Over the past few weeks, I’ve been experimenting with tart cherries as a workout recovery aid, as part of 7-Day Tart Cherry Juice Challenge and series of posts sponsored by the Cherry Marketing Institute. Well, the results are in.
When I wrote “surprising” in the title, I meant it. But not for the reason you might expect (which, come to think of it, is what surprise means).
In case you missed the introductory post, here’s how my experiment set up:
- Run every day for a week, including several hard running workouts.
- Drink one tablespoon of tart cherry concentrate twice a day — once in the morning and once immediately post-run. (This is half the amount I wrote in the first post, where a reader pointed out my mistake and I corrected it before I began the challenge.)
It’s important to note that this running was supposed to represent a challenging week. While I’ve been running a fair amount this summer, my typical week prior to this experiment has been pretty relaxed … about four runs, 30 to 40 minutes each, and all at easy pace.
The point of my experiment, of course, was to put myself through a training week that would normally create a lot of soreness and fatigue. In this way, I’d be able to tell whether or not the tart cherries lived up to claim that they aid in recovery.
Everything went to plan, with one exception: I traded a planned long run on the last day for a second interval workout. This had nothing to do with how my body felt, and everything to do with a renewed interest in speedwork (and a renewed boredom with slow runs) that my return to interval training brought on.
So did the cherries help?
Here’s what I noticed:
1. I never felt any muscle soreness. Not once. This was really surprising; I expected that I’d at least feel something after my first interval workout and first hard hill workout after (no exaggeration) years without doing either.
2. I felt very strong through the first four days, including two tough workouts, but I did find myself dragging a bit during my easy run the day after my hill workout. (Not all that surprising, all things considered. The cherry juice didn’t miraculously turn me into Meb.)
3. The big surprise: a nagging shoulder injury I’ve had for months improved dramatically, and last Thursday night was the first night in a long time that I slept through the night without any shoulder pain whatsoever.
It’s actually this third point that I’m most excited about, and it’s the reason I’m going to stick with the twice-a-day cherry concentrate regimen even after my free supply runs out.
I’ve had this shoulder thing going on since February, brought on by a month of everyday pushups and pullups. (It’s a flare-up of an injury that happened about 10 years ago when I was into lifting heavy weights.) I’ve self-diagnosed it as a torn rotator cuff, but my wife, who actually knows things, tells me it’s absolutely not that, that I’d be in much more pain if anything were torn.
Still, it’s a bother. It hurts whenever I use a can opener, turn a doorknob, pick something up at the wrong angle, or lift my right arm above my head. Worst of all, it affects my sleep, waking me up multiple times a night. And because I do all of these things so often, it hasn’t healed, even after I stopped the pushups and pullups months ago. In fact, it’s gotten worse since then.
Until last week, when finally it improved. Quickly.
Is it the cherries?
While I’m fully aware of the power of the placebo effect, I just can’t believe a change like this can be due to anything but the cherries.
Maybe I shouldn’t be so shocked: I know that I respond well to anti-inflammatories, probably because I almost never take them. When I had major IT band syndrome in early 2009 that prevented me from running, it didn’t improve until I finally broke down and took the NSAIDs the doctor prescribed. Once I did, it improved right away, and pretty soon I stopped taking the NSAIDs and was fine.
I tried the same for this shoulder problem, an ibuprofen tablet each night before bed. It helped a little, but when I read the fine print on the bottle of ibuprofen and started envisioning a bleeding hole in my stomach, I stopped taking it. (Yep, that’s how I roll.)
Tart cherry juice, to my knowledge, does not put me at risk for a bleeding hole in my stomach. Win. And it has been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties. According to the rules of the challenge, I drank it — just one tablespoon, diluted with water, twice a day — for seven straight days, and I’ve kept it up for many more days because it has worked so well.
And like that, my shoulder has finally stopped hurting me. Not really science, I know. But it’s working when nothing else has, so I see no reason to doubt it.
A Chocolate Cherry Smoothie Recipe
Tart cherry juice has been simple to incorporate into my routine twice a day. I either add it to my smoothie in the morning or shoot it back with water. A little tart, but not at all unenjoyable. In the afternoon, I drink it mixed with water right after my run, and at this point it tastes really good, like any sports drink. If I weren’t limiting it for the purpose of the experiment, I’d probably drink more of it after runs just because it tastes good in the moment.
Some days, I’ve added the cherry juice to a typical smoothie, whatever variety it happened to be each day. But many days I experimented with a chocolate-cherry smoothie recipe. Here’s my favorite variation:
- 2.5 cups water
- 1/4 cup raw walnuts
- 2 tablespoons chia seeds
- 2 tablespoons flax seeds
- 2 tablespoons pumpkin seeds
- 3 tablespoons tart cherry juice concentrate
- 1 cup frozen cherries
- 1/2 cup frozen raspberries
- 1/2 cup frozen spinach
- 3 ice cubes
- 1 ripe banana
- 1 to 1.5 ounces raw cacao (unsweetened)
Blend until smooth in a high-speed blender. Makes about three 12-ounce smoothies, each with the recommended one tablespoon of tart cherry concentrate.
(This is actually quite similar to my usual smoothie, with the base of nuts and seeds in these proportions. But usually it’s strawberries and blueberries instead of cherries, and no cacao.)
My wife and I have also played around with dried cherries in the kitchen. In the third and final post in this series later this month, I’ll share a few more recipes we’ve come up with for incorporating tart cherries into our routine.
Thanks for following along with my experiment!