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Move over beet juice and chia seeds. Tart cherries are aiming for the superfood throne. The drupes are appearing in everything from juices to powders and bars, because like every so-called superfood, they have the potential to boost performance and recovery by fighting inflammation with a boatload of antioxidants.
“If you’re doing the right stuff in terms of diet and lifestyle and are still struggling with inflammation and fatigue in your training, tart cherries are a good thing to try,” says Molly Kimball, a board-certified sports dietitian at Oschner Fitness Center in New Orleans.
There’s a decent amount of research behind that recommendation. One of the most oft-cited studies—and the one that first caught the attention of endurance athletes—came from UK researchers back in 2010. They gathered 20 recreational marathon runners, then had half of them drink tart cherry juice for five days before their race, while the other half downed a placebo. Not only did the tart cherry juice group have less muscle damage prior to and 48 hours after the 26.2-mile event, but they also recovered muscle function more quickly, likely because the antioxidants reduce inflammation by protecting the body against free radicals.
A more recent study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in May 2016 showed similar effects for a group of half marathoners. After ingesting tart cherry powder in capsule form before and after their race, inflammatory markers were reduced by 47 percent and perceived muscle soreness by 34 percent compared to a group of runners who didn’t take the supplement. The cherry group also finished the time trial 13 percent faster on average and stayed on their predicted race pace better.
Tart cherries may help cyclists, too. Research published in Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism also showed that trained cyclists who relied on a tart cherry drink the same way they might traditional sports drinks benefited from accelerated recovery, improved muscle function and reduced inflammation after a 109-minute cycling time trial that was meant to mimic the demands of a road race.
It’s important to note that we aren’t talking fresh cherries you find in the produce section of your local grocery store or those you might put on top of an ice cream sundae. Tart cherries can be found dried, frozen, juiced or in supplement form.
Want to give tart cherries a try? While athletes in the juice studies drank anywhere from 1 ounce to 12 ounces of tart cherry juice twice daily, Kimball recommends starting somewhere in the middle with 6 ounces two times a day to see if the stuff helps you. In terms of the best time to drink that tangy elixir, try taking in 6 ounces before a hard workout and then again after as the literature has demonstrated benefits both pre- and post-exercise.
“The research is really promising, but more studies with larger numbers of athletes need to be done,” says Kimball, before experts like her bestow athletic superfood-of-the-year status upon tart cherries. “In the meantime, when you consider that most athletes live in this constant state of muscle damage and inflammation resulting from training, anything you can do to minimize that is beneficial, and I see tart cherry juice as one potential tool.”