Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Do, Try, Skip: Mobility Exercises, Pickle Juice, Ice Baths

Pickle juice contains a
chemical compound that just
may reduce cramps.
This series is intended to provide an informative and entertaining look at common practices in endurance sports.  The views expressed here are my opinions based largely on a combination of professional experience as an exercise physiologist and personal experience as an endurance athlete.

Sports training practices change over time.  Looking back a generation (or more) some things seem preposterous now.  But in their day and time they might have been considered cutting edge.  This "Do, Try, Skip" series will look at current popular training practices and provide guidance based on science (if available) and personal experience.  Today we look at three popular training practices; mobility exercises, pickle juice, and ice baths.

Mobility Exercises: DO
Endurance athletes spend a tremendous amount of time performing repetitive movements as they train for their sport(s).  And while the specificity of training principle states that to be a "better" runner you must run (or cyclist you must cycle), focusing all your attention on these movement patterns can create muscle imbalances that often lead to overuse injuries and time away from training.

Mobility is the ability to move quickly and easily.  It's clearly an important attribute to sport performance.  When we spend adequate amounts of time participating in our sports we develop specific adaptations that improve performance.  Unfortunately, these sport-specific movements (running or cycling) involve relatively limited range of motion in a handful of the articulating joints.  Over time the soft-tissues that support or move the joints can become shortened and dysfunctional.  These imbalances can cause a cascade of problems not the least of which is improper positioning of the joint capsules which may result in a reduced ability to generate force.  And for an endurance athlete this means one or both of two things; 1.) reduced sport performance and 2.) increased risk of injuries.

Adding mobility exercises to your training routine can help to improve soft-tissue and joint dysfunction caused by overused and shortened locomotion muscles.  Do this routine daily to improve mobility and sport performance.  Video courtesy of Kim Nedeau.  Check out her informative video series for endurance athletes.  

Pickle Juice: TRY
Every endurance athlete has had the experience of performance-limiting excruciating muscle cramps during a race.  And interestingly enough these sometimes happen in the context of cool weather and adequate hydration tactics.  In 2011, during my last attempt at the infamously brutal 7 Sisters Trail Race (Amherst, MA) on a cool and overcast day less than four miles from the finish I experienced a double quad cramp the likes that I had never before and not since ever felt.  It was so intense that I came to a complete stop and with legs that failed to bend at the knee fell over to the ground.  At the same time I was trying to fix the problem I was also quickly taking inventory of the possible causes.  The weather was perfect for a May trail race and I had been hydrating and eating like a champ.  This particular trail race, with it's unrelenting ups & downs, can be brutal on the quads.  In my effort to run a sub 2:30 I had hammered the first half attacking the descents with reckless abandon and fury.  All of that eccentric "braking" action during the downhills eventually took it's toll on the way back.

Research into the causes of cramps have recently led scientists to determine that the nervous system is one common and likely cause.  Alpha motor neurons are nerves located in the brain stem and spinal cord.  These nerves direct the skeletal muscles by telling them when to contract.  But when muscles fatigue the activity of these alpha motor neurons increases and stimulates the muscles to maintain a sustained contraction (ie. muscle cramp).  Skeletal muscle fatigue is a complex and multi-faceted event that may involve one or all of the following variables; repetitive muscle contraction, increased exercise intensity, increase exercise duration, environmental conditions (heat/humidity), and lack of training.  It is also suspected that repetitively contracting a skeletal muscle in a shorten state may also lead to increased alpha motor neuron activity.  Not surprisingly, during running the hamstrings, quads, and calves all contract in a shortened state.  These muscles tend to be the most common ones to cramp for this reason.  It's therefore not terribly surprising that my quads cramped after running the first half of 7 Sisters (particularly the descents) much harder than my training had warranted.      

So with some knowledge of why muscle cramps happen, the most important question then is what do I do to fix them?  Pickle juice has recently emerged on the ultra running scene as a somewhat mythical potion.  Athletes have retold stories of how it magically made their cramps disappear but how it works may surprise you.  While it's true that pickle juice is high in electrolytes, once consumed it may take up to 30 minutes for it to empty from the stomach and affect electrolyte levels at the site of muscle cramp.  This fact seems to belie that it works almost immediately.  Evidence now suggests that the feeling that you experience at the back of your throat when you drink this noxious pickle juice may be the secret to it's effectiveness.  

It appears that the chemicals in pickle juice (as well as in chili's, mint, cinnamon, ginger, & mustard) may very well be stimulating what are known as transient receptor channels (TRPs).  These excitable cells in the back of our throats convert chemical messages into electrical signals that help to control a number of sensations like pain, taste, hot, cold, and pressure.  These channels are activated by the chemicals in pickle juice and have the effect of reducing the activity of the alpha motor neurons and therefore relieving the cramp.

While the research is very promising and still evolving, the anecdotal evidence supports giving pickle juice (and similar products) a try.  Ideally it's best to prevent muscle cramps in the first place, but if you find yourself with a hyper-locked double quad cramp and someone offers you a shot of pickle juice...try it.

Ice Baths:  SKIP
We've all been tempted, mostly by peer pressure, to slip into a tub of icy water following a grueling race with the promise of accelerated recovery and reduced muscle soreness.  And despite as much folklore as the practice has received, it's benefits were actually questioned nearly a dozen years ago.  Subsequently there have been competing viewpoints on the subject with both camps (ice baths good vs. ice bath phony) digging in their heels.  

A number of systematic reviews of the literature have been done without a clear consensus on the impact of cold water immersion in endurance athletes resulting in the intended anti-inflammatory response.  In addition, many sports scientists are split on the theory of inflammation with some suggesting it's the root of muscle damage and therefore must be controlled while others suggesting that it is an integral part of the healing process and must be allowed to occur.   

Adding to the confusion are the professional athlete and ice bath advocates like Mo Farah, Ryan Lochte, and Lebron James who all purportedly use the practice.  It's completely conceivable that these and other followers feel a positive difference when they use ice baths.  These and other professional athletes are looking for any tiny advantage they can get as the margins for success are razor thin at that level.  Assuming there aren't any physical risks, if it turns out that the effects of cold water immersion are only placebo (ie. in their minds) then it may still be an advantageous.  

For the endurance athlete tempted to slip into that icy tub for the first time with the hopes that their recovery will be enhanced consider that the practice is not only incredibly uncomfortable, but the until the scientific community can come to a consensus it's best to skip it.

1.  Mobility - Moving Beyond The Buzzword, by Jim Shepherd
2.  6 Exercises For Maximum Mobility, Outside Magazine
3.  Does Pickle Juice Relieve Muscle Cramps?, The Cooper Institute
4.  Holy Cramp!  The Science of Exercise-Associated Cramping
5.  A Recovery Ice Bath Isn't (Always) Such a Great Idea, Outside Magazine   

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