Distance Running and Cherry Juice

In the last post I talked about how consumption of tart cherry juice decreased muscle soreness and reduced strength loss following eccentric induced muscle damage. However, my eccentric induced muscle damage comes from running downhill on rocky trails, not in the weight room. So, can tart cherry juice help that?

Long distance running (and racing) is known to cause acute muscle damage resulting in inflammation and decreased force production. There have been a number of proposed mechanisms to explain what happens. One theory is that there is myofibril (the sliding filaments in muscle) disruption which triggers a local inflammatory response which exacerbates the muscle damage. There is also free radical production which can cause secondary damage and further contribute to the already lowered force generating ability. Not a good thing. NSAIDs are used during (or after) competition to prevent or reduce pain during a race (I know, my husband is a user and I’ve been known to imbibe on occasion, albeit only when I am desperate). There are of course numerous potential adverse (and even life threatening) side effects of consuming NSAIDs during an endurance event--renal failure, gastrointestinal discomfort, to name a few. But sometimes the occasional ibuprofen can save the day.

Well, move over NSAIDs and welcome tart cherry juice.

Tart cherries (as previously mentioned) are a good source of phenolic compounds with high levels of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity. Thus, it is plausible that cherry consumption before and during strenuous exercise may reduce muscle damage and pain.

So, researchers put this to the test.

They did this during the Oregon Hood to Coast relay race where runners do repeated bouts of running over 315 km. It is a course that crosses two mountain ranges (i.e. lots of downhill running and thus lots of potential for muscle pain). They had 54 runners drink either a taste alike placebo or the real deal for 7 days prior to the race (1.5 cups, 2x per day - each drink was the equivalent of 45-50 cherries). They also drank 2 bottles during the race.

After completing the race, both groups reported more pain (as compared to at the start), no surprise there. But the cherry guzzling group reported significantly less pain then the placebo group. The difference was actually quite impressive.... those juiced up on cherries averaged a 12 on the pain scale while those on the placebo averaged a 37 (0 is no pain, 100 is ‘most severe pain ever’).

Another study on marathon runners had a similar result. In this study, 20 recreational marathon runners drank either a juice or placebo drink for 5 days prior to, the day of and for 48 hours following a marathon run. Markers of muscle damage, muscle soreness, inflammatory markers, antioxidant status and oxidative stress were examined prior to and following the race. Isometric strength before and after was also measured.

Isometric strength recovered significantly faster, inflammation was reduced, antioxidant status was better and total oxidative stress was less in the cherry juice group. Pretty cool.

Personally, I buy and use the concentrate (I also buy frozen tart cherries to put into my smoothie). I put a couple of tablespoons into a glass of water with some ice (or even better with some Pellegrino). It really is quite tasty and refreshing.

As a side note, in 2018, I did the Leadwoman competition in Leadville, Colorado. This is a 5 race series which ends with a 100 mile run, which includes about 16,000 feet of ascending and descending. I drank loads of tart cherry juice the weeks prior and after the race. I expected to be extremely sore, but surprisingly two days later I had almost no residual musle soreness.  Part of that was doing lots of hilly training, but I do think the juice helped.