanding of what causes us to get charlie horses or muscle cramps.
Common Causes of Muscle Cramps
Unfortunately, no one knows what causes them. Not really.
But there are currently two prominent theories.
Electrolyte Imbalance and Dehydration
The long-held belief has been that muscle cramps are caused by a combination of dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. Early research from the early 20th century helped to cement this belief for decades.
Real-life experiences such as running in the middle of the summer and sweating profusely also seemed to confirm the belief that dehydration or electrolyte imbalance is a likely cause.
One recent research study tried to confirm the theory, but decided that the in lab testing of a forced contraction wasn’t the same as a spontaneous one from exercise.
Meanwhile a lot of runners have shown anecdotal evidence that starting to use electrolyte tablets consistently made a difference.
A few recent studies have shown that some cramps are likely caused by abnormal motor neuron activity that occurs during muscle fatigue from over use.
When muscles fatigue, muscle receptors alter neuron reflexes to deliver more messages to the muscle to contract while at the same time blocking messages for the muscles to relax.
In other words, some scientists now believe that certain cramps are caused by an odd neurological phenomenon that makes Overused muscles contract strongly and not relaxso they cramp up.
I’ve been running for almost 20 years, and I struggled with cramps for about 3 of those years. It was miserable! I can still remember being unable to walk to the hotel after a marathon and waking up in sheer agony in the middle of the night.
Now, I can tell you my calves were definitely doing too much work AND during that time I wasn’t using electrolytes.
So what did I do to put them in my review mirror??
4 Quick Tips for Preventing Muscle Cramps
I made some changes to my routine to help prevent muscle cramps, and now I, thankfully, no longer deal with them.
However, I remember that every time a cramp would strike, my first thought was always, “how do I get rid of this cramp fast?”
1. I started paying attention to good running formensuring I was not running on the ball of my foot and overworking my calf muscles.
2. My hydration improved. I found that including electrolyte drinks every daynot just sometimes during a run was a big shift in how my muscles felt.
3. I started supplementing with just what I needed. Magnesium for athletes is huge in helping muscles to relax and perform optimally, so that was one piece.
4. My diet improved. I started thinking about the best runner’s diet for endurancewhich was going to be filled with not just enough calories, but nutrients like potassium, calcium, and B vitamins.
Those tips can help combat the cause of muscle cramps and prevent them from happening.
However, if you are dealing with painful muscle cramps, I have a way to help you relieve them quickly: drinking pickle juice.
Pickle Juice as a Cure for Leg Cramps
I know, it sounds a little odd, right?
If you’re used to the old reliable recommendations of drinking sports drinks to replenish electrolytes, you might think I’m a little off my rocker for suggesting pickle juice for cramps.
But hear me out…
Pickle juice has become a popular remedy for leg cramps in the past few years. You’ll find runners who swear it works better than other remedies, yet there’s little solid scientific evidence showing how it works.
This leaves many runners wondering if pickle juice is good for cramps.
Does pickle juice work to relieve leg cramps?
Thanks to the popularity of drinking pickle juice during adventure races to relieve exercise-associated muscle cramps (EAMCs), there has been a little bit of research dedicated to investigating its effects.
At this point, the studies that researchers have conducted thus far can’t explain how or why it works.
For a while, researchers theorized that the electrolytes and sodium in pickle juice helped to relieve leg cramps.
However, one study from 2014 disproved that theory after it showed that drinking pickle juice did not replenish electrolytes or lost fluid levels.
This is because the amount of time it takes for electrolytes to be absorbed into the body is much longer than it takes for a muscle cramp to appear and disappear.
BUT then, Kevin Miller et al. from North Dakota State University conducted a study in 2010 that found that drinking pickle juice did shorten the duration of leg cramps, working in an average of 1.5 minutes.
Finally another group of scientists wanted to compare the efficacy of pickle juice when compared to a placebo effect. Their study from 2014 shows that drinking pickle is more effective and isn’t simple a placebo effect.
Here is the best theory on why pickle juice works:
Based on research findings, the current theory is that when pickle juice (specifically, the acetic acid vinegar in pickle juice) contacts the nerve receptors in the back of the throat, It triggers the nervous system to shut down overactive neurons throughout the body and relieves the cramp duration (by as much as 25%!).
Although more research is needed to prove this theory, runners (especially ultramarathon runners) anecdotally know it works.
And when you’re in the throws of a massive cramp, it’s really not going to hurt to try it! Bonus points for some hydration and sodium that you probably need anyways.
Are there effective alternatives to pickle juice for cramps?
Researchers used the juice from Vlasic dill pickles in their studies.
Would eating a dill pickle be as effective as drinking the juice?
What about the runners who hate pickles? Do they have to gag down pickle juice, or are there effective alternatives?
How about apple cider vinegar or yellow mustard? Or maybe other fermented products such as kombucha, kimchi juice, or even sauerkraut could work just as well? Some of these only have vinegar, while others also have a similar salt content.
Over time, pickle juice has proven to be very effective. Other similar foods haven’t been studied as much as pickle juice has, so they may work just as well – but no one knows for sure.
There’s no harm in trying them as long as you consider the potential side effects before you dive in. In other words, this is a lot like recovery methods…test to see what works for you. Belief is half the battle.
How to Effectively Use Pickle Juice to Relieve Cramps
Researchers found that you don’t need much pickle juice to see the benefits – about 1 mL per kg of body weight was an effective dose.
That came out to be 2 – 3 fluid ounces for the average study participant. With this in mind, a practical way for athletes to intake pickle juice could be to take “a shot” of pickle juice.
Obviously, running your race while carrying a jar of pickles isn’t feasible.
But if you have had to deal with inconvenient cramping during races or exercise, try finding a small 2 – 3 ounce bottle that you can tuck into your pocket or your waistband. You might find some quick relief from those agonizing leg cramps!
Keep in mind that because scientists believe vinegar is the ingredient that provides cramp relief, avoid watering down the pickle brine.
When do you drink pickle juice for cramps?
The protocol is basically to drink it immediately when you start to feel the onset of a cramp.
Basically any remedy for cramps is ideal to use before it really gets going, which is one reason we try drinking electorlytes consistently.
Does pickle juice stop cramps immediately?
Not immediately – but it’s one of the quickest remedies.
Studies showed pickle juice worked to relieve leg cramps in about 1.5 minutes, which is (thankfully) much faster than it would take the body to absorb the electrolytes from a sports drink.
Which pickle juice is best for cramps?
Research has shown that dill pickle juice from Vlasic Pickles is effective.
Since the research findings indicate that the acetic acid from the vinegar in pickle juice is the likely beneficial ingredient, feel free to try using any dill pickle juice.
Possible Downsides to Drinking Pickle Juice for Muscle Cramps
There are doctors who have concerns that drinking pickle juice will relieve that “thirsty feeling,” and the sodium will make dehydration worse.
Studies have shown that it doesn’t worsen dehydration or relieve the feeling of being thirsty, especially in the small amounts recommended (2 – 3 ounces).
Also, anyone who keeps a close eye on their sodium intake or has high blood pressure should use pickle juice sparingly since it does contain high levels of sodium.
Finally, pickle juice ingestion can potentially compound symptoms for anyone who has digestive ailments like runner’s diarrheawhich makes sense because it’s an acid.
Using Pickle Juice for Cramps Conclusion
Studying muscle cramps and the pickle juice remedy has provided some interesting conclusions.Which as usual, could always use more studies, but make it worth trying.
First, pickle juice works surprisingly well and cuts down muscle cramp duration between 25% and 50%.
Second, the fact that pickle juice works so well – and so quickly – provides evidence that at least some muscle cramps are caused by a nervous system glitch that leaves overused muscles in a contraction state.
Bottom line, occasional use of pickle juice for exercise-associated muscle cramps should be safe for most people. However, if you have any concerns, please talk to your doctor before trying it.
Looking for more natural ideas to help with cramps or stomach issues?
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