Can Tart Cherries Make You a Better Runner? A 7-Day Challenge to Find Out

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

Cherries IG 7DayChallenge WebsiteImage v05

Click image to enlarge

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!

Sources:

1McHugh, Malachy. Nutrition and Championship Sports Performance, Recovery and Injury Reduction: A Major Role for Cherry Juice Beyond Arthritis Relief. WholeFoodsMagazine.com. Whole Foods, Oct. 2010. Web. 4 Mar. 2014.

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.

18 Comments

 


Dig this post?
Spread the word!

Keep in touch:

Get Fit, Become a Runner, and Love It



3D-5k-Roadmap Ever wished there was just a roadmap to guide you to the finish of your first 5K, starting from where you are now? The No Meat Athlete 5K Roadmap covers everything you need to know to get fit, become a runner, and love it:
  • Four 10-week training programs for your first 5K all the way to an advanced 10K
  • How to get started on a plant-based diet, and what to eat before, during, and after your workouts
  • Two-week meal plan plus 15 healthy, substantial, and easy recipes, so that you'll know you're getting everything you need
  • Two-hour "Getting Started With Running" audio series
Click here to learn more!

Comments

  1. Interesting – I didn’t know about this potential of tart cherries. I guess it takes a bit longer until the word is spread to Germany.
    Over here, beetroot extract is “hyped” for better endurance, but I don’t believe in it. Scientic data is sparse …

  2. I’ve often read (in reputable sources) that ibuprofen during a race is a bad idea because it’s metabolized by the kidneys, which are already working hard to process all the extra hydration a runner takes in. If tart cherry juice dulls pain without threatening the kidneys, it’s gotta be worth a try.

    • I have learned that forms of aspirin/ibuprofren, etc… should be avoided as you say. In lehman terms, beside the metabolic effect, the ibuprofen “masks” or “fools” the body into thinking the muscles are recovered when they are not so they do not release their own anti-bodies to combat DOMS/recovery. Natural anti-oxidants in your regualr diet and post exercise are much more effective.

  3. I’ve tried that tart cherry juice stuff. They used to have it as Costco and it was delicious. Dunno if it did anything magical. Cherub undisclosed is yum. I’m battling an ankle injury right now. If it would heal it, I’d drink it in a heartbeat

  4. #Cheribundi silly autocorrect

  5. Not the first time I have heard of this, thanks for using yourself as a lab! Looking forward to hearing the results!!

  6. Sarah Cuff – a RHN (Eat2Run) in Canada is a firm believer in the tart cherry juice made from Montmorency tart cherries. I’ve tried her cherry berry recovery smoothie and it’s phenomenal! I have been seeing benefits of the cherry juice! I can’t wait to see what recipes you come up with!

  7. Been doing the Tart Cherry Juice for a month now based on my masseuse’s recommendation to combat issues from running and biking. Love it and I am sure you will too.

  8. lwyrmommie says:

    I have been drinking tart cherry juice after long runs for a few months now with great results. I mix 8oz of unsweetened tart cherry juice in a 28 oz water bottle and drink it within the first few hours after my long run. This helps me rehydrate and get the benefits of the cherries. My soreness has been minimal as I have ramped up my mileage in marathon training. I am bad at incorporating daily habits but just my once a week cherry juice routine has given me great results! Trader Joe’s definitely has the cheapest tart cherry juice (but it isn’t the concentrate). i haven’t been able to find any great deals on the concentrate.

  9. Based on the chart above, shouldn’t you be taking 1 oz. (2 tbsps) twice a day instead of 2 oz. twice a day?

  10. Here are a number of short slide videos from Dr Greger at nutritionfacts.org that address the subject of cherries — both tart and sweet Bing types — and berries as anti-inflammatory treatment for muscle soreness.
    http://nutritionfacts.org/video/reducing-muscle-soreness-with-berries/
    http://nutritionfacts.org/video/anti-inflammatory-life-is-a-bowl-of-cherries/
    http://nutritionfacts.org/video/enhanced-athletic-recovery-without-undermining-adaptation/

  11. Fruits and vegetables for the win :D

  12. https://twitter.com/martyroddy

    I have used/added tart cherry juice to smoothies and in shaker drinks on and off for years.

    I have also been using a lot of dried and fresh,raw turmeric for the same anti-inflammatory reason.

    Thanks for this.
    https://twitter.com/martyroddy

  13. I love tart cherries, hell I love cherries in general, and they are excellent for people suffering from gout, I am not sure about the benefit for runners , as my running days are sadly over for me…

  14. Tom Forde says:

    I wonder if it’s better to chomp on fresh/whole cherries themselves, which I do during the day after daily long morning runs. Cherries are in-season right now, so I’m thinking it’s best to eat the actual cherries while they’re available and at a resonable price. Then, when they go out-of-season, the tart cherry jucie might be a good, economical solution to bridge the rest of the year? Any thoughts??

    • Hi Tom Forde, I do that actually, eat cherries when they are in season and then just before they are out of season I freeze a lot of them to save for winter smoothies, and then I also drink the tart juice when cherries are out of season…Hope this works for you…

  15. Just did a quick search at my university’s library website, and found an article from 2006:

    Connolly D, McHugh M, Padilla-Zakour O. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. British Journal Of Sports Medicine [serial online]. August 2006

    Last sentence of the abstract: Conclusions: These data show efficacy for this cherry juice in decreasing some of the symptoms of exercise induced muscle damage. Most notably, strength loss averaged over the four days after eccentric exercise was 22% with the placebo but only 4% with the cherry juice.

    I find that really interesting. Another study I came across (but wasn’t available online) expressed concerns about “the possibility of the blunting of physiological training adaptations.” But since I can’t read the study I can’t say more about what they found.

Leave a Comment

*