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Close-up photo of an athlete holding onto her leg as she gets a cramp during exercise. Learn if pickle juice for cramps can really help in this article.

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Wait, Can Pickle Juice Actually Relieve Muscle Cramps During Exercise?

Why do so many athletes swear by a sip of pickle juice when cramps strike? We asked experts to break it down.

By Jessica MigalaMarch 12, 2024


Some athletes sip on water, sports drinks, or coconut water to fuel their workouts. Others drink pickle juice or munch on a crunchy pickle to fend off cramps during exercise. If the latter approach made you do a double-take, you might be surprised to learn that pickle juice may actually help relieve muscle cramps from exercise. 

While pickle juice for cramps isn’t a surefire cure, some evidence suggests a sip or two may provide quick relief. We spoke with a sports medicine doctor and a sports dietitian about what you need to know about muscle cramps during a workout, from why they happen to how to treat and prevent them—with a salty sip of pickle juice or otherwise.

What Causes Muscle Cramps During a Workout?

If you’ve ever felt a muscle seize up suddenly, you know that muscle cramps can be painful. A muscle cramp—or what your grandpa might call a charley horse—is defined as a sudden, involuntary contraction or spasm that’s often triggered by exercise, according to the National Library of Medicine.

There are a number of reasons why you might get a muscle cramp during exercise, says Lara Morgan Lee, MD, a board-certified sports medicine physician in Chicago. One possible explanation, in particular, is that when you sweat a lot (especially in high heat), you can get dehydrated and your electrolyte levels can get thrown out of whack, leading to unvited muscle cramps. “The theory is that muscles have a higher tendency to contract [under these conditions], so it makes sense that muscle cramps may happen on a hot, sunny day when you’re exercising for a longer period of time,” she says.

That said, it’s not completely clear if dehydration or electrolyte imbalance alone triggers cramps. After all, you can still cramp up at the beginning of your workout or when you’ve been exercising in an indoor, temperature-controlled environment, Dr. Lee points out.

Muscle cramps may also be neuromuscular in nature. That means your cramps could be tied to how your muscles and nerves work together to help you move. The communication pathways that control neuromuscular function may glitch, triggering a problem that makes the muscle cramp, Dr. Lee explains.

Likely, there may be some combination of the two (a neuromuscular cause and a dehydration or electrolyte cause) behind a muscle spasm, Dr. Lee says, something that’s reflected in a review published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2022. There are other potential causes of exercise-induced muscle cramps, too, such as muscle fatigue and not eating a balanced diet.

Is Pickle Juice Good for Cramps?

Long story short: Pickle juice may help relieve muscle cramps, and while more research is needed, experts say it generally can’t hurt to try.

According to a 2020 analysis published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, both yellow mustard and pickle juice were found to be the most practical foods for potentially preventing or treating muscle cramps in athletes. And a 2010 study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that a few sips of pickle juice inhibited electrically induced muscle cramps in healthy men. 

But what makes pickle juice an option even worth considering in the first place?

First, let’s talk sodium. It’s often assumed that because pickle juice is chock-full of salt—about 3 ounces of pickle juice contains 342 milligrams of sodium, or roughly 15 percent of your daily value—you’re feeding muscles a necessary electrolyte (sodium) to relieve a cramp.

Theoretically, this makes sense. Sodium is a key electrolyte our body needs, and it’s a common ingredient in sports drinks, alongside other minerals such as potassium. These electrolytes, which are lost when you sweat, maintain your body’s fluid balance and are involved in muscle contraction and relaxation, as well as nerve impulses, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Sodium helps plump muscles up full of fluid so they don’t cramp as much,” Dr. Lee explains. 

The catch? It takes time for your body to absorb nutrients when you’re consuming electrolytes like sodium. “Research on pickle juice suggests that [cramp relief] happens much quicker than it should [via nutrient absorption], and so it may not be the electrolytes in pickle juice that’s responsible,” she says.

Rather, drinking pickle juice for cramps may tap into neuromuscular function. “Digestion starts in the mouth,” Dr. Lee says. Bodies are quite complex, and there are receptors in your mouth that send information to your brain about what you’re consuming. The theory is that when pickle juice swirls around in your mouth, it may stimulate your oropharyngeal reflex and trigger changes to certain neurons involved in muscle cramping, allowing the muscle to relax, per the aforementioned study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research

But what makes pickle juice better at kickstarting this process than other beverages? The acetic acid (which is what gives the brine its sour bite) and salt in pickle juice are thought to trigger the cramp-relieving reflex faster than water, a narrative review in Muscle & Nerve indicates. 

That said, not all research on pickle juice for cramps is encouraging. In fact, one 2021 study published Applied Sciences suggests that cramp duration or discomfort was no different after ingesting pickle juice compared to water. And some experts are skeptical of the practice’s effectiveness.

So given the mixed research on the topic, could it be worthwhile to try pickle juice for cramps?

A glass jar of homemade pickles sitting on a counter. Learn more about pickle juice for cramps in this article.

Yulia Naumenko / Moment via Getty Images

Should You Try Pickle Juice for Cramps?

Go ahead and take a swig of pickle juice if you’d like. “I’m all for trying out pickle juice,” says Umo Callins, RD, a sports dietitian and personal trainer with Well Rooted Health & Nutrition in Oklahoma City. “There’s evidence that it works, although it won’t be effective for everyone. It’s worth having it as an option, but it’s not the only way to release cramps.”

That means if you hate the taste of pickles or pickle juice, there’s no reason to feel like you have to follow this hack for muscle cramps. There are other ways to get rid of cramps, which we’ll share below. 

However, if you regularly get bad muscle cramps and you haven’t found a go-to solution, there is very little downside to trying pickle juice for cramps, as long as your kidney function is normal, Dr. Lee says. 

Tips for Trying Pickle Juice for Cramps

OK, so you want to give pickle juice for cramps a try—but where to begin? 

There are pickle juice sports drinks you can buy, which are typically made with water, vinegar, flavorings, and some added nutrients such as vitamin C. However, you can simply sip some of the brine from a jar of dill pickles or consume pickle slices, Callins says. 

No matter your approach, the first thing to keep in mind is that 8 ounces of pickle juice does not equate to 8 ounces of a sports drink. (You’d have to really love pickles for that.) “These are formulated differently,” Dr. Lee says. Pickle juice tends to have a higher osmolality, meaning it’s more concentrated. Dr. Lee recommends starting with very small amounts—one or two sips—to see if it helps your body release a cramp. Given the theory that pickle juice for cramps works on a neuromuscular level, you likely only need a little bit in your mouth to trigger those pathways, rather than guzzling down larger amounts like you might with a sports drink to replenish hydration and electrolytes.

What’s more, many athletes like to have pickle juice on deck for an endurance event, Callins says. If that’s something you’d like to have as an option, be sure to try drinking pickle juice throughout your training—especially a training session that emulates the conditions of the event, such as a long run before a marathon—so you know how your body responds. (Race day is not the time to find out that pickle juice makes you gag, after all.)

More Tips for Relieving and Preventing Muscle Cramps

Remember, sipping pickle juice is far from the only way to relieve muscle cramps. Here are a few tips for relieving cramps when they strike—and for preventing them from happening in the first place:

1. Warm Up

Give your muscles a chance to warm up with light movement before jumping into a lifting routine or hopping in the saddle. “Warming up muscles gets your core temperature up and allows nutrients to get to muscles,” Callins says. 

It’s smart to incorporate a warm-up into the beginning of any workout, but it’s especially crucial if you’re going to exercise for a longer duration (45 minutes or more), if you’re planning to do a hard workout, or if you exercised vigorously yesterday, Callins adds. 

Incline walking, slow pedaling on a bike, or dynamic stretches like butt kicks or high knees are all good examples of warm-up exercises that get blood and oxygen flowing to muscles and prep your body for the work ahead. 

2. When a Cramp Strikes, Stop What You’re Doing

You shouldn’t try to push through a muscle cramp. Of course, that can be difficult to do if you’re trying to hit a certain pace during a run, competing for a certain leaderboard spot during a ride, or have limited time to exercise and just want to get through your workout. But the first step in finding relief is stopping the activity that’s triggering the cramp, Dr. Lee says, so it’s important to take a pause when muscle cramps show up.

3. Stretch and Massage the Area

Next, get your hands to work with a self-massage on the area that’s cramping up. “The best treatment we have is stretching and massage of the tissue,” Dr. Lee says. “That’s what makes the cramp break.” After the cramp goes away, you should be OK to resume your workout, according to experts at Houston Methodist.

4. Stay Hydrated

In case dehydration or electrolyte imbalance are causing your cramps, make sure you enter exercise well-hydrated with balanced electrolyte levels—and then replenish during your workout, especially if you’re exercising in the hot sun, working out for an extended time, or are sweating a lot, Dr. Lee suggests. 

5. Add in Mobility Work

Mobility training incorporates muscle strength, flexibility, body awareness, and agility, among others. It can be valuable for everyone, but it’s particularly helpful if you experience persistent muscle cramping, Dr. Lee says. For instance, “if you always get a cramp in your quad muscle, there’s probably a reason, such as how you move that leg, weakness in supportive muscles, movement patterns, or muscle fatigue,” she explains. 

If you need extra help with mobility training or working on movement patterns, consider seeing a physical therapist for individualized recommendations.

6. Eat a Balanced Diet

It’s not necessary to solely rely on sports drinks or electrolyte beverages to give your muscles the nutrients they need, Callins says. “Make sure your everyday meals and snacks are adequate in these electrolytes,” she says. For instance, fruits and veggies are rich sources of potassium, beans are high in magnesium, and dairy is packed with calcium. 

7. See a Medical Provider, If Needed

Can you pretty much count on cramps to show up during or after exercise? Are they preventing you from finishing a workout, or are you holding back during sweat sessions to avoid a cramp? Persistent issues require an evaluation by your doctor or a sports medicine physician. 

Usually, muscle cramps are harmless. But if you experience a muscle cramp along with more alarming symptoms, such as dizziness, nausea, dark urine, or altered consciousness, seek medical attention right away. Experiencing muscle cramps after your workout or getting them throughout your entire body are other signs you should check in with a healthcare provider.

The Takeaway

Pickle juice for cramps is thought to work because it stimulates a neuromuscular reflex that tells your brain to release a muscle cramp. Pickle juice may be particularly effective at triggering this cramp-relieving reflex due to its combination of salt and acetic acid. 

It’s generally safe to give pickle juice for cramps a try if you’re interested, but stick to one or two sips initially to see how your body reacts. And remember, one of the best ways to head off cramps is by practicing healthy lifestyle habits, which will help set up your muscles for their best performance during a workout. That means maintaining a balanced diet, warming up with the appropriate stretches, and staying properly hydrated. But if you find yourself frequently experiencing muscle cramps during exercise, it’s a good idea to check in with your healthcare practitioner.

This content is for informational and educational purposes only and does not constitute individualized advice. It is not intended to replace professional medical evaluation, diagnosis, or treatment. Seek the advice of your physician for questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. If you are having a medical emergency, call your physician or 911 immediately.


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