From wearing old, retired running shoes around the house until the soles are worn through, ripping up an old t-shirt to make a neck gaiter for dusty or cold-weather runs, or reusing the safety pins on our race bibs until they snap in two, we try to squeeze as much out of our running gear as we do our bodies.
If you’re one of the creative runners who is a fan of repurposing and conserving, this may pique your interest: drinking pickle juice for cramps.
That’s right. Some runners and athletes guzzle the salty, vinegary brine your favorite pickles come packed in in lieu of sports drinks or other electrolyte beverages. Some people believe pickle juice can be a viable substitute and reduce the risk of muscle cramps during your workout.
Gross to some, intriguing to others, but does it work? Can pickle juice for cramps really work? In this guide, we will look at the pros and cons of drinking pickle juice and the potential effectiveness of pickle juice for cramps.
In this article, we will cover:
- What Is Pickle Juice?
- The Nutritional Content of Pickle Juice
- Why Do Some People Drink Pickle Juice During Exercise or After Workouts?
- Pickle Juice For Cramps: Does It Actually Help With Cramps?
- Pickle Juice For Cramps: The Takeaway
Let’s get started!
What Is Pickle Juice?
Pickles are essentially made by sealing cucumbers in a salt and water solution. Lactobacillus bacteria, which normally inhabit the skin of cucumbers then ferment the sugars in the cucumber when they are sealed off from oxygen.
After several weeks of fermenting, the cucumbers are pickled—or are transformed into what we know as pickles. The brining liquid surrounding the now pickles is called pickle juice.
Therefore, depending on how the pickles are made and processed, pickle juice is mostly water with some sodium.
Most conventional pickles on grocery store shelves are pasteurized, which means that vinegar is added to the pickle juice during the fermentation process, which kills the beneficial bacteria. As such, pickle juice leftover in your jar of most grocery store pickles is a solution of water, salt, and vinegar.
Unpasteurized pickles do not typically have vinegar added, which means that the Lactobacillus bacteria that ferment the cucumbers into pickles survive intact. For this reason, unpasteurized pickle juice also contains probiotics.
The Nutritional Content of Pickle Juice
According to the US Department of Agriculture, 100ml (3.4 fluid ounces) of generic pickle juice contains the following:
- Sodium: 342 mg
- Potassium: 29 mg
- Zinc: 2.5 mg
- Vitamin C: 7.5 mg
However, the exact nutrient profile for pickle juice depends on the actual product you are drinking and whether the pickle juice is pasteurized. Other sources cite that a 3.5 fluid ounce serving of pickle juice usually contains:
- Carbohydrates: 0.4 grams
- Sodium: 50–115% of the RDI
- Potassium: 3% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 3% of the RDI
- Calcium: 1–5% of the recommended dietary intake (RDI)
Needless to say, pickle juice is mostly an electrolyte-based solution with little nutritional content beyond four electrolytes—sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium—and a little zinc and vitamin C.
In terms of calories, plain pickle juice usually contains from 2-10 calories per cup, as it does not contain any protein or fat, and the carbohydrate content is minimal unless sweeteners or other vegetables like beets and carrots are added.
Note that unpasteurized pickle juice usually does not contain vinegar, but does have probiotics, which are the beneficial bacteria that reside in your gut microbiome. For this reason, unpasteurized pickle juice can offer additional health benefits attributable to the probiotics.
Why Do Some People Drink Pickle Juice During Exercise or After Workouts?
For example, if you weigh 150 pounds and begin a workout in a euhydrated (properly hydrated) state, you want to drink enough fluids during your workout such that you don’t lose any more than 3 pounds of water weight (through sweat and water vapor in expired gasses). Beyond this point—and potentially a bit before—your exercise performance will suffer.
However, drinking water is one thing—after all, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement asserts that plain water should be fine before, during, and after workouts lasting an hour or less, provided you have a well-balanced diet, an average sweat rate, and didn’t have an extremely intense workout—but pickle juice?
The reason some athletes and runners drink pickle juice during exercise is to not only provide the fluid component of hydration but electrolytes as well. In a nutshell, pickle juice is the alternative hack to Gatorade, Powerade, or other sports beverages.
Electrolytes—primarily sodium and potassium, but magnesium and calcium to some degree as well—are also an important consideration with hydration.
Electrolytes are lost in sweat and need to remain in certain concentrations in the bloodstream for proper physiological functions such as nerve conduction, skeletal muscle contraction, and heart muscle contractions.
Moreover, electrolytes have been found to increase the absorption of water. For these reasons, replacing electrolytes in the fluids you ingest before or after running or exercising can ensure your body stays well hydrated and firing on all cylinders so to speak.
Some runners choose to pop electrolyte tablets into their water, others drink commercial sports beverages, and still, others fill their water bottles with pickle juice.
Pickle Juice For Cramps: Does It Actually Help?
As mentioned, electrolytes like sodium and potassium play a key role in the contraction and relaxation of muscle fibers.
Muscle cramps can occur when the muscle contracts but does not receive the signal to relax.
For this reason, there is some evidence to suggest that electrolytes during exercise can help prevent muscle cramps. By keeping the ratios of sodium and potassium stable and normal, muscles are thought to be able to continue contracting and relaxing while you exercise as normal.
This all makes sense in theory, and while pickle juice does contain sodium and potassium, there’s not an overwhelming body of evidence clearly demonstrating that pickle juice for cramps is a sure-fire solution.
Some small studies have shown that ingesting pickle juice can reduce the duration of leg cramps during exercise.
However, another study found that ingesting pickle juice during exercise didn’t actually change blood plasma electrolyte levels, pointing to either a placebo effect of the drink or that some other mechanism of action is behind the ability of pickle juice to alleviate muscle cramps.
Researchers from another study found that people drank more water after exercise if they had been ingesting pickle juice during the workout (maybe to get rid of the taste!), perhaps indicating that rehydration after exercising is improved if you drink pickle juice during your workout rather than water.
We know that dehydration isn’t good, so the sooner and more fully you rehydrate after exercise, the better. If getting there is easier with pickle juice, so be it.
Finally, the researchers from the study that found drinking pickle juice reduced cramp duration theorized that the vinegar in the pickle juice—not the electrolytes—triggers a reflex in the mouth that signals the nerves to stop firing the cramping the muscle.
Pickle Juice for Cramps: The Takeaway
So, whether you start draining your pickles into your water bottles instead of mixing up your usual sports drink, or prefer to just stick with what you know, there’s some evidence to believe that pickle juice for cramps may be helpful for runners.
Note that most pickle juice is relatively high in sodium since the cucumbers are fermented in saline brine, so if you have high blood pressure, kidney issues, or other medical concerns, speak with your doctor before drinking pickle juice during your runs.
So what have you decided? When heading out on your next run are you going to fill that water bottle up with pickle juice instead of your regular hydration, or stick to what you know? Who knows, if you give it a try you may be just one of those lucky ones who it works for!
Pickle juice for cramps aside, if you are interested in trying out some of the best snacks for runners, or taking a stab at making your own alternatives to energy sources like gels and gummies, take a look at these next articles and get ready to cook!