The Benefits of Tart Cherry Juice

This article is from Monique Ryan, MS, RD, LDN, CSSD, author of Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes.

We all know that nutrition is a key component to taking performance to the next level, so why not make it easier on yourself and get the advantage from something as simple as fruit juice? Tart cherry juice is a natural juice containing powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. These compounds make tart cherry juice your best bet for reducing muscle damage and getting from one hard training session to the next.

Why tart cherry juice?

Montmorency cherries have one of the highest anti-inflammatory potential of any food, topping both blueberries and pomegranates. In fact, the anti-inflammatory substance found in the skin of cherries has been compared to over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin. Anti-inflammatory drugs are regularly used by many endurance athletes, but can damage the kidneys when used during a state of dehydration. Cherry juice provides a very concentrated amount of these anti-inflammatory substances and with far less risk.

The research on tart cherry juice and exercise recovery has not gone unnoticed by many professional athletes who are incorporating this into their nutrition as well. Let’s take a look at some highlights that are relevant to IRONMAN training.

In the first study, from 2010, researchers examined the effect of cherry juice on 54 healthy runners (male and female) competing in the 197 mile Oregon Hood to Coast relay race. Runners completed three race segments each ranging from 14 to 20 miles, with plenty of muscle-damaging hills. As you may expect, both groups reported increased pain after the race. However, after cherry juice loading seven days prior to and on the day of the race, the cherry juice group reported a significantly smaller increase in pain than the other group. Cherry juice seemed to soften the stress of their hard race efforts.

A more recent study measured 27 endurance training runners and triathletes before and after a half marathon. The runners used supplements with 480 mg of freeze-dried tart cherry powder (equivalent to 17.4 ounces of tart cherry juice) once daily for ten days including race day and up to 48 hours after the race. Post-race, the athletes who took the supplement had reduced markers of muscle damage, oxidative stress, inflammation, and perceptions of muscle soreness. All of these improvements can result in faster recovery of muscle function and add to the data that supports cherry juice for improved recovery.

Real life training and racing
The juices in the studies were reconstituted from Montmorency cherry extract and provided the equivalent of 45 to 50 cherries per serving. Juice blends require an 8 to 12 ounce serving to reach this dose, which was typically given twice daily in the studies for the equivalent of 90 to 100 cherries. You can also find this in the super tart concentrate form, with a serving dose at 1 ounce or 2 Tbsp—equivalent to 8 ounces of juice. Either way, it’s a lot of cherry juice to obtain the tested amounts.

The freeze-dried supplement dose was 480 mg, taken in capsule form, though doses can vary depending on the product brand.

Several studies indicate that there could be a benefit to loading with cherry juice during hard training weeks and for a hard all-day event such as an IRONMAN race. If you’re interested in trying it out for yourself, below are a few practical ways to supplement with tart cherry juice.

Cherry juice concentrate is tart, so a 2 Tbsp. shot added to water or to a sweeter juice can soften the taste. The concentrate can also be added to a smoothie made with dairy or non-dairy milk and/or yogurt. The chocolate flavor is a nice pairing with the cherry flavor, or it can be blended with another fruit flavor.

Tart cherry juice
Cherry juice can work well in a refresher drink or smoothie if you get tired of drinking it straight. Remember a daily dose is about 16 ounces, so if eight ounces is in your drink or smoothie, you will need to have an additional eight-ounce dose or the equivalent later in the day.

For a smoothie, mix with dairy non-dairy milk and fresh fruit. Add in chia seeds or flaxseed or even some nut butter to thicken. For a refreshing drink, mix with sparkling water or coconut water and flavor with lime juice, ginger, vanilla, or cinnamon .

Dried tart cherries or frozen cherries
Dried cherries are also an option and can contribute to your daily cherry dose. Add them to oatmeal, granola, trail mix, and salads. Mix dried cherries with yogurt and cereal for a morning bowl or afternoon snack. Frozen cherries can also be mixed in with your favorite smoothie recipe.

Calorie Caution
Of course, tart cherry juice contains calories. Eight ounces provides about 140 calories, and would add 280 calories if taken twice daily. Two daily doses of 12 ounces each provide 420 calories. Two tablespoons of concentrate provides 80 to 110 calories. Check labels of any products, and consider how these calories fit into your daily training diet. Most of these studies also had a “loading” period of three to seven days, where the cherry juice was consumed twice daily to build up the antioxidant level prior to the exercise bout. Tart cherry powder usually provides fewer calories, but check labels to reach 480 milligrams.

Cherry-Almond Smoothie
1 cup almond milk (or soy milk) 1
2 ounces tart cherry juice
1 large banana 2 tbsp. almond butter (or peanut butter)
4 ice cubes
In a blender combine all ingredients and puree until frothy.

Cherry Recovery Refresher
6 ounces sparkling or carbonated water
12 ounces tart cherry juice ½ cup frozen fruit (peaches, berries)
¼ tsp. ground ginger
In a blender combine all ingredients and puree until smooth.

Like any supplement, such as caffeine, which has more solid performance-enhancing data behind it, cherry juice may not work for everyone. More data to back up these cherry juice studies would be welcome and are still needed to complete the cherry juice story. But if you are entering an intense training cycle or have an upcoming race and want to improve your recovery by managing inflammation and oxidation and reduce strength loss, it might be worth a try. Just remember to fit the calories creatively, carefully, and tastefully into your daily diet.

See what to eat and when with Sports Nutrition for Endurance Athletes. Ryan demystifies optimum daily nutrition and shows simple steps to make the best decisions about what you eat and drink.