You’ve just completed your hill repeats. The workout went great, confidence is at an all time high, and you can’t wait to crush the next one. However, the next day you wake up and you’re stiff as a board. Your quads ache, your calves scream; you’re wondering what you did to deserve this torment.

What went wrong? Exercise induced muscle damage and its corollary Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) often results from novel, intense exercise, typically lasts 24-48 hours after the exercise, and subsides within 96 hours. DOMS itself is a mechanical disruption to the sarcomeres (the fundamental units of muscle cell contraction) that results in localized inflammation, swelling, and free radical proliferation of the muscle fiber (1). This lingering soreness and temporary decrease in strength with DOMS has huge impacts for athletes of all abilities; you can’t practice or perform to your full potential if you’re sore! Traditional treatments (stretching, massage, ice, compression, etc.) have long been staples in treating DOMS with positive yet limited results; however one relatively new approach - tart cherry juice - is emerging as a promising alternative.

A large aspect of the soreness we experience with DOMS is related to the inflammation, swelling, and free radical proliferation mentioned earlier. Tart cherries have been identified as a foodsource high in antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, which has led researchers to speculate on their ability to alleviate inflammatory conditions.(2) Considering these potentially beneficial effects, researchers assembled a randomized controlled trial, measuring pain, muscle tenderness, muscle strength, and relaxed elbow angle before and after a maximal bout of bicep curls.

For the study, one group of subjects received 12oz bottles of tart cherry juice, the other group received a control drink (made to look and taste just like tart cherry juice) and were instructed to drink one in the morning and one in the evening for the next 8 days. On day 4, subjects returned to the lab and performed their maximal bicep curls, which resulted in significant DOMS related soreness. Each of the following 4 days, the subjects returned to the lab and again measured pain, muscle tenderness, muscle strength, and relaxed elbow angle, and the data was gathered.

The study found that for the control trial, strength loss was 30% at 24 hours and still 12% at 96 hours. In contrast, the cherry group strength loss was only 12% at 24 hours, and actually 6% above baseline measurements at 96 hours. Similarly, pain measurements in the control group increased until a peak at 48 hours, whereas the cherry group pain intensity peaked at only 24 hours. Resting elbow flexion angle and muscle tenderness measurements that did not show a significant difference between the groups.

So what does all this mean? Although it is not possible to definitively conclude that tart cherry juice supplementation prevented muscular damage/DOMS, this study it does seem to indicate a protective effect of the cherry juice and a preservation of muscle function. Less strength loss and decreased pain related to DOMS means you’ll be more fully recovered and ready to tackle that next workout.

1 Connolly DAJ, Sayers SP, McHugh MP. Treatment and prevention of delayed onset muscle soreness. J Strength Cond Res 2003;17:197–208.

2 Tall JM, Seeram NP, Zhao C. Tart cherry anthocyanins suppress inflammation induced pain behavior in rat. Behav Brain Res 2004;153:181–8.