Pickle brine, or the juice boasting a high concentration of sodium, has long had its place on the ice, field and court. Coleman, for one, has been touting the simple concoction as “the one thing that really works” in preventing cramps — a sentiment that has been shared by athletes for years. Marathoners have come to quench their thirst with it. And the history books will forever deem a 2000 NFL playoff game between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles as the “Pickle Juice Game,” in which the Eagles claimed to combat record temperatures by drinking — you guessed it — pickle juice. Some players even went on to say they would celebrate a potential Super Bowl win with pickle jars rather than champagne bottles.
But how, scientifically and through the lens of the teams that employ, train and treat these pickle-affected athletes, is the phenomenon viewed today? Do professional trainers actually advocate for brine as a cramp-treating product, and if so, do they do so with evidence?
A decade after the Pickle Juice Game, a Brigham Young University group conducted an exercise study and concluded that pickle juice had “relieved a cramp 37 percent faster than water.” They suspected that, contrary to the common belief that pickle juice’s high salt content works as a reliever because it replenishes “lost fluids and salt in the affected muscles,” the juice actually took action because of its acidity, perhaps prompting “nerve signals that somehow disrupt the reflex melee in the muscles.”
A separate study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Athletic Training via Northeastern University, cemented the notion that pickle juice is not a proven remedy for electrolyte loss, even if it can be a cure for cramps.
In other words, the juice might have been working not because its saltiness rehydrated muscles but because it triggered something in the nerves.
And that’s a theory to which teams in and well beyond the NHL still subscribe.
Since 2001, with inspiration from the BYU study findings, The Pickle Juice Company has been marketing a drink characteristic of jarred brine — one that emphasizes “a proprietary grain of vinegar” to “combat muscle cramps at the neurological source.” And one, the company told CBSSports.com, that both individual NHL players and teams currently use for treatment.
It is, essentially, a partnership that both endorses and enhances the effects of pickle juice as a neurological treatment. And it’s one that, across professional sports, has spawned the use of similar alternatives.
Like that of HOTSHOT, a substance designed to directly stimulate “sensory neurons in the mouth, esophagus and stomach” and therefore “stop repetitive signals” that result in cramping. It’s a product, the company says, that is actively in use by “more than a dozen NHL teams” and more than 20 pro football teams, not to mention in college football and by athletes at the Olympics.
Team “training and nutrition secrets” prevent suppliers like The Pickle Juice Company and HOTSHOT from identifying exactly which franchises work with their products, but the shared consensus is that, at its core, pickle juice has opened — and is still opening — doors for nerve-related treatment.
Harvard Medical School professor Bruce Bean, Ph.D., co-founded HOTSHOT and says the agents in his product, perhaps much like the vinegar addition in The Pickle Juice Company drink, maximize the neurological power of treatment — they produce “long-lasting activation of the molecular targets.” But he admitted that old-fashioned pickle juice, like the kind Coleman enjoyed in the penalty box, still serves as a starting-point remedy.
“The acetic acid in pickle juice activates TRP channels [receptors located on sensory nerves] to some extent,” he said.
It’s why guys like Coleman aren’t afraid to chug from the jar on the bench. It’s why, years ago, entire football teams relied on the liquid’s shock wave of sodium to overcome the heat. And, even as time goes on and additional supplements figure to stem from its power, it’s why something as simple as pickle juice has a home in sports.