Does Eating Mustard Really Help With Muscle Cramps?

We investigate.

Person running next to a packet of yellow mustard
Photo: Sabrina Tan/Dotdash Meredith

In 2019, Canadian former ice hockey player Mark Letestu briefly made headlines when he was spotted sucking down a packet of Heinz yellow mustard on the bench during a game. The image quickly made its way around Twitter, and bemused sports writers tried to make sense of Letestu's snack choice.

"Maybe Letestu finds it refreshing," speculated one NHL news writer.

As it turns out, eating mustard during a sporting event is far from a personal quirk: it's actually fairly common in certain athletic communities, particularly for endurance sports like Spartan Race, an intense obstacle course race similar to Tough Mudder. If you were to do an archaeological study of the debris left behind during some athletic events, you might find among the usual suspects—like GU energy gels and Honey Stinger waffles—hundreds of empty mustard packets.

Yet mustard has none of the ingredients commonly associated with athletic supplements: It contains neither glucose nor caffeine, and is relatively low in calories. So what, exactly, is the appeal?

Mustard’s history of health benefits

It turns out that mustard enjoys a millennia-spanning history as a medicinal plant. Bénédicte Bortoli writes in Mustard: A Treasure from Burgundy that ancient Greek thinkers including Hippocrates and Pythagorus condoned mustard for its many purported health benefits, from aiding digestion to preventing seizures. Mustard has also been used in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic therapeutic treatments for thousands of years, and was used in popular treatments known as 'mustard plasters' in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. For modern-day athletes, however, one of mustard's therapeutic properties appeals more than others.

"Cramping, I'd say, is the biggest application of the mustard packets," says endurance athlete Emma Cook-Clarke. While mustard packets can be regarded as a bit of a joke among athletes, Cook-Clarke adds, people do tend to use mustard packets pretty regularly, though as more of a quick fix than a long-term solution. "The mustard is like this quick Band-Aid remedy," she says.

Mustard as a cure for… leg cramps?

If you comb through the sub-Reddits for activities like running, cycling, and Spartan Race, you'll find dozens of users proselytizing mustard packets as a near-instant leg cramp cure. Some speculate that it's related to the salt content, the acetic acid, or even the turmeric added for coloring, the latter of which is thought to have anti-inflammatory properties. One of the most commonly circulated theories, however, Spartan racer and endurance coach Ian Hosek says, is that the mustard somehow helps to "jumpstart" the brain during a cramp. And, while he doesn't necessarily recommend it to clients, "I've seen it actually work," he says. "I know a lot of athletes who have used it in the past."

What does it actually mean to jumpstart your brain, though?

Leg cramps, says Dr. Michael Fredericson, Professor of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Stanford University, are caused — at least in theory — by an "overexcitation of the nerves in your legs." A food like mustard, then, might work to override the signal your legs are sending to your brain by triggering the nerves in your mouth or throat. That way, says Fredericson, "the painful stimulus, or the irritating one, doesn't have a chance to register."

Several companies have popped up in recent years in an attempt to cash in on this theory. The brand HOTSHOT, for example, describes its product as a "scientific breakthrough in athletic performance that crushes muscle soreness and stops muscle cramps." Pickle Juice, another liquid supplement, advertises itself as "the only product on the market scientifically proven to stop muscle cramps," and consists of ingredients like vinegar, salt, and potassium. (As it turns out, pickle juice — the actual juice from a pickle jar, not the brand — does have some research backing it up as a cramp remedy).

Who started the performance mustard craze?

In an effort to pinpoint where and when mustard-eating actually originated in the athletic community, I reached out to half a dozen professors of sports history at several institutions, including Brown University and Georgia Tech. None of the five who responded had even heard of such a practice. Dr. Fredericson had to Google it before our conversation.

Perhaps eating mustard on the track, field, or mountain is the sort of thing that gets passed around informally among athletes, like a rumor or a legend, until enough people believe in it for it to stick (even without definitive proof). The only conceivable downside to eating packets of mustard, perhaps — other than momentary queasiness — is the litter it produces.

"I literally pick up one million mustard packets all over the course!" says Spartan race course manager Steve Hammond.

In the end, even if it doesn't help an individual athlete knock out cramps, mustard can still provide a tasty pick-me-up after hours of eating nothing but glucose-based gels and sports drinks. "After the race I'm really not wanting anything sugary," says Cook-Clarke. "Mustard is pretty nice, whether that's on a sandwich, or dipping a soft pretzel in mustard."

Maybe that was part of the appeal for Letestu, as well.

Was this page helpful?
You’ll Also Love