Toolbox: Tart Cherries as a Functional Food
As athletes, we all want to get the extra “edge”. We train smart, rest hard, eat properly, stay hydrated, all the things everyone should be doing to perform optimally. Let’s look at how to use a ‘functional food’ to aid recovery and performance.
Potential Problem with Supplements
An informed athlete knows that supplementation comes with the risk of contamination. The reality is, there are very few legal supplements that are scientifically proven to improve performance in the field. Many products are sitting on shelves with “claims” to make you faster, stronger and more resilient. We have to understand that there is no governing body stopping these manufacturers from writing these claims. In other words, don’t believe everything you read on a label, including the ingredients, and when you do supplement, use a very reputable company with third party testing, who is willing to communicate and answer your questions.
I prefer to turn to ‘functional foods’ as a means of getting the extra edge. These foods offer more to the body beyond calories and are nutrient dense foods. Many people use the food “superfood” too lightly. But I believe foods like Montmorency tart cherries are a proper representation of this trendy phrase. Recently, the effects of Montmorency tart cherry supplementation have been making more of a mainstream mark, with studies as far back as 2007 and the evidence adding up.
Tart Montmorency cherry juice is high in polyphenol antioxidants, containing high levels of phytochemicals such as flavonoids and anthocyanins. Antioxidants from functional foods are believed to have greater antioxidant bioavailability.
Benefits of tart cherry supplementation range from reductions in inflammation, muscle soreness, decreased muscle catabolism and increased performance in aerobically trained individuals (1). Sleep improvements have also been reported, which for athletes is important as sleep and recovery have a strong relationship.
One study (1) investigated 27 endurance trained runners and triathletes (18 men and 9 women). This was the first study supplementing with a Montmorency tart cherry skin powder. Subjects consumed the powder 7 days before, the day of and 2 days after (480 mg/day) they ran half marathon 21.1 km run under 2 hours.
Results of this study showed;
• Subjects in the tart cherry juice group averaged 13% faster finish times compared to the placebo group.
• Inflammatory markers were 47% lower in TC compared to placebo over time with a significant difference between groups. Markers actually decreased 7% below pre run in the tart cherry group.
• Soreness perception was different over time with 34% lower pre-run soreness in the Tart Cherry group.
• Over the 48 hour recovery, changes in medial quadriceps soreness from pre-run measures were smaller in the placebo group vs the tart cherry group.
• Tart cherry ingestion reduced post-run serum markers of muscle catabolism, secondary muscle damage and physiological stress over the 48 hour recovery period vs placebo.
Another study (2) using 16 semi-professional male soccer players as subjects, investigated prolonged intermittent sprint activity such as is seen in field sports. The Montmorency tart cherry group consumed 1 ounce (30ml) of juice diluted in 100ml of water twice per day at 8am and 6pm for 7 days, 4 prior to the simulated trial and 3 days post. The placebo group consumed the same in a calorie-matched fruit cordial. Subjects had dietary restrictions during the trial which were confirmed by diet journals.
Results of this study showed:
• Tart cherry juice group was found to maintain greater functional performance.
• Decreased self-reported muscle soreness DOMS, 72 hours post-trial in Montmorency Cherry Juice Group.
• Montmorency Cherry Juice Group had significantly lower levels of markers of inflammation, particularly post trial.
These outcomes suggest that Montmorency tart cherry juice may benefit athletes in more intermittent, prolonged sports including sprint related sports such as track cycling, soccer, rugby and hockey.
As more data accumulates on post exercise recovery markers when using Montmorency Cherry Juice, it appears that athletes both in endurance and intermittent sports are able to return to pre-performance muscular force levels more quickly and be better able to maintain higher quality training during compacted training schedules. For endurance athletes this could be useful during stage racing where you are competing back to back for up to 5-7 days at a time.
Another study (3) looked specifically at repeated high intensity cycling to mimic stage race like stress on the body, which also supported the attenuation of oxidative stress and inflammatory responses in the Montmorency Cherry group vs placebo. More support that tart cherry juice can accelerate the recovery process for athletes.
Recovering faster means back to training faster; both excellent outcomes of consumption of Montmorency cherries.
Overall the evidence is pointing in the right direction. There seems nothing to lose by consuming the tart Montmorency cherry juice and an edge to gain in markers of overall recovery during concentrated training periods or intermittent sprint like sports (rugby, soccer, hockey etc.). The juice itself is also simply very nutrient dense and very high in flavonoids and anthocyanins compared to other berries, so again there is nothing to lose.
Based on the majority of studies to date, it appears the best dose recommendation at this time is consuming tart cherry juice anywhere from 1-8 days pre event and 1-4 days post event, including race day. The liquid dose is 30 ml twice per day diluted in 100 ml of water.
As research continues we may learn different dosing recommendations from studies. I hope that we see more research with powdered Montmorency cherry skin as this would be a convenient method for athletes to consume the juice while travelling when they are unable to source it.
Unfortunately juicing the cherries is not a very realistic option, as 30 ml is equal to approximately 50-60+ cherries. I’m not sure about you but that seems like a very tedious and messy task! Juicing beets is messy enough at it is!
Whether your functional food be quality beetroot juice or powder or Montmorency tart cherry juice, knowing its source is still important, if it has been turned into a powdered product. But it seems the red juices are all the rage. Get your juicer out for the beet root juice and hit your local whole foods grocer to source out your Montmorency cherry juice and you will be on your way to getting that extra edge you are looking for!
1. Kyle Levers et. Al, Effects of powdered Montmorency tart cherry supplementation on acute endurance exercise performance in aerobically trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2016
2. Bell PG, Stevenson E, Davison GW, Howatson G. The effects of Montmorency tart cherry concentrate supplementation on recovery following prolonged intermittent exercise. Nutrients. 2016; 8:441.
3. Phillip G. Bell et. Al, Montmorency Cherries Reduce the Oxidative Stress and Inflammatory Responses to Repeated Days High-Intensity Stochastic Cycling. February 2014, Nutrients 2014, 6(2),
Anne Guzman is a Registered Holistic Nutritionist and Sports Nutrition Consultant with a degree in Kinesiology. Her passion lies in Sports Nutrition for endurance athletes as well as general health and wellness. Anne raced full time on the women’s Professional circuit in North America with some bouts in Europe from 2008 until 2011 and previous to cycling was a Provincial and CIAU Champion and National Bronze medalist as a Varsity Freestyle Wrestler. Currently Anne works with athletes helping them reach their potential by combining their own training plans with her nutrition plans. Anne believes that many athletes undermine their intense detailed training regimes by not backing them with sound nutrition. Her personal experience as a cyclist and athlete is a great asset to her business as she understands the needs and nuances that come with the sport. Anne consulting business is Nutrition Solutions Anne Guzman. You can follow Anne on twitter or her facebook page.