Tart Cherries: An Endurance Superfood?

Tart cherry juice has been proven to help endurance athletes recover quicker. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

Studies show the juice from these berries packs a mean punch when it comes to recovery.

When you think of sports nutrition, you probably think about sports drinks, energy bars and dietary supplements. These types of products have a place in an endurance athlete’s nutrition regimen, but the true foundation of sports nutrition is—or should be—real food. Fruits, vegetables and other natural foods have the capacity to fuel training and facilitate recovery as effectively as engineered foods while providing more complete nutrition. This has always been true, but only recently has science proved it.

Over the past 15 years, I have served as a consultant to a number of sports nutrition companies. I have helped some of them plan and execute studies intended to demonstrate the effectiveness of their products. Many of these studies yielded positive results, but I often wondered if a real-food substitute might have worked just as well.

It turns out I wasn’t the only person asking this kind of question. Within the past several years, a number of scientists have tested the effects of various natural foods on endurance performance and recovery. Cumulatively, these studies have generated a short list of what we might call “endurance superfoods.” For example, you may have heard about research showing that consuming beet juice before exercise enhances time-trial performance in cyclists, runners, and rowers. And if you haven’t, then you most certainly have heard about studies demonstrating the recovery-boosting effects of consuming low-fat chocolate milk (a modified natural food) after exercise.

A lesser known endurance superfood is tart cherries. Scientists got the idea to test the effects of tart cherry consumption on endurance athletes from their knowledge that tart cherries contain nutrients that have anti-inflammatory effects on the body. Managing muscle inflammation caused by training is an important factor in recovery, so it made sense to investigate whether tart cherries would make a difference. And they do!

Cherry juice has a higher concentration of anti-inflammatory nutrients than whole cherries, so the research has focused on the juice. Studies conducted over the past five years have found that regular consumption of tart cherry juice may accelerate post-workout recovery, increase overall training capacity and enhance performance in races by reducing muscle pain.

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The best way to accelerate muscle recovery after exercise is to prevent muscle damage from occurring during exercise. And one of the best ways to do prevent muscle damage during exercise is to consume the right nutrients before exercise. Tart cherry juice does just that. This was demonstrated in a 2010 study published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports. Twenty recreational runners consumed either cherry juice or placebo for five days before running a marathon, then again on race day, and for two days afterward as well. The lucky runners who got the cherry juice exhibited less muscle damage immediately after the marathon. They also showed lower levels of inflammation and recovered their muscle strength significantly quicker.

On a practical level, it doesn’t really matter how quickly your muscles recover after a marathon. You need to rest regardless, and then gradually ease back into training. But any factor that reduces muscle damage incurred during a race is also likely to enhance performance. Drinking cherry juice for several days before an event may get you to the finish line faster and get you out of bed a bit more comfortably the next morning.

There’s also an argument to be made for drinking tart cherry juice during periods of intense training. In a 2014 study, 16 trained cyclists were separated into two groups. One group consumed tart cherry concentrate for seven days and the other group got a placebo. Both groups trained normally through the first four days of the intervention but then completed a grueling 69-minute ride at high intensity on each of the last three days. After the last of these hard workouts, the cyclists who’d gotten the tart cherry concentrate exhibited significantly lower levels of muscle damage and inflammation compared to their peers.

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The results of this study indicate that regular consumption of tart cherry juice enhances the body’s ability to tolerate intensive training. This is important, because simply doing hard training is no guarantee that your body will benefit from it. You need to supply your body with the wherewithal to absorb the stress of the training and transform it into fitness-boosting physiological adaptations. Drinking tart cherry juice daily is one way to do that.

There is no single food that you must eat to maximize your fitness and running performance. But tart cherries and cherry juice offer benefits that no other food quite duplicates. They deserve to be called an “endurance superfood.”


About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of numerous books, including 80-20 Running: Run Stronger and Race Faster By Training Slower. He is also a Training Intelligence Specialist for PEAR Sports. To learn more about Matt visit www.mattfitzgerald.org.

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