Is Tart Cherry Juice the New Super Recovery Drink?
Research finds evidence of natural relief from the pain of exhaustive exercise.
Emerging research suggests tart cherry juice has a unique blend of
powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents that help athletes and
exercise enthusiasts recover faster from exhaustive exercise. This
discovery is attracting growing interest among fitness professionals.
Recovery time is critical in helping the body adapt to the progressive
overload stresses of exercise that trigger the training effect, which
includes replenishing depleted energy stores, repairing damaged tissue
and initiating protein synthesis (the process of increasing the protein
content of muscle cells). Three key studies of the recovery benefits of
tart cherry juice suggest promising results.
Why Are Tart Cherries So Helpful During Recovery?
Tart cherries contain specialized flavonoids and anthocyanins (Connolly,
McHugh & Padilla-Zakour 2006). Flavonoids are plant substances thought
to provide health benefits through antioxidant effects. Within cells,
antioxidants are compounds that “donate” electrons to unstable
molecules, also called reactive oxygen species (see Figure 1), so they
don’t have to snatch electrons from unsuspecting nearby cells.
Anthocyanins are antioxidant flavonoids that protect the cells of many
body systems. These plant compounds are thought to have potent
antioxidant and physiological effects.
Tart cherries appear to have anti-inflammatory agents as well (Connolly,
McHugh & Padilla-Zakour 2006). Acute inflammation is a protective immune
response of the body to heal itself. An initial acute inflammation step
is the dilation of arterioles and the opening of new capillaries to
allow plasma proteins, white blood cells and immune cells to the area of
injury, such as the muscle damaged by exercise. This protective process
often stimulates nerves, potentially leading to irritation and pain.
Finding: Tart Cherry Juice Affects Symptoms of Muscle Damage From
Connolly McHugh & Padilla-Zakour (2006) designed a study to determine
the effect of tart cherry juice before and after eccentric exercise,
which is often implicated in delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
Kelley et al. (2006) had shown that eating approximately 45 Bing sweet
cherries for 28 days significantly decreased some markers of
inflammation in men and women. Those researchers concluded that
cherries’ anti-inflammatory effects might be of clinical significance,
requiring further research.
Connolly and colleagues (2006) followed up with an investigation to see
whether tart cherry juice consumption before and after eccentric
exercise might have a protective effect on related symptoms of muscle
damage. Fourteen male college students (average age 22) drank 12 fluid
ounces of a cherry juice blend (equivalent to 50–60 cherries) or a
placebo twice a day (once in the morning and once in the evening) for 8
The men performed a bout of eccentric elbow flexion contractions on the
fourth day of supplementation. Isometric elbow flexion strength, pain,
muscle tenderness and relaxed elbow angle were recorded before and for 4
days after the eccentric exercise. The men were instructed not to
exercise their upper extremities during the study. In addition, they
were told not to take any anti-inflammatory or pain-relieving drugs
during the course of the study, nor to initiate any other treatment for
symptoms of muscle soreness.
The participants performed two sets of 20 maximal eccentric contractions
on a preacher-curl device with one arm, with a 3-minute rest between
sets. The protocol was repeated 2 weeks later, with study subjects who
initially took the placebo now taking the cherry juice drink (and vice
versa). The opposite arm performed the second bout of eccentric
exercise, to avoid any protective effect from a repeated bout.
In the placebo trial, strength loss was 30% 24 hours after eccentric
exercise and 12% 96 hours after it. In the cherry juice trial, strength
loss was only 12% after 24 hours, and strength was actually 6% above
baseline after 96 hours. Most impressively, average strength loss over
the 4 days after eccentric exercise was 22% with the placebo, but only
4% with the cherry juice.
Finding: Tart Cherry Juice May Reduce Pain After Extreme Exercise
Kuehl et al. (2010) noted that endurance running may cause acute muscle
damage that both decreases force production and produces acute
inflammation for up to 1 week after exercise. The authors proposed that
this acute response to distance running may happen when disruptions of
the contractile proteins create localized inflammation. The authors
added that anti-inflammatory and/or antioxidant effects of cherry juice
may lessen this muscle protein disruption.
Kuehl and colleagues compared the effects of tart cherry juice and a
placebo cherry drink on muscle pain among the Oregon Hood-to-Coast Relay
runners. The race spans 195 miles from Mount Hood to the Oregon coast
with 12-person race teams (each racer runs three segments totaling about
16 miles) crossing two mountain ranges in about 28 hours. Fifty-four
healthy runners (36 men, 18 women; 35.8 ± 9.6 years) volunteered for the
Participants running on the same relay team were assigned to the same
drink condition (28 cherry juice, 26 placebo) so they could not
unintentionally switch drinks during the study.
All participants completed three data collection sessions: baseline (7
days prior to the race), race start and race end. At baseline, runners
in the study received 16 (12-ounce) bottles of their drink (cherry juice
or placebo), with instructions to consume two bottles daily before the
race (14 bottles over 7 days) and two bottles during the race (total
consumption: 16 bottles). Participants assessed the intensity of their
muscular pain during the race using a validated 100-millimeter visual
analog scale, with 0 mm indicating no pain and 100 mm indicating most
After completing the race, participants in both groups reported more
muscle pain than they’d had at baseline. However, the increase in pain
was significantly less in the cherry juice group than in the placebo
group. The researchers concluded that ingesting tart cherry juice for 7
days prior to and during a strenuous running event can minimize postrun
Finding: Tart Cherry Juice Brings Relief After a Marathon
Howatson et al. (2010) had 20 marathon runners consume two 8-ounce
bottles of a commercially blended tart cherry juice (Cherrypharm,
Geneva, New York) or a placebo (one drink in the morning and one drink
in the evening) for 5 days before, on the day of and for 2 days after a
After the marathon, the researchers measured several markers/signs of
muscle damage, including muscle soreness, isometric strength, creatine
kinase levels and lactate dehydrogenase levels. The scientists also
measured indicators for inflammation, including interleukin-6,
C-reactive protein and uric acid, and examined total antioxidant status
and oxidative stress before and after the race.
Isometric strength recovered significantly faster in the cherry juice
group. Cherry juice did not affect other muscle damage signs.
Inflammation declined significantly in the cherry juice group, while
total antioxidant status was about 10% greater (this is a positive
outcome) in the cherry juice group than in the placebo group. The
authors concluded that cherry juice appears to provide a viable way to
aid recovery after strenuous exercise by increasing total antioxidative
capacity, reducing inflammation and aiding in recovery of muscle
Tart Cherries: Final Thoughts
The totality of evidence (see Figure 2) confirms that tart cherries
provide a realistic alternative to drugs and therapy in aiding recovery
after exhaustive and strenuous exercise (Connolly 2015). The mechanisms
appear to be related to the anti-inflammatory and antioxidant chemical
properties in tart cherries.
The common dosage in most studies is an equivalent of 50 cherries per
serving a day, taken twice daily (Connolly 2015). And, Connolly notes,
there’s no evidence to date pointing to blood sugar irregularities,
gastrointestinal complications or other symptoms from regular tart
cherry intake. More research on the mechanisms by which tart cherries
act and the best practices for their use is surely forthcoming.