2 New Tart Cherry Drinks for Optimal Workout Nutrition

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For the final post in this ambassador series with the Cherry Marketing Institute, I set out to solve a problem in deciding how best to incorporate tart cherries into my diet.

What problem, you ask?

Well, we know that tart cherry juice has been shown to reduce recovery time and inflammation in athletes, as well as help with sleep (which itself plays a big part in athletic recovery, of course).

But the apparent downside is that, like with typical fruit juices, most of the calories in tart cherry juice come from sugar. How can you get the benefits of tart cherries without adding too much sugar to your diet?

Turns out there’s an easy solution for athletes: drink tart cherry juice at the one time during the day when lots of sugar is precisely what your body needs. And this time, of course, is around workouts.

But how do we do it most effectively?

Carbohydrate-to-protein ratio: the number that matters before and after workouts

Before and after workouts are two times when people are less sure about what they should be eating to maximize performance and recovery, and tart cherry juice certainly fits into both.

To make tart cherry juice an ideal choice, though, we need to incorporate it into drinks that meet the commonly accepted carbohydrate-to-protein ratios for maximum performance and recovery:

  • Before a workout, a 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein
  • Immediately after a workout, a ratio between 4:1 and 5:1 of carbohydrates to protein

It’s useful to know where we’re starting, so how does tart cherry juice measure up on its own? Well, an ounce of tart cherry concentrate contains about 17 grams of carbohydrate (14 of them from sugar) and 1 gram of protein. So clearly we need to add some protein to make either a pre- and post-workout drink ideal.

The best way to add protein

The easiest way to add protein (in a way that we can control) would be to use an isolate, so that when you add protein, you’re not also adding carbohydrate and fat. But for a lot of reasons, this is unhealthy, so I don’t use or recommend protein isolates on any sort of regular basis. (More about why in this podcast episode.)

Hemp protein powder is not an isolate and is only slightly processed, hence the natural green color and earthy taste. So it works, but I hoped not to use it because the taste didn’t strike me as one that would complement the flavor of cherry juice.

In the end, I settled on three options for adding protein to tart cherry juice:

  1. Soy milk: it’s much higher in protein than nut milks
  2. Chia seeds: they add some carbohydrate and healthy fat, but as a whole food source
  3. Hemp protein powder: a last resort because of the flavor and grittiness, but not an unhealthy one

Other than using a quality protein source and making sure the flavor and texture were tolerable, my only concern was simplicity: a drink that’s a big ordeal to make is one that nobody’s going to drink.

So after all that and a lot of testing, here’s what I came up with.

Pre- and Post-Workout Drinks with Tart Cherry Juice

Pre-Workout Tart Cherry Drink

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) tart cherry concentrate
7 ounces unsweetened soymilk

Mix together in a glass and drink. No need for a blender!

One recipe makes 8 ounces of pre-workout drink with approximately 20 grams of carbohydrate, 7 grams of protein, and 3.5 grams of fat (roughly 140 calories). The carbohydrate-to-protein ratio is very close to 3:1, so if you want more or fewer total calories before your workout, you can simply scale the ingredient amounts.

This pre-workout drink actually tastes really good as is, but to spice it up a bit you could use vanilla soy milk (still unsweetened) or add 1/8 ounce of pure cacao, either melted or blended with the other ingredients in a high-speed blender.

And if you’re not a fan of soy? First, read this. If you’re still not convinced it’s safe, then the only real option is a powder like hemp protein, a protein isolate (again, not recommended), or spirulina.

For the anti-soy crowd, here’s a soy-free recipe that gets you close to 3:1, using hemp protein powder.

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) tart cherry concentrate
7 ounces almond milk
3 tablespoons hemp protein powder

Mix the ingredients in a blender to dissolve as much of the protein powder as possible.

Optionally, you could omit the almond milk and use tart cherry juice instead of concentrate, but the amount of carbohydrate per eight ounces of juice will vary depending on the brand you use.

This one doesn’t taste as good as the first, but provides roughly 30 grams of carbohydrate, 10 grams of protein, and 6 grams of fat, so it just about hits the 3:1 ratio. 214 total calories.

And for after your workout …

Post-Workout Tart Cherry Drink

2 tablespoons (1 ounce) tart cherry concentrate
7 ounces almond milk
2 tablespoons ground chia seeds

Blend all ingredients in a blender.

Notes: I like to grind the chia seeds first, but if you don’t mind the whole seeds, you don’t need to. Either way it will gel quickly, so you’ll want to make this one just before you plan to drink it.

As for nutrition, this particular post-workout drink provides approximately 27 grams carbohydrate, 6 grams protein, 11 grams fat. It’s 231 calories total, so adjust the quantity as needed.

This gets our carb-to-protein ratio to 4.5:1, which is right where we want to be for optimal post-workout nutrition.

Which one should you use?

Most of the research demonstrating the recovery benefits of tart cherry juice is based on subjects who drink one ounce of concentrate (or 8 ounces of juice) twice per day, so you can use both of these drinks around the same workout to get exactly that amount.

And although we’ve said that tart cherry juice is known for its recovery benefits, that doesn’t mean it can’t help you at other times. In fact, some ultrarunners (like Scott Jurek) drink it for the anti-inflammatory properties during workouts and races. If I run another 100-miler, I’ll definitely make use of tart cherry juice during the race as an alternative to ibuprofen, but for more typical days, a “precovery” ritual of drinking tart cherry juice beforehand suffices. This helps you get the anti-inflammatory benefits during the workout while priming your body for recovery afterward.

So there you have it: two (technically three) workout drinks with tart cherries, and the end of this sponsored series of posts about tart cherries. Thanks to the Cherry Marketing Institute for supporting No Meat Athlete and our mission, and as always, thank you for reading (and making this all possible)!

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Comments

  1. I’m curious to know if tart cherry juice has made you drowsy during the day. I take it occasionally in the evening in place of (or on top of, eek!) my melatonin. I’m hesitant to take it in the daytime…

  2. I usually mix my tart cherry juice with seltzer–never occurred to me to switch it up for some extra protein. I think I’ll try hemp milk 😀

  3. Hi Matt,
    This is really helpful, thanks! I’ve always struggled to know whether my pre and post-workout meals are meeting the right ratios, so I will keep these options in mind for the future. So when you say pure cacao, do you mean a 100% cacao chocolate bar, as opposed to cacao powder? I’ve occasionally put cacao powder in smoothies, but it never occurred to me to use whole chocolate.

  4. I recently started drinking tart cherry juice after a doctor prescribed me 180 anti-inflammatory pills for my plantar fasciitis. Putting a 180 pills in my system was not a viable option for me and my inflammation levels.

    I didn’t realize that tart cherry concentrate exists. Does it have as much sugar as the juice, and do you find its price comparable?

  5. I didn’t know cherries had so many nutritional benefits! Where can you get this tart cherry juice? 🙂

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