The NHL player was first spotted drinking the concoction at last weekend's season opener, unintentionally shedding light on a method of treating dehydration for athletes.
New Jersey Devil's forward Blake Coleman never thought much about what he drinks during games. It would be fair to say that most hockey fans didn't think much about it either.
That is until last Saturday's season opener against the Colorado Avalanche, which saw Coleman downing pickle juice to recharge as he waited out a two-minute minor penalty for slashing. The general reaction to Coleman's drink seemed to be equal parts confusion and fascination, but in the days following the game, Coleman publicly embraced his pickle juice use as fans became endeared to the concept.
Still, the question remained: why would you choose to down a sour, green, hyper-salty liquid when you could choose anything else? According to the 25-year-old NHL player, it's the only reliable way of managing the intense cramps he experiences during gameplay.
"I've always had really bad cramp issues, and I've always worked on making concoctions that basically keep me from seizing up," Coleman told Food & Wine. "Pickle juice has just been one of the things that's worked."
The idea to treat his cramps with the green juice first came to him back in high school.
"I had originally heard of it just from football players—I'm from Texas, so I'd hear stories about guys cramping up and drinking pickle juice," Coleman said. "I never really used it much then. I got to Miami [University of Ohio] and somebody on our team got it for our trip to Colorado because of the high altitude."
According to Ben Sit, a registered dietitian, chef, and triathlete, the brine is one of several ways athletes tackle the sodium loss and cramping that results from sweating, particularly in high-heat or endurance sports. The fluid (and thus electrolyte) loss is impacted by an athlete's sweat rate, body composition, as well as the intensity of their physical activity. Sit says the salt in pickle juice helps players who tend to sweat more to recoup what their body has given up.
While some might find Coleman's method of hydration oddly unconventional, Registered Dietitian and Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics at The Ohio State University Sarah Wick says it's not odd at all. In fact, she's consulted with athletes about using it to address severe dehydration and cramping for more than 10 years.
"It is easy to get and not expensive," Wick told Food & Wine. "We really encourage our athletes, especially if they are heavy sweaters, to increase the sodium in their diet with salty foods such as pretzels, but tend to lean towards pickle juice and pickles, or an electrolyte packet such as Gatorlytes… in really severe cases 'The Right Stuff,' [an expensive electrolyte blend] developed by NASA for the astronauts."
The Devils' forward has also tried nearly every other trick in the book: Gatorade, water, electrolyte tablets, Pedialyte, hot shots. None of them seem to work as well as when he drinks straight pickle juice, which he says he uses on top of Gatorlytes, an electrolyte blend of sodium, potassium, magnesium, chloride, and calcium.
Sit notes that while athletes drink it, the science behind both pickle juice and what causes cramping is still unclear. So depending on the drinker, the juice can be more harmful than helpful.
"Really when we look at stuff like pickle juice to prevent cramping, we're talking about hydration," Sit told Food & Wine. "Something like pickle juice, which is highly, highly concentrated in terms of solutes and electrolytes, can actually cause the body to dehydrate a lot more than something that's well-balanced. That's why when we look at sports drinks like Gatorade, or Powerade, they don't actually have that much sodium in them."
For some, seemingly odd or potentially questionable dietary choices aren't about play, but are just part of the head game. Wick noted that many of her athletes have pre-event and recovery routines that they feel help them, as did Sit.
"The thing with the Tom Brady diet is that… [he] is not the type of quarterback that runs end plays a lot," Sit said. "He just throws the ball, so his dietary choices don't mean as much to his performance…. The Michael Phelps diet, back in London … being 10,000 calories, that was definitely a lot more than what he needed to do, but… on game day, I would always argue that nutrition is one of the things that athletes should not be thinking about."
"I'm really looking for the athletes to focus on the game, so all the nutrition beliefs that they may have, whether or not they're right or wrong, it does not matter to me, as long as they can play the game a little bit better," Sit continued.
Beyond the psychological effects, both dietitians stated that there are aspects of athletes' diets that, to a non-athlete, would seem weird or even counter-intuitive to a healthier lifestyle. Yet, they are in fact, pretty normal or beneficial.
"Something that would actually surprise a lot of people is gummy bears which I give to my athletes," Sit said. "A banana or an apple—giving something healthier may be worse on an athlete because the acidity might cause a bit of nausea or the fiber might create gastrointestinal issues. Something like gummy bears where the primary sugar is maltose and the body only needs to cut that maltose molecule in half [let's] the body quickly use that energy and refuel the muscles."