aka Prunus cerasus, sour cherries, Montmorency cherry, tart cherry juice, Balatan cherry
What it is: Containing higher concentrations of naturally occurring plant compounds called phenolics, and in particular anthocyanin, than its sweet sister, tart cherries are the smallest member of the stone fruit family, which also includes plums, apricots, nectarines, and peaches. Tart cherries are grown primarily in Michigan in the United States. There are two varieties of tart cherries, Montmorency and Balaton, both of which are touted as natural alternatives to aspirin and nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for the relief of pain.
How it works: Anthocyanins help block two enzymes, COX-1 and COX-2, responsible for the production of inflammatory compounds called prostaglandins. In addition, the antioxidant actions of tart cherries may help ameliorate some of the oxidative tissue damage that can trigger further production of free radicals, inflammation, and muscle soreness.
Performance benefit: Decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation after strenuous exercise facilitates faster recovery times allowing the athlete to accumulate the benefits of more training.
Research: A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 54 runners competing in Oregon’s 197mi (317 km) Hood to Coast Relay race found that runners consuming 355 ml (~12 oz [.35 L], equivalent to 90-100 cherries) of Montmorency tart cherry juice twice a day for 7 days before the race and twice on race day reported significantly less pain than runners receiving a placebo cherry drink (Kuehl et al., 2010). The same dose of tart cherry juice, taken twice a day for 8 consecutive days before an isometric strength exercise, provided significantly more protection against loss of strength compared to a placebo drink in a well-designed 2006 study of 14 male college-aged subjects (Connoly et al.). The fact that a tapered dose of tart cherries has been clinically shown to reduce circulating concentrations of inflammatory markers in recreational marathoners is a likely reason for reduced pain and enhanced recovery in these subjects (Howatson et al., 2010).
Common usage: Tart cherries can be consumed fresh, frozen, dried, or as a juice. They are also available in supplement form as an extract, tablet, or capsule. Research-supported dosing with tart cherry is an equivalent of 45-100 cherries or 12 oz (.35 L) of a tart cherry juice concentrate taken 1-2 times daily.
Health concerns: Cherries contain sorbitol, a sugar alcohol that has natural laxative qualities, thereby triggering gastrointestinal distress in some, especially those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Additional performance benefits: Both Balaton and Montmorency tart cherries contain melatonin, a hormone with antioxidant qualities that may aid sleep, according to a 2011 double-blind, placebo-controlled study of 20 healthy men and women (Howatson et al.). The study found that a 30 ml serving of tart Montmorency cherry juice concentrate (equivalent to 90-100 cherries) taken both in the morning and again before bed significantly increased circulating melatonin while improving sleep efficiency by 5%-6% and overall duration of sleep by 34 minutes per night. The placebo group had no change or a negative change in sleep patterns. It is well known that sleep is an essential component of overall health and necessary for efficient recovery from exercise.