If you’re a runner, you know there’s no shortage of new supplements and other products that claim to promote faster recovery for us. And mostly, as runners, we’ve learned to ignore them.
Usually, we just don’t believe it. Speed of recovery is hard to measure, subjectively, and even when the objective evidence is there, the miracle product du jour isn’t often something most of us would want to put in our bodies.
But tart cherry juice may just be an exception: (a) it’s natural; and (b) it seems like it might actually promote recovery. There’s a decent amount of science to say so, and the fact that it’s stuck around a while — I think I first heard of it in 2010 — certainly bodes well.
But what’s most intriguing to me about tart cherries is that they’re not just for recovery: they also have anti-inflammatory properties and have been demonstrated to reduce muscle pain during an event. Which makes them extremely well-suited for ultrarunning, where pain more than anything else eventually becomes the limiting factor … if they deliver.
Next week, that’s what I’ll be testing.
Note: This post is the first in a sponsored, 3-part series about a 7-Day Tart Cherry Juice Challenge I’ll be doing. Sponsored posts are new territory for me, so we’ll see how it goes and what you think. Rest assured that the opinions (and results of my 7-day challenge) are entirely mine.
A Natural Alternative to Ibuprofen?
Lots of ultrarunners rely on ibuprofen — Vitamin I, as it’s jokingly called, and somehow that joke becomes funny around mile 40 — to get them through the race. And before I knew enough to be scared of it, I did too. (See my Vermont 50 recap, where ibuprofen played a big role in my finishing the race.)
During my 100, I took a single ibuprofen tablet just as the sun was beginning to come up at mile 87, when my feet were screaming for mercy. For the next 45 minutes, I felt new life. Any ultrarunner will tell you the relief from Vitamin I is quick and very noticeable. And because pain — usually much more than fatigue — is such a limiting factor in an ultra, there’s a distinct advantage to popping lots of ibuprofen to mask the pain during the race (assuming it doesn’t land you in the hospital).
Of course, masking the pain isn’t something you want to do as part of your normal training routine — that pain is there for a reason; it’s your body telling you to stop. But for targeted use, during a race now and then, I get it. Still though, true to my granola-crunching hypochondriac roots, I don’t like risking even that.
Apparently, neither does vegan ultrarunning hero Scott Jurek. He doesn’t use ibuprofen, and of tart cherry juice (he’s an ambassador for one brand), he says: “All-natural tart cherry juice allows me to recover from tough races sooner, without taking needless chemicals that do more harm than good.” And Jurek is certainly not alone: as we’re all becoming more aware of what we put in our bodies, more and more athletes are turning to natural performance boosters like tart cherry juice.
So does tart cherry juice really help with recovery? More importantly for ultrarunners, can you really feel the difference the anti-inflammatory properties make in how sore you feel not just after a long run, but during?
The science would seem to say yes. But I’m going to try it out for myself.
The Evidence for Tart Cherry Juice
Here’s the gist of the science, provided to me by the Cherry Marketing Institute, pointing to tart cherry juice as a natural performance-enhancer (sources below):
– Researchers have found that tart cherry juice may help ease muscle pain associated with intense exercise. For instance, runners in two studies who drank Montmorency tart cherry juice [that's the type of cherries, not a brand] before and after long-distance races experienced a faster recovery of strength and less muscle pain compared to those who drank a different beverage.2,3,4,5
– In another study, 16 well-trained male cyclists who drank Montmorency tart cherry juice concentrate (the equivalent of 90 Montmorency tart cherries) twice a day for seven days experienced less inflammation and oxidative stress following a 3-day simulated race compared to those who drank another beverage.6
– Soreness after a workout is caused by a combination of inflammation, muscle damage and oxidative stress — and researchers suggest the natural compounds in Montmorency tart cherries, including anthocyanins, may help with all three when consumed prior to working out, as well as after. 2,6
I tend to be skeptical about even scientific studies, especially when an organization handpicks the ones to highlight. I looked for each of these studies online, and while I usually couldn’t access the full journal articles, they were from legitimate journals and without obvious conflicts of interest. Check out PubMed to dig deeper, and you’ll see that many of the studies on the first page of search results for “tart cherries” do in fact report lower muscle damage, reduced inflammation, or both, in athletes who supplemented with tart cherries.
How Should You Use Tart Cherries?
In matters of recovery, we usually think about what to eat after a workout to help our bodies begin the process of muscle repair. But with tart cherry juice, the recommendation is that you use it as a “precovery” drink, consuming it for several days before your big workout or race to help you feel better during and afterward.
In fact, athletes in all of the studies cited above drank tart cherry juice or ate tart cherries in other forms at least several days or even a week prior to their event, as well as the day of the event and the day after.
Does that mean you need to drink it that often to experience the benefits? I’m not sure, and couldn’t easily find full studies where a smaller amount of tart cherry juice was used. I don’t usually drink a lot of any juice, so if my challenge is successful then I’ll probably experiment to see if I can maintain the benefits on lower doses.
(And by the way, there’s some debate over whether regular cherries have the same benefits as tart cherries — but apparently only the tart cherries have been the subject of much scientific research, so that’s what people use.)
How I’ll Drink Tart Cherry Juice During My Experiment
Subjects in most of the above-mentioned studies drank two 8-ounce servings of tart cherry juice a day, the equivalent of nearly 100 Montmorency cherries each day (which actually is not that hard to eat!).
That’s what I’ll do during my experiment, but most of the time I’ll drink 2 tablespoons, twice a day, of tart cherry concentrate that the Cherry Marketing Institute sent me for this experiment. That’s a decent amount of sugar (27g per 8 ounces of juice), so I’ll have one of those servings immediately post-workout, when sugar is most useful for recovery.
Though I won’t start my challenge until next week, I’ve tasted the tart cherries, the juice, and the concentrate. To my surprise, all three are really good — the name had me expecting mouth-puckering sourness, but I found the tart cherries and the juice and concentrate (with no sugar added) to be sweeter than cranberries, and no more sour. Even my 4-year old liked the cherries, and was thrilled as always to drink juice (juice is something we limit to rare occasions at home).
The concentrate is a little potent to drink by itself, so while shooting back 2 tablespoons is an option, I’ll probably dilute it with water most of the time. I’ve also got plans to create a smoothie, energy bar, and maybe a few other recipes using tart cherries, which I’ll share in a followup post.
If you’re interested in doing your own 7-day challenge along with me, you can get tart cherry juice concentrate in your local supermarket, or buy it online.
My 7-Day Tart Cherry Juice Challenge
The ground rules:
- Each day for seven straight days (beginning Monday), I’ll drink 2 tablespoons of tart cherry concentrate, two times a day, one of which will be immediately following my run.
- I’ll run every day, usually easy but with 2 tough workouts during the week. I’ll pay particular attention to how I feel the day after each hard workout (especially when I run that next day and when it’s time for another workout two days later).
- On the final day, I’ll go for a longer run — an ultramarathon would be ideal, but as I’m just getting back to running, I’ll shoot for 10 hilly miles — long enough that I’d ordinarily feel it the next day.
I’ve only recently gotten back into serious running after several months of just a few runs per week at most. Although I ran a half marathon two and a half weeks ago, I’m still at the point where I get a little shaky-legged even after easy runs of 4-5 miles. Other than the half marathon and a light hill workout two days prior, I haven’t done any tough workouts. So trust me, it’ll be a tough week of running for me. The opportunity for the cherries to prove themselves will be there.
Like any n=1 study — and especially one designed by a guy who blogs in his underwear — this is, of course, unscientific and subjective: I’m not measuring any biomarkers here. Hence the actual science above (with sources below). But having run for 12 years now, I know my body pretty well, and I think I’ll be able to tell if there’s a big difference in how I recover.
That remains to be seen, but at least I know it will taste good, and I’m working on a few recipes for next time.
Thanks for reading! In 10 days or so, I’ll post a recap of the challenge (with other blog content in between), and one more followup post a few weeks after that. Stay tuned!
1McHugh, Malachy. Nutrition and Championship Sports Performance, Recovery and Injury Reduction: A Major Role for Cherry Juice Beyond Arthritis Relief. WholeFoodsMagazine.com
2Howatson G, McHugh MP, Hill JA, Brouner J, Jewell AP, van Someren KA, Shave RE, Howatson SA. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sports. 2010 Dec;20(6):843-52.
3Kuehl KS, Perrier ET, Elliot DL, Chestnutt J. Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. J. Int. Soc. Sports. Nutr. 2010;7:17-22.
4Connolly DA, McHugh MP, Padilla-Zakour OI, Carlson L, Sayers SP: Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br. J. Sports. Med. 2006, 40:679-83. discussion 683.
5Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, Fo P, Mileva KP. Montmorency Cherry Juice Reduces Muscle Damage Caused by Intensive Strength Exercise. Med. Sci. Sports. Exerc. 2011 Aug;43(8):1544-51.
6Bell PG, Walshe IH, Davison GW, Stevenson E, Howatson G. Montmorency Cherries Reduce the Oxidative Stress and Inflammatory Responses to Repeated Days High-Intensity Stochastic Cycling. Nutrients 2014, 6, 829-843.
7McHugh M. The health benefits of cherries and potential applications in sports. Scand. J. Med. Sci. Sports. 2011 Oct;21(5):615-6.