I’ll go ahead and risk the Jeff Foxworthy comparisons and frame it like this: If you’ve ever thanked the Lord Almighty for the blessing of a putrid, warm, yellow-green mouthful of pickle vinegar … you might be a gravel cyclist.
Gravel cycling’s grossest leg cramp remedy is so engrained in my long-ride routine by now that I’ve convinced myself it tastes good. I’ve chased powdered doughnuts with pickle juice at checkpoints and not even found it odd. My fridge is littered with little single-serving bottles huddled around their mother ship. And at odd domestic moments—folding laundry or scrubbing skillets—I catch myself wanting to pop open that jug and take a medically unnecessary swig.
For gravel cyclists, it’s a love born of desperation. When you’re 30 miles from the finish on some remote B-road and your hamstrings draw into guitar strings, getting to the line becomes a medically complicated endeavor. But if you down one miracle mouthful of that stuff, very often, the electric pain loosens. And instead of lying there drawing spasmodic angels in the dirt, you uncurl. You ride on in one piece. It’s flipping amazing.
But how does it work?
Sports science has long offered a partial explanation that they know damn well has never matched what we see on the road. That theory goes like this.
Pickle juice is salty as hell. And lots of endurance exercise induced leg cramps are associated with salt depletion and dehydration. So you drink something salty (or, “replenish your electrolytes,” if you prefer marketing bullshit), and bang! Cramp gone.
There’s no doubt your body needs that salt back. But here’s the thing. There’s no way on God’s gravelly Earth that the salt in that brine could have surfed down your gullet, navigated your gut, hitched a ride in your bloodstream and beat it to the affected muscle in the time it takes to work.
Something Else is happening.
Is it placebo effect? Does pickle juice work because I believe it works? I can’t discount that. But I can say my first drinks of the pickle juice Kool-Aid were done with utter faithlessness. I was sure it was bunk. Until my calf magically unlocked.
I’ve only recently read a more convincing explanation as to how pickle juice works. The latest theory has nothing to do with fancy-pants electrolytes and everything to do with that obnoxious flavor.
For our muscles to work properly, they have to answer to two masters in rapid rhythm. There’s the signal that says, “Contract!” quickly followed by another signal telling the muscle, “relax…” With a cramp, the fatigued muscle is overwhelmed by overexcited neurons sending that contraction message. The “relax” message gets brushed aside, and our entire lifeforce sings out in hot pain. In severe cases, we envy the dead.
The strong flavor of the pickle juice may trigger a neural reflex in the mouth or throat. That reflex may serve to jolt the overexcited alpha motor neurons that put your leg in lockdown. Those neurons reset, and the message to “CONTRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAACT!” flips back to “contract.” The countering message to relax can finally make it through again.
And, congratulations. You might just get to finish your race.
This neuromuscular interruption theory got me thinking about other pickle applications. On a training ride with Marty and me in what was a difficult May, the young Dr. Addison Killeen experienced his first heart arrhythmia. His heartrate jumped north of 200 bpm and stuck there like gum in hair. It was scary.
Dr. Addison sat in the grass, all calmness around the thrashing fish in his chest. Dr. Marty coolly called their brother for a ride to the hospital. And I quietly lost my shit.
Marty’s next call was to our teammate, Mike, a nurse anesthetist. He asked Mike what we might try to yank Addison back into a normal rhythm. Mike’s suggestions all involved attempts at vagus nerve interruption. Dowse him down with ice water. (We didn’t have any.) Hold your breath, squat and try to push that air out. Pretend you’re taking a crap in a cornfield. Push. Lie down on your back and hold your knees against your chest. Squeeeeeze.
None of it worked then. And Addison’s heart only wondered back into normal rhythm on its own terms while they were sitting around at the hospital.
Weeks later, when I interviewed Corey Cornbread Godfrey (who happens to know a great deal about heart arrhythmias), he talked about rubbing your eyes and throat as another way to stimulate that nerve back into normal activity. Interesting stuff.
Had I known this theory about pickle juice triggering neural reflexes then, I’d have given Addison a heavy dose there on the trail. Would that have been enough to jar Addison’s heart out of arrhythmia? Maybe not. (I’ve never heard or read anything to suggest pickle juice has any value in calming arrhythmias in the past. I just wonder.) After all, I’ve bet against the magic pickle before and been wrong.