When the opportunity arises to speak to an exercise psychologist who specializes in sports science and has 20 years of experience working with professional hockey players including members of the New York Rangers as well as Olympic athletes, the obvious question to ask is: How can I improve my own athletic performance?

Malachy McHugh, Ph.D., who works at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma reframed the question as:

"How can you recover faster and prevent injury to perform at your highest level, free from pain and stress?" Okay, that. He explained that the key to better fitness starts with how we feel, and for a daily exerciser that depends on how well we recover. He provided a simple yet surprising answer: "The best way to maximize performance is to drink tart cherry juice."

Drinking Tart Cherry Juice For Better Recovery, Doctors Say

You'd think there would be a more high-tech answer– something related to stim or massage, cycling fitness loads or punching through thresholds, measuring VO2 Max. But McHugh has spent the last 10 years dedicating his time researching the benefits of tart cherry juice and explained why this area of work fascinates him. “The aspect of nutrition that is not well understood is how nutrition can affect how you feel on the days after exercise––the soreness, the stiffness, the burnout.” This lack of general research led him to explore the health benefits of tart cherry juice, and what he found in the scientific studies stunned him: "There's a list of 35 different phytonutrients in cherry juice that have anti-inflammatory properties due to their high antioxidant levels." He started using it on his athletes to profound effects.

Studies Show Tart Cherry Juice Reduces Muscle Pain

McHugh mentioned numerous studies but singled out a 2006 study, conducted at the University of Vermont, which was the first study to demonstrate that cherry juice worked to aid in recovery among athletes. In the study,14 males, were asked to drink a bottle of cherry juice twice a day for three days before intense exercise and for four days after. The control group drank a placebo. The athletes then performed intense exercises that intentionally tore down muscle fibers, and were asked to rate their soreness on a scale of one to ten in the days after. They repeated this process for two weeks.

Results showed a significant difference between the cherry juice and placebo. The average pain score for those who drank the placebo was 3.2 out of 10, whereas the soreness rating among those who drank the cherry juice was 2.4 out of ten, a difference of 22 percent, significant when an athlete is trying to train every day and push through to the next level.

McHugh participated in a more recent study of how cherry juice impacted joint soreness at the University of Pennsylvania that appeared in the National Library of Medicine. The study included patients with mild to moderate knee arthritis. Results showed that when patients drank the cherry juice, their symptoms were reduced and their inflammation was reduced. The reduced inflammation correlated with a reduction in symptoms.

He then came across a study that compared tart cherry juice consumption to Gatorade, relating to endurance performance and recovery, in the Clinical Trials of the US National Library of Medicine. Participants included moderately active cyclists. "If cherry juice is consumed in the days leading up to muscle-damaging endurance workout, the cyclists had less muscle damage, faster recovery time and felt less fatigue after their workouts than when Gatorade (or equivalent electrolyte drink) was consumed.

Proper Sleep and Diet Helps to Boost Recovery, Doctor Advises

McHugh also suggests that proper sleep and a healthy diet are crucial to better physical health and athletic performance. He explained that the simple rules are most important: Don't have caffeine within about three hours of going to sleep, since both caffeine and alcohol can disrupt your ability to get to sleep and stay asleep. Turn off your screens or devices within a short time of getting to bed, and don't watch TV right up until the hour before bed, he advises, since it can make it harder to get adequate sleep. Turn your devices off one hour before you go to sleep if you want to crush that workout the next day.

Dr. McHugh explains more about why he advises his pro athlete clients to drink tart cherry juice for better recovery and performance, and also find out how cherry juice can help people with arthritis.

The Beet: Why is tart cherry juice better for recovery than everything else?

Malachy McHugh Ph.D.:  The key is to find a food with medicinal effects. In the case of cherry juice, it has antioxidants with anti-inflammatory effects. When I first saw the results of cherry juice on athletic performance at Cornell University, I could not believe it.

They did a double-blind study, and I asked for all the data because I thought that there had to be something wrong––there's no way these guys could not have lost any strength over the four days [of working out that intensely].

The food scientist in the trial sent me a list of all the phytonutrients in cherries that have been identified, and there were 35 different phytonutrients. I never heard of any of them––other than maybe one or two. She said the specific antioxidant could be any of those, but it's most likely all of those.

The fact that you have multiple different phytonutrients, means you have different pathways. If it was just one phytonutrient, you might saturate that pathway, but by having multiple different fighting nutrients, you don't saturate any given pathway. Since there are multiple different phytonutrients, some of them have antioxidant effects, some of them have anti-inflammatory effects, and some of them have both. The reason tart cherry worked better than pomegranate or the açai berry is probably that it has such a diversified sort of profile of phytonutrients.

The Beet: Do you think diet and recovery are related?

Malachy McHugh Ph.D.:Yes. It’s very important that athletes are watching their sleep and what they eat. A big problem is that a lot of athletes would go to practice and then afterward they don’t rest and recover properly. Michael Jordan would play golf after games. In the playoff series, they would have a game go to overtime, and they would have to play the next day or maybe get one day's rest. Then MJ would go golfing on his off day, which is clearly not ideal. So we would try to educate them about this–explain that maybe you shouldn't go golfing. Maybe you should rest instead. In terms of nutrition, we know what to tell people to eat before an event, during, and after the event–in terms of clean carbohydrates and proteins.

The aspect of nutrition that is not well understood is how the nutrition can affect how you feel on the days after exercise––the soreness, the stiffness, the burnout. Those are aspects of recovery where some nutritional interventions can be beneficial. The research we did on cherry juice was very important because that was addressing an aspect of recovery that's not typically addressed in what we know about nutrition.

The Beet: Do you advise your clients to eat a diet to help reduce inflammation?

Malachy McHugh Ph.D.: Reducing inflammation and eating foods that reduce inflammation are the key to that recovery. We want to recommend foods that have been scientifically proven to work for recovery. So they improve the strength recovery of your muscles after exercise, as well as show reduced inflammation, reduced oxidative stress, and reduced soreness.

What I am most interested in is if you have accelerated recovery of strength. I could take a blood measurement and show them, ‘look, your inflammation is this much lower.’ But if I can show them, ‘look, your strength 24 hours after that game is exactly what it was the day before the game--so you have not lost any strength, you are ready to go.’ That is a more real-world solution, and it's also more well understood by the athlete. It's key because it shows that your muscles are working and that's what we're trying to recover.

The Beet: What's the first step we should take to avoid injury?

Malachy McHugh Ph.D.: There are two main aspects that we consider: the first is injury prevention and injury management, and the second is exercise recovery. They are interrelated, but they are really two different things. What you would do to prevent injuries is a little different from what you would do to accelerate recovery. In terms of exercise recovery, we try to figure out what the main stresses are on the athlete, when those stresses are going to be excessive, as well as what you can do to help accelerate their recovery so that they can better manage the stresses.

For example, if you are training to run a marathon, there are very few recovery interventions that you need because you are in charge of what you do. The phrase I like to use is “you're the master of your own domain.” You decide when you train, you decide when you rest, and you decide when you compete. But in many sports, the league decides when you compete, the coaches decide when you train, and you get very little input and it's harder to make decisions.

Athletes who play in long tournaments with lots of travel like NBA or NHL players, their sleep is disrupted. Along with practices and a busy season, they have very little control over trying to recover adequately, so that’s where I try to implement interventions for faster recovery.

The Beet: What else can you recommend for better recovery?

Malachy McHugh Ph.D.: Rest. Standing on your feet is the worst thing for you. My friend who's an Olympic runner takes four days a week to rest after three days of working out. And lying down is something that should not be underestimated. If you look at some of the elite long-distance runners, that's what they do, they train, and then they just literally lay around, watching TV or whatever. Then there's sort of the sleep rules of making sure you get proper sleep.

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