“No pain, no gain.” I’m sure you’ve heard this term before. Hopefully you didn’t let it get the best of your ego, because pain is not an indicator of an effective workout! However, delayed-onset muscle soreness, or DOMS, does indicate that you have worked your muscles hard enough to cause some structural damage. That doesn’t mean you have injured yourself, but anyone who has experienced DOMS knows that the soreness can be intense enough to limit exercise performance—and sometimes even everyday activities!
Contrary to popular belief, DOMS is not caused by a buildup of lactic acid in skeletal muscle, nor is it indicative of the magnitude of muscle damage or potential hypertrophy (muscle growth) (Contrò, Mancuso, & Proia, 2016). A specific type of muscle contraction called ‘eccentric’ contraction usually leads to DOMS; during this type of contraction, the muscle is being stretched while contracting. Examples include lowering a dumbbell during curls, performing negative pullups, and lowering the bar during stiff-legged deadlifts. In all of these causes, a muscle group (the biceps, latissimus dorsi, and hamstrings, respectively) is being stretched while producing tension.
The actual cause of DOMS isn’t certain, but it could be due to microtears in the muscle, pro-inflammatory compounds released as a result of the trauma, stimulation of pain receptors, or a combination of these factors. The timeline is well documented, and many individuals have experienced it: pain, stiffness, and loss of strength that peaks anywhere from 1-3 days after an intense lifting session, sometimes lasting for over a week!
So, is there anything one can do to avoid this intense discomfort and even enjoy a subsequent exercise bout within a few days? Fortunately, there is a great deal of evidence to support a highly effective supplement that you may not have heard of. No, it’s not glutamine, whey protein, or BCAA’s, but a friendly fruit instead…
A recent study in the Journal of the International Society of Sport Nutrition showed that ten days of tart cherry extract (480 mg/day) reduced inflammatory markers and perceived soreness in the medial quadriceps compared to placebo in a group of endurance-trained men and women after completing a half-marathon (Levers et al., 2016). The group receiving tart cherry exhibited reduced levels of the stress-hormone cortisol as well as creatinine, which is a marker of muscle damage. (The group receiving tart cherry extract also exhibited a faster pace, but that may have been due to a larger proportion of this group being male.) Another study in cyclists utilized 30mL doses of tart cherry concentrate equivalent to 90-110 cherries twice per day for eight days (four before the exercise trial, the day of the trial, and for three days after the trial) (Bell, Walshe, Davison, Stevenson, & Howatson, 2015). The endurance-trained cyclists performed an intense 109-minute sprint-cycle protocol including 66 sprints of 5, 10 or 15 seconds with varying work:rest ratios. Interleukin-6, an inflammatory marker, was reduced in the tart cherry group up to three hours post-exercise compared to the placebo group. C-reactive protein, another marker of inflammation, was actually reduced even before the exercise bout and remained lower in the tart cherry group through the entire experiment. Maximum voluntary contraction was significantly higher in the tart cherry group after the exercise protocol, indicating improved tolerance to resistance training. Tart cherry was also beneficial to a group of runners who ingested 355mL twice per day for one week before completing a relay race averaging about 26 kilometers (Kuehl, Perrier, Elliot, & Chesnutt, 2010). While all participants reported a subjective increase in pain after the race, it was much smaller in the tart cherry group (an increase of about 12 mm versus 37 mm on the Visual Analog Scale of subjective pain measurement).
At this point, you might be wondering about the effectiveness of tart cherry for resistance training; it helps there as well! In trained males who completed a grueling 100-rep back squat protocol (that’s ten sets of ten repetitions), ten days of 480mg powdered tart cherry supplementation significantly reduced perceived muscle soreness in the quadriceps (Levers et al., 2016). Eight days of supplementation with 12oz. of a tart cherry juice blend reduced perceived muscle soreness and maintained strength in the biceps of men who performed two sets of 20 maximal eccentric contractions of the biceps using a modified preacher curl machine (Connolly, McHugh, Padilla-Zakour, Carlson, & Sayers, 2006). In another rigorous exercise protocol, semi-professional soccer players supplemented with 30mL of tart cherry concentrate for four days before participating in an intermittent shuttle-run test consisting of six 15minute sessions, then returning just 24 hours later for a battery of functional performance tests that they repeated daily for the next three days (Bell, Stevenson, Davison, & Howatson, 2016)! Markers of inflammation and perceived DOMS were significantly lower in the players that ingested the tart cherry concentrate, while their maximum voluntary contraction and counter-movement jump height were significantly higher compared to those who received the placebo.
By now, I’m sure you’re wondering, “How much should I take?” and “Where can I buy this?” The literature fairly consistently utilizes a dose of 480mg of powdered tart cherry extract or 60-500mL (217oz) of a liquid form. The liquid varieties contain calories (about 70 kcal and 15g sugar per ounce), while the powdered extract does not. When shopping for supplements, keep in mind that no supplement is tested for efficacy, nor is it approved or certified in any way by the FDA. Seek out a supplement with a label such as “USP Verified,” “NSF,” “UL,” or “ConsumerLab,” as these all indicate that the supplement has been tested for purity. If you’d like to see my personal pre-workout recipe, check out my blog at www.vitaminphdnutrition.com where I detail the effectiveness of each ingredient; yes, tart cherry extract is included!
While no tart cherry supplementation completely relieved symptoms of DOMS or markers of inflammation, the research shows that daily intake of the powder or concentrate can certainly reduce the symptoms and maintain strength during subsequent exercise bouts. What does that mean for you? Less time hobbling up the stairs and more time enjoying your sport! “No cherry, no gain,” certainly doesn’t have the same ring to it, but at least it’s more accurate!
About the Author
Dr. Gabrielle Fundaro, Assistant Professor of Exercise Science, graduated with a BS in Exercise, Sport, and Health Education in 2009. In 2014, she earned her PhD in Human Nutrition, Foods and Exercise at Virginia Tech where she studied the role of probiotics on skeletal muscle metabolism. That year, she was hired as an Assistant Professor of Exercise Science at Georgia Gwinnett College where she teaches sport nutrition and anatomy and physiology.
"I’ve dabbled in quite a few sports since the age of 19. As an undergraduate, I was an avid climber, working as a climbing instructor with the Boy Scouts of America. That was also the period of time during which I discovered my love for weightlifting and powerlifting, having won two competitions hosted by local universities. During graduate school, I competed in numerous trail races throughout the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In April 2015 I competed in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competition after roughly six months of training, and while I didn’t win, I learned a great deal about pushing myself to the limit! In October 2015, I competed in my first bodybuilding competition at the Lee Haney Games where I won first place in the Open Class A of the women’s physique division. I’m currently preparing for my next show which will take place at the end of June. In my free time, I enjoy hiking, camping, weight lifting, and volunteering."
Bell, P. G., Stevenson, E., Davison, G. W., & Howatson, G. (2016). The Effects of Montmorency Tart Cherry Concentrate Supplementation on Recovery Following Prolonged, Intermittent Exercise. Nutrients, 8(7). https://doi.org/10.3390/nu8070441
Bell, P. G., Walshe, I. H., Davison, G. W., Stevenson, E. J., & Howatson, G. (2015). Recovery facilitation with Montmorency cherries following high-intensity, metabolically challenging exercise. Applied
Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism = Physiologie Appliquée, Nutrition et Métabolisme, 40(4),
Connolly, D. A. J., McHugh, M. P., Padilla-Zakour, O. I., Carlson, L., & Sayers, S. P. (2006). Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 40(8), 679–83; discussion 683. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2005.025429
Contrò, V., Mancuso, E. P., & Proia, P. (2016). Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) management: present state of the art. Journal of Sports Sciences, 3(23), 121–127.
Kuehl, K. S., Perrier, E. T., Elliot, D. L., & Chesnutt, J. C. (2010). Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7, 17. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-7-17
Levers, K., Dalton, R., Galvan, E., O’Connor, A., Goodenough, C., Simbo, S., … Kreider, R. B. (2016). Effects of powdered Montmorency tart cherry supplementation on acute endurance exercise performance in aerobically trained individuals. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 13(1), 22. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-016-0133-z