Tart Cherry Juice for DOMS

DOMS or delayed onset muscle soreness is familiar for the elite or novice athlete. It occurs 12-48 hours after eccentric exercise (such as downhill running) or after doing an activity that you are not used to. Symptoms can range from muscle tenderness to severe debilitating pain. For many years’ researchers have tried to figure out what is happening in the muscle that causes this pain. Factors associated with DOMS include inflammation, free radical production, mechanical injury and loss of force production. It is hoped that by understanding what produces symptoms will help with how to best treat those symptoms and perhaps speed up recovery. Faster recovery is the athlete’s holy grail. Speed up recovery and you can train harder and thus achieve a higher level of adaptations and hopefully subsequent improved recovery.

What is also known however, is that some inflammation and free radical production is necessary for adaptations to occur. So, the question is how to speed recovery by reducing inflammation and neutralizing free radicals without compromising adaptations. Use of NSAID (such as ibuprofen) and taking vitamin C pills, for example, have been shown to potentially inhibit necessary adaptations. But are there foods that might reduce pain and inflammation while not compromising adaptations?

Much of the research looking at nutritional interventions have used supplements as opposed to using foods. This seems a bit shortsighted in that it is likely there are a plethora of components in foods that may work synergistically to accomplish improved recovery and adaptations as opposed to single isolated nutrients. Indeed, we see this in disease applications where supplementation with isolated nutrients such as Vitamin A or Vitamin E increases disease risk while consumption of foods rich in those nutrients decreases disease (specifically cancer) risk.

A 2006 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine looked at supplementation with tart cherry juice and DOMS and subsequent ability to produce force. They had to use the juice as opposed to the fruit, which likely would be better, in order to be able to compare it to a taste alike placebo (Kool aid).

Numerous antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agents have been identified in tart cherries and consumption of 45 sweet bing cherries a day has been shown to reduce circulating concentration of inflammatory markers in healthy men and women. [Kelley at al. J Nutr 2006;136:981-6. and Jacob RA et al. J Nutr 2003;133:1826-9.]  Thus, there was a good rationale for doing this study.

What the researchers did was induce muscle soreness by having subjects repeatedly do eccentric contractions (these are contractions where you lengthen the muscle but contract it at the same time as occurs with downhill running). They then measured strength loss, pain perceptions, muscle tenderness and loss of ROM (range of motion). Subjects drank fresh tart cherry juice (a 12 oz bottle in the morning and evening, admittedly that is a lot of juice!) or a placebo 4 days prior to and following the pain inducing exercise test.

Strength loss while on the placebo was 22% and only 4% on the juice over the subsequent 4 days. Pain values were also significantly less in the cherry group. ROM and tenderness, however, was not different.

While this study doesn’t prove that drinking cherry juice (or eating cherries) improves performance, it is provocative in the sense that it may improve the ability to do work (i.e. higher levels of training) following a hard, pain inducing workout.

But what about in endurance athletes? My next piece will talk about a study on marathon runners juiced up on tart cherry juice.