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My new running nutrition reality: A pickle a day to keep the cramps away

Posted Jul 26 2011 4:04pm

I’ve known about the effects of pickles on athletes for years. Remember the Eagles-Cowboys football game in 2000? And just last year, the official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine released the details of a study that suggested that pickle juice stops muscle cramps.

I only recently gave into the pickle party, and with just a few dill runs under my belt, I’m not ready to proclaim that my cramping is gone, but I will say this: Running has felt easier lately.

Junk science or pickle power? I’ll get back to you when I know for certain.

Back to the pickle study. Researchers at BYU had three groups cycle for 30 minutes until they had lost three percent of their bodyweight in sweat. The researchers then induced electrically charged cramps in the big toes of each cyclist. They gave one group of cyclists pickle juice, another  group water, and another group got nothing.

The cyclists drinking the pickle juice saw their cramps go away within 85 seconds, while it took water drinkers 134 seconds to get rid of their cramps. Those who drank nothing saw their cramps last 153 seconds.

Because there is such a widespread belief that sweating – a loss of electrolytes – causes muscle cramping, it would be easy to equate the cessation of muscle cramping to the ingestion of sodium and potassium found in pickles.

But that’s impossible, the researchers say, because it would take 20 minutes or more for all the contents of that pickle to leave your stomach, pass through your small intestine, and then be absorbed by your blood to be carried to the cramping muscles. And remember, the cyclists who drank the pickle juice in this study saw their cramps ease up in less than 90 seconds. In fact, the researchers measured the blood and urine of each of the cyclists and found no change in sodium, potassium, magnesium, or other levels.

Instead, the researchers say that the pickle juice acts on neural reflexes — a reasonable suggestion, given that earlier experiments have found that vinegar can provoke reflexes and affect neurotransmitter levels.

From the study: “Pickle juice, and not deionized water, inhibits electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans. This effect could not be explained by rapid restoration of body fluids or electrolytes. We suspect that the rapid inhibition of the electrically induced cramps reflects a neurally mediated reflex that originates in the oropharyngeal region and acts to inhibit the firing of alpha motor neurons of the cramping muscle.”

I know. I know. Real hifalutin stuff. But I need to figure out something to stop my muscles from spasming in hot weather on long runs. And if pickles are gonna get me a Boston Qualifying time, then I will eat them every day if I have to.

And it’s a good thing that I love the taste of them as well.

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