“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” - T.X. Huxley
Several years ago, while on a long training run with my Leukemia TNT group, I had as one of my trainees a UAB Nutrition student from Kenya whose name was pronounced Knee-me-yey. I'm utterly awful with names, but I remember his after all these years because after mangling his name countless times, he finally said in his thick Kenyan accent "Luuk, here ees how you reemember my name"...he then pointed to his knee, said "knee"...pointed to his chest, said "me"...threw both hands in the air and said "yey". I have not forgotten it yet, so I guess it worked. I was his coach. He was Kenyan about to run his first marathon. Nothing ego building here. All I had to do was tell him to put one foot in front of the other, take some Gu along the way, and let genetics take over. His ancestors from the Rift Valley would make me look like the TNT Coach of the Year. Unfortunately, we hit a snag in Coach Al's Road to Glory - he couldn't meet his fund-raising goal, retreated to his studies, and I never laid eyes on him again.
During one of our long runs, Knee-me-yey started to tighten up (apparently, I was running this Kenyan too hard), and said "I need some Mustard". I was sure I just misunderstood his not-perfect-english accent. But, no. He wanted mustard...a packet, like you get at McDonald's. Trying to be as diplomatic and understanding as possible, I asked "What the Hell do you need mustard for?" at which point (remember he was a Nutrition student) he said you use it to relieve leg cramps in 2 minutes. He said he had done this several times in 10K's to half marathons. "What, do you rub it in like Ben-Gay" I innocently asked. No, what you do is squirt it in your mouth, think to yourself real loud "YOWWEE", and swallow hard. If you think a Vodka Screwdriver burns all the way down when you're 10 years old (personal reference), I can imagine how this feels. But, supposedly, the cramps are history and you're back on your merry way to the finish line. After telling him I thought he was out of his ever-loving mind, I decided to do some research.
Turns out that for years, coaches (mostly the old codgers with the stopwatch draped across the front of their sweatshirt) have given mustard to their athletes with leg cramps. Cramps are sometimes caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates your muscles to work. Mustard has acetic acid, which helps the body make more acetylcholine pretty darn quick. Now, to make a real picnic buffet out of this, I read that coaches also gave pickle juice to these cramping runners for the same reason - guess it was runner's choice! Now, THIS rang a distant bell. When I would run ultras that had been organized by older ultrarunners, at some aid stations I would notice a jar of small pickles or pickle slices. I never asked about it and passed this off as just some grandma putting the jar on the table because her grandson was running and he liked pickles when he was 8. But no. These were placed there because these older runners knew that the pickles would help with those cramps late in the race that will pull down the strongest runner like an antelope being felled by an arrow. Apparently, pickle juice is a niche market for athletes who do an event for several hours. It has a limited role, to help people who run marathons, ultra-marathons (50-mile-plus events) and Ironman triathlons. It’s not for the everyday person who works out for an hour or so.
Originally, it was thought that it was the electrolytes in the pickle juice that got rid of the cramps, but studies done testing the blood and urine of athletes found no change in the subjects' sodium, potassium, magnesium or other levels. It is now thought that the magic potion is vinegar (also found in mustard packets) that triggers a neurological response in the mouth, which then signals the brain to stop the doggone cramping.
So, I guess #1) I owe an apology to Knee-me-yey for doubting a Kenyan UAB Nutrition student, #2) I will make sure pickles and mustard are in my drop bags at races, #3) I need to carry a little flask of vinegar in my water belt, and #4) I need to contact some of these companies about looking into marketing some Mustard flavored Gu or Pickle Chews. Mmmmmmm
Keep learning and running. I'll see you on the roads - AL
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