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.
“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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