The Secret to Their Success: Tart Cherry Juice Called Cheribundi — Really??

A tiny fruit may be the big winner in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament. While Gatorade may claim the lion’s share of product placement with ubiquitous towels, buckets, and squeeze bottles on the sidelines, Cheribundi tart cherry juice is omnipresent on fueling stations after every game, practice, and conditioning session and is the go-to recovery drink for collegiate dietitians across the country. So what’s the deal with Cheribundi and is it really powerful enough to claim a piece of the podium with the best teams and athletes in the country?

Fact: 12 of 16 teams in this year’s Sweet 16 drink Cheribundi. This makes it quite probable that the national champion will be a team that drinks Cheribundi. NCAA basketball players aren’t the only ones including tart cherry juice in their sports nutrition programs.

In fact, 70 college athletic programs drink Cheribundi, along with 14 NFL teams, 9 teams in the NHL, 6 MLB teams, 5 in the NBA, and the U.S. women’s volleyball and soccer teams, according to the company. There is something here that requires a closer look.

“The aspect of exercise recovery that’s not well-understood is preventing exercise-induced muscle damage, preventing exercise-induced inflammation, and preventing exercise-induced oxidative stress,” says Malachy McHugh, Ph.D., Director of Research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. This is what Dr. McHugh calls the “terrible triad of recovery from exercise.” He has been part of several studies that show tart cherries play a key role in preventing all three. “These are the things that lead to the breakdown of the athlete over a long season,” says Dr. McHugh.

Student-athletes definitely endure long seasons. There are games or meets a couple of times each week, a practice and training schedule, and in NCAA Division 1-A, expanded opportunities to participate in pre-season and post-season tournaments or playoffs, extending the season even further. Take the Aggies of Texas A&M University, a No. 3 seed in this year’s tournament. The men played 36 games this season taking them to the Sweet 16, averaging 2 games a week, and have traveled to three different time zones including a trip to the Bahamas for a pre-season invitational tournament. The TAMU women’s basketball team has taken on a similar schedule which included a pre-season tourney in Hawaii and games in three different time zones from their local central time. 650 student-athletes at TAMU compete in 20 varsity sports in the Southeastern conference (SEC).

Student-athletes are not breaking down because they have inadequate carbohydrates, electrolytes or protein. Dr. McHugh says the breakdown occurs “because they have an inflammatory and an oxidative stress response to exercise that’s not well-managed.” Dietitians at TAMU and several more universities are putting the research to work, and Cheribundi is part of their efforts to hasten muscle recovery using proven “functional foods.” The tart cherry drink is so popular with TAMU athletics that the basketball managers’ intramural team calls themselves the “Cheribundis.”

“Research shows that if you eat 45–50 cherries a day you will have significant reductions in your systemic inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein,” says Dr. McHugh. “But it is quite a difficult nutritional intervention to eat 45 cherries every day. It is a lot easier to drink an 8-ounce bottle of juice.”

Declan Connolly, Ph.D., is a professor of physical education and exercise science at the University of Vermont where he also directs the Human Performance Lab. He says the research results on cherries has forced the sports nutrition and exercise science community to expand its definition of exercise recovery nutrition. “People have always just assumed that recovery from exercise is just about energy. But recovery from exercise is actually replenishment and muscle damage repair. And the vast majority of sports drinks that are out there do not have any mechanism to address the damage repair,” says Dr. Connolly.

What sets tart cherries apart from other “functional foods” known for their antioxidants is that cherries have both an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory property in addition to nutritional energy. “So when you put all three of these together you get this very unique, comprehensive approach to exercise recovery,” Dr. Connolly says.

The science-backed juice is trending. The newly retired Matt Hasselbeck, former Colts quarterback, was featured in an Indianapolis Star newspaper story late last year that surveyed the myriad methods he and his teammates used to recover from practice and play at the elite level week after week during the NFL season. Hasselbeck was singled out for his constant wearing of compression socks, mocking his teammates as they sat in ice baths and always drinking a bottle of Cheribundi after practice.

More recently Runner’s World magazine asked collegiate dietitians what they fed members of the track and cross-country teams. Stanford University’s dietitian Kristen Gravani gives her runners Cheribundi Rebuild, tart cherry juice with whey protein, among other nutrient-rich foods like Greek yogurt, almonds, and fresh fruit. “The cherries help with inflammation and the protein gives it an extra kick for muscle recovery,” says Gravani in the article.

While the madness continues as the tournament plays out, it’s refreshing to see that innovation in sports nutrition can be achieved with more of Mother Nature and fewer ingredients on the label.

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