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Why Tart Cherries Are The Next Big Thing

This delicious fruit could give you a performance boost, as well as aid in recovery.

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Photo: Nicki Miller
Photo: Nicki Miller; Cherry photo:

One of the benefits of working at a running magazine is getting visits from different brands and learning about trends and research. This week’s visitors, however, were a bit of an anomaly: Instead of a specific brand, they were here on behalf of a commodity—tart cherries.

First, a bit of cherry 101: There are sweet cherries (often called Bing) and there are tart ones (perhaps labeled Montmorency)—and they are different. Fresh cherries are sweet, so you won’t find tart ones in the produce section. The bright red tart cherries are processed straightaway during the harvest and come as frozen, dried or in juice (or concentrate) form, which you can find year-round. Now here comes the confusing part: Sweet cherries can also come frozen, dried and in juice, so you need to look for tart or sour on the label.

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In the past decade, there’s been a lot of research done on the benefits of tart cherries for athletes. Wendy Bazilian is a registered dietitian and doctor of public health who visited our San Diego offices to explain the research, which she divided into four categories:

  1. Tart cherries are high in antioxidants and have strong anti-inflammatory properties that are linked to protecting the heart.
  2. They have been proven to improve joint health. (Fun fact: Gout sufferers have long advocated consuming tart cherries, but it wasn’t until this recent research that there was evidence to support the folklore.)
  3. Exercise performance improves with tart cherry consumption in terms of both reducing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness—when your legs feel like bricks two days after a race) and helping with pain.
  4. The final huge attribute for athletes is tart cherries can help with sleep. They are a natural source of melatonin, which helps regulate sleep, so they can influence the time it takes to fall asleep as well as how soundly you sleep.

Bazilian explained that the research is both scientific and subjective, which means it’s not simply that scientists have measured specific indicators; the athlete subjects have reported improved performance and recovery. (If you find yourself wondering if sweet cherries may share any of these benes, so did we, but the research hasn’t been done. Bazilian is a fan of sweet cherries too, and with their deeper red color, she says they certainly have their own high-nutrition factor.)

Related: Tackle Inflammation The Natural Way

As runners, we often hear that we need to time precisely when we eat or drink this or that—like chocolate milk should be consumed within 30 minutes after exercise to reap the rewards of the carb/protein combo. The great thing about tart cherries is they can be consumed at any time and as part of your day-to-day diet.

If you want to target your intake around a marathon or any specific event, Bazilian recommends 8 to 12 ounces of juice or a serving of dried or frozen cherries twice a day for a week leading up to the event and for a couple of days afterward. She also suggests working frozen cherries and juice into smoothies. Another option is mixing up your own snack mix with cherries, like this recipe from Bazilian:

Super Spice Snack Mix

¼ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. paprika
½–1 tsp. cayenne (optional “heat”)
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup unsalted whole almonds
1 cup unsalted walnut halves
1 cup roasted salted pepitas (shelled pumpkin seeds)
1 cup salted shelled pistachios
¼ cup thawed apple juice concentrate
½ cup golden raisins
¾ cup dried tart cherries

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Mix brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, paprika and cayenne in a small bowl. Set aside. Place oats, almonds, walnuts, pepitas and pistachios in a large bowl. Add thawed apple juice concentrate; toss until nuts are evenly coated. Sprinkle with spice mixture, tossing to coat well. Spread evenly on two 15x10x1-inch baking pans. Bake 30 minutes, stirring halfway through. Cool completely with pan on a wire rack. Stir in raisins and dried cherries. Store in airtight container.