Cherries: Why they’re important for endurance athletes and how best to eat them

Cherries and cherry supplements are consumed by thousands of triathletes as a performance aid. But does the evidence stack up? James Witts investigates…

A woman's hands holding a bunch of dark red cherries.

Cherries, or cherry juice, have long been associated with myriad health- and performance-boosting properties. But how much of the hype is actually rooted in science? And does consuming cherries have any actual benefit on a triathlete’s ability to train and race? Let’s find out…

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What are the benefits of cherries on triathlon performance?

Many, according to numerous studies. A 2015 study suggested that supplementing with Montmorency cherry juice bolstered immunity and so helping to slash the number of athletes suffering from upper-respiratory tract symptoms post-marathon.

Cherries have also been shown to improve sleep because they contain melatonin, a hormone that plays an integral role in the sleep cycle. They’ve even been mooted as an ergogenic aid to boost performance, a 2016 study showing that cherries increased run speed.

Scepticism derives from much of the research being funded by the cherry industry. However, as we highlighted in an issue of 220 Triathlon, the area where cherry supplementation’s often used by professional and age-group athletes alike is recovery.

How do cherries improve a triathlete’s ability to recover?

This is down to the compound ‘anthocyanin’, which is also responsible for cherries’ red colour. Anthocyanins feature both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s that double hit which is mooted as cherries’ role in recovery.

A 2021 meta-analysis examined data from 14 studies and concluded, ‘Tart cherry supplementation had a small beneficial effect in reducing muscle soreness’; ‘A moderate beneficial effect was observed for recovery of muscular strength.’

And ‘a moderate effect was observed for muscular power.’ So no panacea but potentially of benefit.

How often should triathletes consume cherries?

There’s no unequivocal suggestion. Cherry Active’s arguably the most well-known cherry shot and they advise ‘30ml of CherryActive’ for recovery.

However, 2014 research by the magnificently named Malachy McHugh, featured in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, suggests that it’s best used as a ‘precovery’ drink rather than ‘recovery’.

“Studies have uniformly shown that muscle function will recover faster on the days after exercise if juice is provided for several days prior to exercise,” McHugh wrote. “The available evidence does not support a regimen that begins on the day of exercise or post-exercise.”

Are there any drawbacks to consuming cherries?

Potentially. While antioxidants are good for sweeping up huge swathes of free radicals generated from exercise, which is a key reason behind that mooted reduction in muscle damage, they’ve also been implicated in impairing adaptation.

There’s clear evidence that muscle damage, while painful, causes cells to signal for reinforcements, and ultimately leads to growth in strength and endurance. If this signalling is silenced by antioxidants, gains are slashed.

One school of thought is that you save antioxidants for races rather than training. Again, the conclusions are equivocal.

In what form is it best to consume cherries?

You can try both but, similar to beetroot and BeetIt, you’d have consume a lot of cherries to match concentrated supplements. CherryActive, for instance, says their 30ml shot is the equivalent of 23 fruit and vegetables. That’s a fair amount of cherries.

Then again, there’s evidence that fruit taken naturally sees more of its vitamins and minerals absorbed and assimilated by the body than less-bio-available supplements.

Of note is that Montmorency cherries are often used in supplements. While they’re loaded with antioxidants, it’s also reportedly down to Michigan, US, being a cherry heartland and they’re known for growing Montmorency tart cherries.

Top image: Getty Images

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