The question of cramping came up in a chat session with some running enthusiasts the other day, and pickle juice was mentioned as a possible solution to the problem. I guess I would have laughed a little more loudly if I hadn't read the same thing in a recent edition of Outside magazine.
Most runners or athletes have had a muscle cramp at one time or another, and we can all agree they are no fun. Somehow we manage to endure the pain and try to go on. And everyone has an opinion on what to do in order to keep the cramp from happening. I've heard people attribute cramps to dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, glycogen shortage and a host of other possibilities. I have a couple of suspicions myself, one of which involves the chairs at the Village Inn restaurants.
I kid you not.
It doesn't matter if I've run an easy five miles, or completed a hard speed workout, or gone to the pool for a masters' swim. Within five minutes of sitting down for a meal at the Village Inn it's guaranteed I will have a massive cramp in one or both of my hamstrings. And we're not talking the 'ouch, that's a cramp,' cramps. I'm talking about the type of cramp which is able to literally pitch a guy off the side of the chair and on to the floor. The type of cramp which makes grown men cry like seven year-olds who have just been told Santa Claus is fiction.
So now I sit at a booth. And I still believe in Santa Claus.
The Outside magazine piece took on several commonly-held beliefs about exercise and physical activity. When it came to the subject of cramps, runners have been told by the running cognoscenti they were caused by dehydration. Other smart people said the cramps were caused by a lack of electrolytes. Some even hold on to the belief that a lack of fuel (glycogen) is the cause.
I'm one of those who considers the fuel theory of cramping to be a strong possibility. It stems a great deal from what I've read of the Central Governor Model for Exercise, originally written about in the 1920s by Nobel laureate Archibald Hill and expanded on by physician, physiologist, marathoner and ultra-marathoner Dr. Timothy Noakes about ten years ago. Noakes' theory says, basically, our brain pretty much calculates a safe level of exertion based on past exercise experiences, metabolic state, and the intended duration of the exercise activity.
For those of you who might remember the old Star Trek series, exercise is like having the Enterprise getting hit with photon torpedoes and taking on damage. And, naturally, Captain Kirk would tell Mr. Scott in engineering to shut down everything except for life support. Okay, I'm glad we kept life support up. Duh.
Noakes writes that our central governor is going to hold back fuel (glycogen) to keep the heart, brain, and lungs alive, shutting down the fuel source to muscle fibers here and muscle fibers there. That's the reason fatigue sets in, our stride gets choppy and our range of motion decreases. Once more fuel comes to play, or the exercise bout ends, the brain recognizes the threat is over and returns (eventually) to normal function - homeostasis.
This old coach's take? The cramp either comes along because of too many muscle fibers being shut down, or from some sort of nerve-related thing (in my own personal case with the Village Inn chairs, pressure).
So why does ten milliliters - less than three ounces - of pickle juice seem to take care of cramping? Some think it has to do with a quick burst of electrolytes. Others think the tart, salty taste of brine causes a disruption in the nervous system...confuses the nerves.
A fitness enthusiast (who just happens to sell an electrolyte balancing beverage) believes the cramp comes as a result of an electrolyte imbalance. Sodium contracts muscle cells and potassium relaxes them. Calcium signals the sodium ion channel to open to begin the contraction cycle. Magnesium then encourages potassium to rush in which relaxes the cell. When a cramp happens, it’s the elements in charge of the relaxing half of the cycle, magnesium and potassium, that are missing.
Pickle juice is predominantly vinegar, which is another form of acetic acid. Acetic acid is used to treat individuals with high blood sodium levels. So, in the mind of this person, lower the sodium level in comparison to the potassium, and you may not begin the cramp.
But Schwellnus, Nicol, Laubscher, and Noakes found in 2004 there were no significant differences between two groups of ultramarathoners - those who cramped up during a race, and those who did not - for pre-race or post-race body weight, percent change in body weight, blood volume, plasma volume, or red cell volume. The immediate post-race serum sodium concentration was significantly lower in the cramp group than in the group which did not suffer from cramping. The immediate post-race serum magnesium concentration was significantly higher in the group of runners who suffered from cramping. There also were no major differences in hydration status in runners who suffered from cramps after participating in an ultra-distance race.
The cause of exercise-associated muscle cramps is probably a little closer to our brains and our nervous system than we care to admit. We might be able to drink it away with pickle juice, but all of the preventatives are more myth than truth.
I believe in fuel, and I still believe in Santa.