The Benefits of Tart Cherry Juice for Athletes

For the second installment of our inflammation and the athlete series, we’re going to talk about tart cherry juice! Inflammation is both good and bad for athletes, just as I detailed here when discussing the benefits of turmeric for your athletic performance.

Quick recap: inflammation is your body beginning the healing process in response to stress, either from things like emotional stress or a tough workout. The inflammation response is what builds muscles (which is good!), but chronic inflammation from too many hours in the gym or not enough rest days between hard workouts can build up inflammation and cause damage to your cells and DNA.

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If you find yourself constantly exhausted, injured, or incredibly sore despite time spent on a foam roller, you might need to incorporate more anti-inflammatory foods into your diet. But what exactly is an anti-inflammatory food? Besides turmeric that we covered last time, one that has promising research for athletes are tart cherries. Tart cherries are loaded with anthocyanins, which have been shown to improve brain cell function, reduce inflammation, and even slow aging.  Anthocyanins have also been shown to benefit athletes, providing things like pain relief and reducing muscle damage.

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Inflammation and Pain Relief

When inflammation levels are increased in the body, this leads to an increased level of inflammatory stress signals, such as nitric oxide, tumor necrosis factor-alpha (TNF-α), and cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2). These sound scary and complicated, and that’s because they can be; TNF-α may be involved in the development of inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. It also down-regulates your immune system, meaning you can’t recover from those workouts as quickly, which can lead to injury or illness. So if you find you have a nagging cold or injury during peak training season, your inflammation levels might be high.

COX-2 is an enzyme that is inhibited by NSAIDs, which are anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin or ibuprofen. NSAIDs relieve pain by decreasing the activity of COX-2 since it is the main enzyme in inflammation. When you inhibit COX-2, like from taking ibuprofen, this relieves pain. But long-term use of NSAIDs can cause stomach damage, kidney failure, and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

Finding an alternative to aspirin or ibuprofen is important if you struggle with chronic pain or an inflammatory injury

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This is where proper sports nutrition plays a role! Tart cherries have also been shown to inhibit COX-2 enzymes, meaning you can skip that ibuprofen after a hard workout and eat or drink your way to less pain. Studies have been honing in on what conditions would benefit from tart cherry consumption. Osteoarthritis, known as the “wear and tear” arthritis, is the most common type of arthritis. Athletes are especially susceptible to developing osteoarthritis, especially for high-impact workouts, like running, that stress the joints and cause cartilage breakdown. One study found osteoarthritis pain was reduced by more than 20% when participants had a daily dose of tart cherries. Another study found that women with inflammatory osteoarthritis drinking tart cherry juice twice daily for three weeks had significant reductions in inflammation markers, especially in women who had very high levels of inflammation.

Tart Cherries and Muscle Damage

Can tart cherries help you bounce back faster from a long run? Researchers set out to assess whether tart cherries can reduce muscle damage by studying runners in the Hood to Coast relay in Oregon. The runners drank cherry juice or a placebo cherry drink twice a day for seven days prior to the race and twice a day on race day. The runners then reported their pain after the race, and found that runners who had the tart cherry juice had less muscle pain than those who had the placebo.

In another study with 20 marathon runners, the muscle damage following a marathon was measured after half of the participants had consumed either tart cherry juice or a placebo leading up to the race and after. Inflammation was significantly lower in those who drank the tart cherry juice, and their isometric strength was recovered significantly faster. Another study found that symptoms of muscle damage after strength training were only 4% compared to 22% in those who had tart cherry juice.

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Including Tart Cherries in Your Diet to Reduce Inflammation

The fact that these studies followed endurance athletes specifically provides a good case for including tart cherries in your diet. While more research is needed to determine exactly how much is beneficial, adding this powerhouse fruit to your sports nutrition plan can help reduce inflammation, muscle soreness, and pain. For people with arthritis or recurring injuries, tart cherry juice might be especially helpful.

Cherries are also a good source of melatonin, which helps regulate your internal clock and help you get better sleep! A study found that including a tart cherry concentrate beverage increased time in bed, total sleep time, and sleep efficiency- all benefits anyone can get behind!  

Tart cherry juice is becoming more mainstream and easier to find, but you want to be careful about what variety you include so that you actually see results. I recommend using a tart cherry concentrate instead of a tart cherry juice drink. Some of the drinks contain more apple juice than cherries, so you might not see the benefits and end up drinking a bunch of calories instead.

Using a tart cherry concentrate ensures you are getting the full benefits of the tart cherries instead of just juice. Plus you drink less of it, only about 2 tbsp, versus 8 oz for the juice blend, which saves you some cash! I highly recommend this one if you are entering a tough or extended training phase. Including tart cherry juice concentrate after big workouts, like your long weekend run or brick, will help you bounce back ready for Monday's workout.

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The awesome thing about tart cherry concentrate is it's so versatile! Here are some ideas for adding tart cherry juice to your diet!

  • Combine 2 tbsp tart cherry juice concentrate with ice water

  • For a cherry-limeade drink, mix 2 tbsp tart cherry juice concentrate with lime-flavored seltzer water

  • If you're craving tropical and want to replace electrolytes post-workout, swap coconut water for plain H20

  • Eat some unsweetened dried tart cherries post-run or as a snack

  • Add concentrate to your favorite smoothie recipe!

  • This recipe combines hot chocolate with tart cherry concentrate- Yum!

  • Have an anti-inflammatory powerhouse by combining turmeric with tart cherries in this tea

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Have you been struggling with an injury or feeling fatigued long after your workout is over? It's time to look at your nutrition plan and see what the underlying cause might be. Check out my services here to see how I can help you get back on track and on the road or in the gym again!