Science be damned, football players are drinking pickle juice to try to ward off cramps

Washington Post | Sports | High School Sports
By: Jacob Bogage September 22, 2016

That bottle doesn’t have water in it. Or Ga­tor­ade. Or anything you might want to chug down.

There is, instead, pickle juice: briny and sour with seeds floating to the top, acidic enough to sting the back of your throat and make you reevaluate the decision to drink it.

Thirsty? Not anymore.

And yet football teams nationwide — from high schools into the college and professional ranks — are keeping pickle juice on their benches and in their cafeterias to ward off cramps and fight dehydration, regardless of the lack of science demonstrating its efficacy.

Lackey High School running back Malik Burns couldn’t get enough of the stuff after a broiling night game earlier this season.

“It was very hot outside, so when [my coach] said something about the pickle juice, I went for it,” he said. “It tasted pretty good, and it helped out a lot. That was one of the first games where I didn’t cramp.”

Coaches and athletes alike have sworn by it for decades, pointing to its sodium content as a way to help retain moisture and electrolytes.

“Most athletes walk around in a dehydrated state,” said Randy Bird, director of sports nutrition at the University of Virginia. “It’s not an acute problem; it’s a gradual problem throughout the week. So Monday they practice and don’t properly hydrate, and Tuesday they do it again. And then, bam, it’s Saturday, and they’re very dehydrated.”

Coaches and nutrition specialists have turned to all kinds of remedies to keep athletes hydrated and stocked up on electrolytes.

The University of Maryland football team passes out pickle juice to players as a post-practice refreshment.

A manager on the Lackey team is in charge of a three-gallon jug of kosher dills and keeps a squirt bottle full of the juice. Trainers keep mustard packets on the sideline for players to gulp down during stoppages.

Bullis Coach Pat Cilento switched two years ago from pickle juice to apple cider vinegar. Players get a shot of it in a Dixie cup on Thursdays and two more on Fridays. During Cilento’s one-year stint at Sherwood, in 2009, the Warriors kept a bottle of pickle juice on the sideline during games. Upperclassmen would toss the bottle to underclassmen as a prank during timeouts.

“Normally we would put tape around it so everyone would know, but then they would rip the tape off,” Cilento says now with a laugh. “They knew what they were doing.”

But the actual impact of pickle juice — or any kind of salty fluid — is less well known.

“It’s definitely been something that’s been around for a while,” said Colleen Davis, director of sports nutrition at Maryland. “But the biggest thing as a dietitian is thinking about more than one thing. I don’t think pickle juice is a sole factor in preventing or alleviating cramps.”

And there isn’t any science that says pickle juice or vinegar or mustard packets prevent cramps, Bird said.

Cramps are caused by a lot of things, such as dehydration, an electrolyte imbalance or a lack of carbohydrate fuel. Some cramps are even caused by hiccups in the nervous system that cause muscles to get stuck in the “on” position, Bird said.

But a 2010 study conducted by researchers at North Dakota State and Brigham Young universities found that ingesting pickle juice right before or during a game doesn’t have much of an effect. The extra sodium that might ward off a cramp doesn’t reach the blood stream in time to be preventative. And athletes drink such a small amount of the stuff that it’s not enough sodium to really make a difference regardless.

In other words, those shots of apple cider vinegar and the mustard packets may be more torture than they are helpful.

But the acid found in the pickle juice, vinegar and mustard does help alleviate cramps, the study concluded. A cramp induced by researchers lasted two minutes on average. Those cramps lasted 30 seconds shorter when test subjects drank pickle juice during the experiment. When subjects drank water, there was no change.

Researchers argue that the acid in the liquid reacts with nerves in your throat that somehow calm your cramping muscle in less than a minute.

Science aside, though, coaches across the area still turn to the liquid to keep their players on the field — and figure to continue to.

Friendship Collegiate linebacker-fullback Hassan Terry felt a cramp in his right calf earlier this month during a game against Carroll. As the Knights’ trainer tended to Terry on the sideline, the trainer shouted to the bench: “Get the pickle juice!”

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Frozen Pickle Juice

Folks getting pickled for pickle juice

By BOB HANSEN / for The Hawk Eye | Posted Feb 12, 2017 at 12:01 AM | Updated Feb 12, 2017 at 2:30 AM

Pass up that sugary Slurpee and don’t spend money on over-priced energy drinks because there’s a new taste concoction in Burlington. It’s semi-frozen pickle juice — the slushy taste adventure created from the briny liquid left in the bottom of the jar when the last gherkin has been grabbed.

Presently, pickle proponents can purchase the slushy mix only at a local roller skating facility and the concession stand at Notre Dame High School basketball games. However, pickle promoters hope it might find wider acceptance.

The pickle pops first flowered at the local basketball games when a group of concessionaire volunteers noted the pickled cucumbers were enjoying a steady demand from young customers. But after the large gallon jars had been emptied, there still was a considerable amount of salty and vinegary liquid left behind.

The parsimonious pickle pushers were reluctant to dump the brine and began to explore freezing it for sale. Immediately, the experimenters learned the high salt content prevented the mix from becoming solid and a true pickle pop could not be offered. The best they could achieve was a semi-frozen soup.

Nevertheless, the volunteers persisted and offered the slush in individual plastic serving cups. Soon, students and fans were watching the basketball action with their noses buried in small white cups

Karen Marino, who helps out at the Notre Dame concession counter, reported the juice has been offered for sale for at least two years. “I’m not really a pickle person,” she explained, “so I don’t understand the attraction. But they seem to be what the kids want.

“They are so popular that we tried another variation; using cherry juice that we had left over but that is not nearly as good a seller. But pickle pops do well, and we make about $11 out of every jar of liquid that we used to throw out.”

Coulter Fruehling, a student at Notre Dame who often purchases a pickle cup when he attends his school’s ballgames, said the attraction is the strong salt taste.

“You pick up some of the pickle taste but it is mainly the salt that I like and I have a lot of friends that buy it for the same reason,” he said.

At Kenny’s Roller Ranch, owner Tim Barraclough considers the Notre Dame pickle purveyors a pack of late-comers, for he claims he has been offering cups of frozen brine since 2001, when his daughter in North Carolina told him of the treats popularity in that state.

“It has been a regular here for a long time but we don’t make it out of any type of pickle juice. We go for the kosher dill because of the strong garlic taste,” Barraclough said.

Unfrozen pickle juice long has been recognized for its restorative qualities by high endurance athletes. Athletes often will quaff about one-third of a cup for an almost instantaneous relief of muscle cramps. The salt restores an electrolyte balance while the vinegar stops nerve signals from cramped muscles.

Burlington’s George VanHagen, physical therapist assistant at Great River Medical Center, also can attest to the competitive advantages gained from drinking pickle juice. In November, he attended the USA Cycling Summit in Colorado Springs and the brine was the subject for discussion.

Jennifer O’Donnell-Giles told the athletes and medical professionals attending the conference pickle juice has been the rage in the race circuit for the last few seasons. She cited a study at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, that found the juice has a positive impact on the body’s electrolytes and prevents muscle cramps.

But regardless of the causation, athletes are turning to pickle juice as part of their pre-race preparation.

There also are arguments regular shots of pickle juice can have long-term health benefits. It can act as a shield against the dreaded free radicals, promote weight loss and aid the digestive system. A less beneficial — yet enjoyable quality — is it makes a great “dirty martini” when mixed with vodka.

The miracle of pickle juice plays out even in the kitchen, where it is used for cleaning the bottom of copper pots.

It appears there is little pickle juice cannot do, so the skaters and basketball fans downing the ice mix may be on the cutting edge of the next great trend in health drinks.

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