Thursday, December 17, 2015

Does pickle juice stop cycling leg cramps?

Leg cramps are a cyclist's nightmare.  They usually crop up toward the end of the ride, just as you are thinking about that cold beer waiting for you at the finish!  Why do athletes get cramps, what can you do to prevent them, and how can you get rid of the cramps quickly once they have started?  The answers may surprise you.

First, conventional wisdom has been that cramps are caused by dehydration and loss of electrolytes. The thought is that you should drink an electrolyte replenishing drink such as one made with Nuun or Gu tablets to prevent the cramps.  However, several recent studies have cast doubt on this mechanism as the cause.   Certainly athletes still need to stay hydrated and keep their electrolytes in balance as since dehydration will affect your performance and health in other ways.  But, recent studies point to a failure of a neuro-muscular mechanism that prevents extreme muscle contractions as the most likely cause of cramps.  The nerves that keep the muscle from going into extreme contractions fail and your muscle goes into a cramp.  Your hydration level does not appear to have much affect on when this occurs and re-hydration doesn't change the duration of the cramp significantly.

If the cramps are caused by fatigue and confused muscle contraction signals, then what can be done to avoid them?  There are a few things you can do before the ride that will help.  Since you are more likely to get to the levels of fatigue that cause cramps when you ride in a competitive event when you push yourself, one way to reduce the chance of cramps is to have your training mimic the event in duration and intensity.  This way you will be less likely to develop the level of fatigue that leads to cramps.  Another thing you can do is develop a self awareness of how your legs are doing.  This awareness will enable you to predict when the cramps are about to happen and adjust your intensity down slightly before the cramps start. I have done this on rides in the past and it has even helped after the cramps have started.  I was able to continue the rides by reducing the intensity and stretching my legs during the ride.

Once the cramp develops you can't keep riding at your previous pace.  You may need to stop at and take some action if backing off the intensity of your riding doesn't make it go away. Things that work to relieve the cramps are light stretching, rest, water, and pickle juice.  The stretching can be done on the bike, for example, standing on the pedals and dropping your heels in order to stretch your calves.  Rest and water will help as well, but studies have shown that a 2.5 ounce shot of pickle juice is more effective at making the cramp go away than drinking lots of water.  One particular study showed that pickle juice “relieved a cramp 45 percent faster” versus drinking no fluids and 37 percent faster versus drinking water.  Indeed the time it took for the pickle juice to affect the cramp was quicker than the time it would take for the electrolytes to be absorbed through the digestive system and into the blood stream.  The blood levels showed no determinable increase in the level of electrolytes during the test which supports the theory that it was not electrolytes that caused the cramps.  The hypothesis is that the vinegar in the pickle juice stimulates nerve receptors in the throat or stomach that then send out signals that reset the fatigue induced mis-firing caused muscle contractions.

Now, you can get your pickle juice from that jar of Vlassic dill pickles, but it is kind of hard to carry on a bike ride.  Fortunately, one company makes a handy 2.5 ounce pickle juice shot size that you can carry in your cycling jersey pocket or your saddlebag for when those unwanted cramps try to ruin your perfect ride.  You can get them online from Amazon here  or if you live in the Oakdale area you can go by the Oakdale Bike Shop.  Go ahead and get some to take with you on your next ride, your legs will thank you, even if your taste buds won't!

On a separate note, for those rides over two hours in duration you should be thinking about using an carbohydrate replenishing drink such as Gu Roctane to keep your glycogen levels up so you don't bonk.  Why you should do this will be the subject of a future post.  Until the next time, happy cramp free riding to you!

1 comment:

  1. Hi dear. Thanks for sharing this important information. I really don't know that pickle juice is effective for leg cramp relief. Actually, my younger brother loves cycling. Every day he is cycling 7-8 km and at night, he feel leg cramp pain. And he is using Limb bar which is a specially formulated mineral bar and get relax. But I will suggest him to take this juice with his medicine. Hope it will also help him.