Tart cherry juice is not exactly a front-line option athletes think of when it comes to improving their recovery and performance, but it does have some potential benefits that should not be overlooked. At a minimum, it is a nutrient-rich option, which is always a good thing. But it can actually provide meaningful benefits that could be relevant and worth considering.
Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMs)
The most clear-cut benefit of tart cherry juice is that it seems to reduce muscle soreness after exercise. If you train/compete hard, this improved recovery can be pretty appealing.
The mechanism for this appears to be mostly based on inflammatory markers. There are clear reductions in CRP, IL-6 and uric acid.
One example of this involved runners drinking 710ml of tart cherry juice for seven days leading up to a race. These participants reported 3x less soreness than those in the placebo group.
Another study utilised 480ml for a few days leading up to and immediately post a marathon. Similarly, they had less muscle damage, soreness and their markers of inflammation were lower as well.
Other studies have had similar findings while using similar amounts of tart cherry powder as well.
The other promising effect of tart cherry juice that should have athletes interested is that it could improve sleep. And obviously improved sleep will help improve training outcomes and performance.
This is likely due to a combination of the melatonin content of tart cherries, as well as their tryptophan and anthocyanins content. Both tryptophan and anthocyanins help the body to create melatonin.
To add weight to that argument, there is research directly showing that tart cherry juice increases levels of melatonin and help improve sleep quality and duration.
Even more excitingly, a study on insomnia found that participants who drank 480ml of tart cherry juice daily for two weeks increased average sleep time by 85 minutes!
An increase of 85 minutes is insane. That is way better than most of the other options people look at when trying to improve their sleep.
If you do not have insomnia, the effects will likely be far less significant. But it is one of the options to consider if trying to improve sleep duration and quality.
Some of the mechanisms have been mentioned so far, but a lot of the other mechanisms simply come down to the high antioxidant content of tart cherries.
This provides protection against some of the oxidative stress that occurs during hard exercise.
This antioxidant response reduces oxidative damage. There also can be inhibition of inflammatory pathways due to the phytochemical content as well.
Caveat Around Antioxidants
There is some debate around whether high amounts of antioxidants around the time of training could potentially be detrimental.
The logic is that some of the positive adaptations due to training actually occur partly BECAUSE of the oxidative damage and inflammation that occurs.
While this is an interesting thought process that is worth being aware of, it is hard to say whether it really matters. There is a great article by Stronger by Science that discusses this topic in detail if you are interested.
My thoughts are:
- Consuming food that is high in antioxidants has never been found to cause this issue. Only supplements under some circumstance.
- I would consider tart cherry juice in the food category, not a supplement, for the sake of this discussion.
- If you ARE concerned, I would not use it during lower importance competition phases e.g. offseason and pre-season. But if you are competing regularly and the recovery benefits outweigh the minor potential to impact adaptation, then it certainly makes sense to use it during those phases.
How to Buy?
In regular grocery stores, it is actually pretty hard to find tart cherry juice.
Typically, they are mixed with sweet cherries or other ingredients. Tart cherries can have up to 5x higher levels of antioxidants than sweet cherries.
Often, a product like “cherry juice” can be significantly higher in sugar as well. So it is worth being picky with the product you want.
Specifically, we are looking for Montmorency Tart Cherries, which is what all this research is based on.
It should be pretty easy to find online if you cannot find an option in store (or just prefer online).
Since I live in Australia, the option I typically recommend is Cherry Active Australia.
They sell concentrated tart cherry juice which makes it even more practical. As little as 30ml is the recommended dosage, in comparison to dosages such as 710ml which have been used in research.
Since this is not one of the main supplements/strategies I consider, I would also probably only purchase it if you have already covered your bases and have spare money to invest in this.
The company make the valid point that their juice actually comes out as $2.01 per serving, which is pretty cost-effective. But to get the price down that low, you need to purchase $125 worth of product from them, which would also make you eligible for free postage. It is worth it for some people, but not for everybody, in my opinion.
Dosage and How to Use
The optimal protocol appears to be 240ml of tart cherry juice, 2x per day.
This would probably look like 240ml in the morning and 240ml ~1hr before bed to maximise the potential to improve sleep.
If using Cherry Active, you would obviously reduce it down to 30ml in the morning and 30ml at night due to it being in the concentrated form.
For those wondering if you could just eat tart cherries – technically you could, but it does not seem practical. A 473ml bottle of Cherry Active is the equivalent of 1450 tart cherries. So that would be a LOT of cherries to consume.
Most of the research seems to go for 7-10 days. I am of the interpretation that benefits would continue so long as you keep having it regularly, and then stop not long after you stop consuming it.
Another side note to consider is that tart cherries are high in sorbitol, which is a FODMAP, and could potentially cause gastrointestinal distress in some people. So that is worth paying attention to as well.
Tart cherry juice can have benefits for recovery. It can help reduce soreness and improve sleep. Some research actually links it with improved strength and endurance, but I am not really going to make strong claims about that. It also has the potential to help reduce pain related to gout and osteoarthritis.
There are plenty of other dietary strategies and supplements I would look into before implementing tart cherry juice, but it is certainly an option that could help a lot of people too.