Athletes hoping to avoid leg cramps during strenuous exercise typically turn to sports drinks and gels to replenish fluids. Runners and triathletes often race with packets of energy gels in their pockets or attached to race belts. Those packets usually are purchased at running stores or health-food outlets. Some athletes turn to fast-food restaurants for a more unlikely source of cramp prevention: mustard packets.
Cramps can be caused by a deficiency in acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that stimulates muscles to work. Mustard contains acetic acid, which helps the body produce more acetylcholine. (The mustard is consumed, not applied topically.)
It’s also possible that turmeric, which gives mustard its yellow color, has some beneficial properties. Turmeric is a plant from the ginger family native to South Asia. In Asia it’s used as a dietary supplement and also as an antiseptic for cuts and burns.
Joe Biondi, a longtime swim coach in the Tampa, Florida area, has recommended mustard to his swimmers and triathletes in recent months and used it himself. “I’ve had a number of athletes try it and it seems to work,” Biondi said.
Whatever the reason for mustard’s cramp-preventing properties, the condiment is a tastier alternative than vinegar or pickle juice, two other home remedies often prescribed for cramps, whether athletic-induced or the “night cramps” that wake people from deep sleep. Since it’s tough for anyone to consume straight vinegar under normal circumstances, let alone in a state of duress, pickle juice is sometimes offered.
“There’s about 200 mg of sodium in one tablespoon of mustard, which is the same as eight ounces of Gatorade Endurance,” Carlson-Phillips says. “So a couple packets of mustard would provide some good sodium and prevent or help with cramping. The body doesn’t care where the sodium comes from, just as long as it gets there
Vinegar is a common ingredient in both pickle juice and mustard. One or two spoonfuls of mustard, the equivalent of a fast-food packet, are all that’s needed to provide relief. Some athletes take mustard prior to races or strenuous workouts or during a session. Athletes typically consume sweet-tasting gels or sports drinks during activity, so even big fans of mustard might find the taste a little strange in a different context.
Though little research has been done to explain the connection between how mustard or vinegar works in relieving cramps, the anecdotal evidence is significant. Amanda Carlson-Phillips, the director of performance nutrition at Athletes’ Performance, says the key is to replenish lost sodium.
“There’s about 200 mg of sodium in one tablespoon of mustard, which is the same as eight ounces of Gatorade Endurance,” Carlson-Phillips says. “So a couple packets of mustard would provide some good sodium and prevent or help with cramping. The body doesn’t care where the sodium comes from, just as long as it gets there.”