How a Nobel-winning scientist and HotShot are changing the landscape in the battle against cramping.

By Jay Prasuhn

Last October at the Kona Inn, I sat down to dinner with a guy who no doubt was the smartest guy in the room. A 2003 Nobel prize-winning neuroscientist, Rod MacKinnon, MD, has big-block brainpower. As I made idle talk with the professor of molecular biology at Rockefeller University, I sipped water with lemon, trying to wash away the day’s heat. I cast a fleeting glance at the glass, beads of sweat dripping down the sides, a lemon wedge perched on the rim. and under my breath, I laughed. Has a quenching glass of lemonade, Gatorade or any other electrolyte drink met its match? Is McKinnon the man who’s going to take on the 1,000-pound endurance sports hydration gorilla and win with a single… shot?

“I found that it wasnt a muscular issue,” McKinnon said. “It was the nerve.” Hence the catchy hash tag name.

In 1965, a collection of scientists at the University of Florida came up with a concoction that they claimed reduced the effects of cramping that the Florida Gators football team was experiencing in the damp Florida heat. They dubbed this drink Gatorade and it spawned an industry, with a message that has been drummed into us for decades: that electrolyte loss (salt loss due to sweat) was due to heat, humidity, dehydration and fatigue. It was this combination that was the reason your quads started to dance and seize on the bike and your calves locked up causing timber-like tip-overs during the run. To combat it, we’ve been told, we supplement with electrolyte drinks—with salts, sugars, potassium and carbohydrates—in order to bring back the equilibrium in the muscles.

The problem? The science has merit, but it’s not totally, unequivocally proven that electrolyte drinks will knock down or keep away cramps 100 percent of the time.

It was during dinner that I learned MacKinnon’s product, which flies in the face of conventional wisdom, was born not in a lab, but out in the Atlantic. It was in MacKinnon’s own endurance sports experience—open ocean kayaking—that he began to question whether electrolyte drinks did as they promised. Battling cramps during a kayaking session off the coast of Cape Cod, heard the gears in his head turning. “It made me think about things, why the muscle even activated,” MacKinnon said. “If the cramping wasn’t going away with electrolyte drink, maybe it wasn’t a muscle issue.” Having taken all the usual remedies with him with zero effect, he asked whether cramping wasn’t due to sodium imbalance, but something else: overactive nerve firing.

Typically, ions—which act as a transit system for info through the nervous system—move through ion channels that are opened and closed by nerve cells. That movement triggers muscle movement via contractions.

Usually, it’s no issue. But with stress or fatigue (i.e., when riding hard or running at race pace), these motor neurons in the spinal cord are oversaturated and fire excessively. When that occurs, the nerves become unstable, as do the muscular contractions; a cramp happens. “I found that it wasn’t a muscular issue,” McKinnon said flatly. “It was the nerve.” Hence the catchy hash tag name.

A spicy, lively mix of capsaicin, ginger and cinnamon give (HotShot) a definite kick of heat with a bit of ginger bitterness.

MacKinnon, a member of the six-person scientific advisory board for HotShot’s parent company FlexPharma, aims to deliver that solution to athletes. Promoted for the last year as a product known only as “It’s the Nerve,” the product was seeded to athletes in Kona and various Ironman and 70.3 events this year.

After five years of research, he concluded it wasn’t the muscle; it was the nerve. He tested with several ingredients that can activate nerves, and came up with his concoction, the first neuromuscular performance product. “It really was an aha moment. We knew marathon runners drank water with diluted mustard, and we tried mustard. We tried capsaicin and a bunch of things, and came up with a collection of ingredients that were consistently effective,” McKinnon said. His team also initiated an independent, randomized, blinded and placebo-controlled study to test the efficacy, which was reported in the peer-reviewed Neurology journal. Result? Transient receptor potential (TRP) activation did indeed suppress alpha motor neuron hyperexcitability, understood to be likely the cause of cramps.

While the target market is athletes, McKinnon said FlexPharma is looking into the possibility of medical uses for the product in the multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s community to help alleviate muscular spasticity and rigidity, as well as senior citizens, who often experience nocturnal leg cramps.

The tiny 1.7-ounce bottle is meant to be ingested at the first sign of cramps. The active ingredients activate TRP channels in the sensory nerves in your mouth. McKinnon says that you don’t even have to drink the fluid; just having the ingredients hit those nerves is often enough to create change in the form of cramp release… but drinking it down allows it to wash over the nerves throughout the mouth, throat and esophagus.

To be sure, HotShot isn’t thirst quenching, but it’ll catch your attention. A spicy, lively mix of capsaicin, ginger and cinnamon give it a definite kick of heat with a bit of ginger bitterness. While sharp at first, it becomes an acquired taste when taken regularly; your throat becomes ready for the burn. Regardless, HotShot is a purpose-driven product. It’s not meant to taste great; it’s meant to knock down your cramps. And to have it ready in the final 10 km of a marathon when your calves start dancing would be a nice ace up the sleeve.

HotShot—which just debuted to the public and is available online after the early public prototyping—isn’t the only company coming in to offer an alternative to sports drinks in fighting cramps. Pickle Juice, a company out of Mesquite, Texas, that began in 2001, has been selling 2.5-ounce shot glass bottles of its purpose-built concoction (extra strength pickle juice), which works according to similar principles as HotShot’s product: it works via the acetic acid in the vinegar, which is scientifically proven to block the neurological signal that trigger muscle cramping, with the briny concoction delivering 10 times the electrolytes (890 mg) of a sports drink.

Just the fact that two anti-cramping products are putting their collective foot down as an option to athletes in the battle against cramping may be happenstance… but perhaps not. Which raises the question: could a multi-million-dollar electrolyte replacement industry be wrong? Will the Gatorades and Clifs and PowerBars of sports nutrition recognize the validity and respond, or will they willfully ignore what seems to be a trend with foundation? And if they choose to ignore it, can the giant sports beverage industry be upended?

If a debilitating cramp stops their massive stride, perhaps so.

It was Nobel prize-winning scientist Rod MacKinnon’s personal experiences that led to the development of HotShot.