3 great tart cherry juice benefits for athletes

If you’ve been reading about exercise and tart cherries, I wouldn’t be surprised. 

For a few years, the internet has been telling us to drink tart cherry juice or take tart cherry pills. 

Is this just a fad?

Maybe not!

Read on to learn about the tart cherry juice benefits for athletes!

Always remember: this blog is intended solely for informational and educational purposes, and is not intended and should not be construed as offering or providing clinical nutritional advice, or as establishing a professional-client or professional-patient relationship. Always check with your medical provider before starting any course of treatment or supplement, and never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this or any other website. Read our Disclosures and Terms of Service for more information.

What are tart cherries?

Tart cherries are also called sour cherries or dwarf cherries. They, big surprise, taste tart.

photo of tart cherries, some splattered

They are small and bright red, as opposed to the larger, darker red cherries that taste sweet. You might see them called Montmorency cherries, as that is the type of tart cherry grown most often in the United States.

Typically, people consume tart cherries in juices, in jams, as pills, or sweetened and dried. Most people do not enjoy eating them fresh, as they are really really quite sour!

Nutrition of tart cherries

Tart cherries are different, nutritionally, from sweet cherries. In general, tart cherries have greater amounts of beneficial nutrients.

Obviously, you’re not going to meet your body’s needs for these nutrients by consuming only tart cherry juice. As part of a healthy diet, tart cherry juice has a lot of benefits.

(Also, please, don’t only consume tart cherry juice. Or only any one food.)

And for athletes, the benefits may be greater.

(Note: While tart cherries themselves are high in fiber, the juice is not.)

Vitamins

All cherries contain vitamins A, B and C, but tart cherries have 50% more vitamin C and over ten times more vitamin A! These vitamins are used for healthy cell function, energy metabolism, tissue function, immune function, and wound healing.

Minerals

Tart cherry juice contains significant amounts of potassium and copper, as well as decent amounts of iron, manganese, magnesium, zinc, and phosphorus. 

Other nutrients

Cherries get their red color from the phytonutrients and antioxidants anthocyanin and beta carotene. These are related to better heart health and lower cancer risk.

Other phytonutrients found in tart cherries include the flavonoids catechin and quercetin, as well as hydroxycinnamic acids. These nutrients are mainly known for their antioxidant properties.

Tart cherries also contain melatonin, which is an antioxidant and hormone related to your sleep-wake cycle.

What does all this mean? (ie what are the tart cherry juice benefits for athletes?)

Tart cherry juice definitely contains nutrients that are good for everyone. However, there have been many studies conducted on athletes that indicate there may be special benefits to consuming tart cherry juice before, during, and after extreme exertion.

1. Muscle Recovery

Several studies have been done, mainly involving runners, on how tart cherry juice can impact muscle recovery after strenuous exercise. They mostly showed improvements in muscle damage and muscle strength, compared to a control group, in runners who consumed tart cherry juice. 

Fewer studies involving tart cherry have been performed on people doing strength training exercises; indicators of muscle damage were lower in the groups consuming the cherry in these studies as well.

What does this mean? If you consume tart cherry juice, your muscles may recover faster after intense exercise.

2. Pain Relief

There are several reasons why active people might experience pain. They have different causes. Can tart cherry juice help?

Post-exercise muscle soreness

In the above-mentioned studies involving runners, those who consumed tart cherry juice experienced less pain after their events. Across the board.

And in the strength training studies, those in the tart cherry group experienced less muscle soreness than those in the control group, who had a placebo.

Arthritis

Studies performed on both men and women with osteoarthritis indicate that tart cherry juice can improve perceptions of pain in people with osteoarthritis (the “wear and tear” arthritis).

(Why do you care about arthritis, when you’re a teenager? Turns out that athletes are more prone to developing osteoarthritis, the condition where cartilage in your joints breaks down due to stress (as, for example, from high impact or repetitive exercise). Not to mention, osteoarthritis is the most common joint disorder in the United States. So while you may not be dealing with it now, you might be dealing with it in the future. 

Sciencey stuff

It seems like components in the tart cherry juice interfere with the inflammatory pain pathway in much the same way as some anti-inflammatory medicines, such as ibuprofen and naproxen.

Inflammatory pain pathway: injury results in arachidonic acid release which starts a chain resulting in prostaglandins, which cause pain. Steroids will stop the arachidonic acid from being released, NSAIDs will stop the phospholipid chain
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When your body senses an injury (even something like the muscle tearing that results from exercise), it will release something called arachidonic acid. This in turn can be converted to substances called prostaglandins, which can cause pain and increase sensitivity to pain.

An enzyme called cyclooxygenase (COX) is used in the conversion of arachidonic acid into prostaglandin G2 (which in turn converts to other prostaglandins, PH2 then PE2). If you inhibit the COX, you disrupt the pain pathway. This is how both non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and tart cherry juice work.

Steroids, on the other hand, work to prevent your phospholipid membrane from releasing the arachidonic acid to begin with. They are very effective, but have more far-reaching effects, as the disruption occurs further up in the chain of events.

What does this mean? If you consume tart cherry juice, you may experience less pain during and exercise.

text reads: Drinking tart cherry juice may both decrease pain and improve post-exercise muscle recovery

3. Sleep

As many of you know, I consider sleep and sleep hygiene to be one of the three most important health-promoting behaviors. (If you’re interested, the other two are not-smoking and stress management. All start with S. Easy to remember!)

For teens, adequate sleep is even more important, as teens are growing and developing.

And for athletes, getting enough sleep is a paramount for peak performance.

There have been several studies examining the relationship between tart cherry juice and sleep. The results have not been consistent but in general, these studies have shown potential positive impacts on all measures of sleep health (science-y stuff: these are insomnia, total sleep time, total in bed, sleep efficiency, sleep latency and sleep quality).

What does this mean? If you consume tart cherry juice, you may see some sleep improvements.

Other benefits

In addition to the muscle recovery, pain relief, and sleep benefits already mentioned, tart cherry juice is potentially beneficial in other ways.

Because of its effects on inflammation and sleep, tart cherry juice may be useful for overall immune system function. This means potentially being sick less often, less severely, and for less time.

Tart cherry juice has long been a natural aid in the treatment of gout. If you deal with this condition, for sure talk to your doctor!

And because of its antioxidant properties, tart cherry juice can contribute to heart health.

Recommendations

So what does this mean for you? If you are participating in an intense form of exercise, using tart cherry juice might make sense.

photo of a clear glass pitcher with red liquid - tart cherry juice - being poured into it

Tart cherries themselves are difficult to consume. Even if you like the taste, you would have to eat over one hundred per day in order to experience the benefits that have been studied. The same goes for dried cherries, which usually taste better because they are usually sweetened.

Tart cherry juice comes in many forms. Juice, obviously, but also juice concentrate. These two have been studied the most, i.e. there is the most research to support using these forms.

However, there are also powders are pills on the market, which have fewer studies to back them up. 

Which to choose and how much? And is there anything you need to watch out for?

Tart cherry juice

The amount of tart cherry juice used in studies varies, ranging from 8 ounces once per day to 16 ounces twice per day. 

My recommendation is not to use tart cherry juice constantly. But, for a few days before and after a strenuous event or tournament, drink 8 ounces per day. 

If you feel like you would like to try drinking more than this, I definitely recommend talking to a doctor or dietitian first.

Tart cherry juice concentrate

If you find drinking tart cherry juice to me difficult, or prefer a mixed drink, you could try tart cherry juice concentrate. 

Two tablespoons of concentrate is typically the equivalent of 8 ounces of juice. So, the recommendation is 2 tablespoons of concentrate daily for a few days before and after your event.

You can mix this with 7 water, other juice, seltzer, coconut water, or sparkling water. You can put it in a smoothie or even in hot chocolate. Or you can just drink it straight.

Tart cherry juice powder

To make tart cherry juice powder, manufacturers dehydrate the juice. So you want to take enough powder to be equivalent to 8 ounces of juice, once per day; often this is 480 mg.

The powder will taste like tart cherry. It can be added to juice, water, smoothies, or sprinkled onto cereal or oatmeal or whatever you want.

photo of a spoon containing red powder (tart cherry juice powder)

Commercial powders will include instructions on the package. I recommend following these instructions.

Tart cherry juice pills, tablet, and capsules

To make it even easier, several companies have come out with pills containing tart cherry juice powder. 

These will vary in dosage. Look for a brand with around 480 mg of tart cherry. If you’re vegetarian or vegan, make sure the “additional ingredients” do not contain gelatin. 

Also, as with any supplement, look for brands which are third-party tested for safety. This process does not guarantee that the supplement will do what it says, but will provide a level of assurance that it only contains what it says it contains.

This is my least favorite of the options, mainly because taking tart cherry in pill form has less research than the juice, juice concentrate, or powder. 

Tart Cherry Juice; How to use tart cherry juice to decrease muscle soreness and improve muscle recovery. Tart Cherry Juice: Drink 8 ounces per day in the week surrounding your event. Tart Cherry Juice Concentrate: Take two tablespoons per day in the week surrounding your event. Tart Cherry Juice Powder: Follow manufacturer directions. Tart Cherry Juice Pills; Follow manufacturer directions.
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Cautions

Nothing is risk free and perfect. When should you be careful of using tart cherry juice?

Upset belly

Some people find that tart cherries cause some gastrointestinal distress i.e. upset stomach and digestive problems. I recommend starting with only 8 ounces per day, increasing with advice from a medical professional, and paying attention to how you feel. 

If the juice does upset your stomach, consider trying the powder or pill forms.

Timing of use

It is worth noting that all the study results mentioned were performed on athletes around the time of an intense competition or event. It is not clear whether or not using tart cherry juice is useful while training, as it may prevent the body from performing the physical adaptations necessary to improve – such effects have been recorded with use of the antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin E as well as with regular use of NSAIDs.

So, for individual athletes reading this article, be sure to note how you respond to the tart cherry juice if you try it. Adjust as necessary, and get help from a sports dietitian if you need it.

Pollen allergy

If you have a pollen allergy, discuss possible issues with your allergist before using tart cherry juice. Follow their recommendations, and then still be cautious when trying tart cherry juice for the first time.

Bottom line

  • Tart cherry juice may be helpful for decreasing muscle soreness, decreasing muscle damage, and improving sleep in athletes.
  • Use tart cherry juice in the days before and after your event.
  • If choosing juice, start with 8 ounces per day.
  • If choosing juice concentrate, use 2 tablespoons per day.
  • If choosing powders, follow manufacturer instructions.
  • If choosing pills, follow instructions and also look for third party safety testing.

About the Author

Sarah Skovran, RDN LD ACE-PT, is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, ACE certified personal trainer, mom of a teen athlete, and is mostly vegan. She writes about sports nutrition, plant based eating, and adolescent nutrition at Plant Powered Teens, and sees in-person clients at her private practice in Maine.

References

Hill JA, Keane KM, Quinlan R, Howatson G. Tart Cherry Supplementation and Recovery From Strenuous Exercise: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. 2021;31(2):154-167. doi:10.1123/ijsnem.2020-0145

Howatson G, Bell PG, Tallent J, Middleton B, McHugh MP,Ellis J.  Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. Eur J Nutr. 2012;51: 909–91. doi: 10.1007/s00394-011-0263-7

Howatson G, McHugh MP, Hill JA, Brouner J, Jewell AP, Van Someren KA, Shave RE, Howatson SA. Influence of tart cherry juice on indices of recovery following marathon running. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports. 2010; 20: 843-852. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2009.01005.x

Kuehl KS, Perrier ET, Elliot DL, Chesnutt JC. Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2010; 7: 17. doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000009

Levers K, Dalton R, Galvan E, Goodenough C, O’Connor A, Simbo S, Barringer N, Carter J, C Seesselberg C, Jung YP, Coletta A, Mertens-Talcott S, Rasmussen C, Greenwood M, Kreider R. Powdered tart cherry supplementation demonstrates benefit on markers of catabolism and muscle soreness following an acute bout of intense lower body resistance exercise, Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2014; 11:sup1. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-11-S1-P31

Levers K, Dalton R, Galvan E, Goodenough C, O’Connor A, Simbo A, Barringer N, Mertens-Talcott SU, Rasmussen C, Greenwood M, Riechman S, Crouse S, Kreider RB. Effects of powdered Montmorency tart cherry supplementation on an acute bout of intense lower body strength exercise in resistance trained males. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2015;12:1. doi: 10.1186/s12970-015-0102-y

Vitale KC, Hueglin S, Broad E. Tart cherry juice in athletes: A literature review and commentary. Current Sports Medicine Reports. 2017; 16 (4): 230-239 doi: 10.1249/JSR.0000000000000385

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