The research, led by sports nutrition experts at Sheffield Hallam University, assessed whether polyphenol foods – such as pomegranate, tart cherry, cocoa, blueberry, blackcurrant and beetroot – accelerated the recovery of muscle function and reduced soreness in the immediate days after exercise.
Polyphenols are micronutrients that naturally occur in fruits and vegetables, with antioxidant properties that can prevent and reverse damage in cells caused by lifestyle, aging and the environment.
Exercise of a high intensity and duration can induce muscle damage, characterised by increased soreness and a reduced range of motion. These symptoms can impair performance, and nutrition strategies often aim to reduce muscle damage and soreness and accelerate recovery. This is especially important when recovery time is limited, such as during tournaments, multi‐day events or periods of competition congestion.
The study is the first to explore the individual efficacy of different foods that have distinct polyphenolic profiles. Previous research has been inconsistent, potentially due to methodological variation including differences in exercise protocols, intervention periods and outcome markers.
Dr Mayur Ranchordas, exercise physiologist and sport nutritionist at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “These findings are quite exciting. A lot of athletes take supplements to improve performance. What our review has found is that athletes can get beneficial effects on recovery by taking natural plant foods rich in polyphenols rather than supplements. In situations where athletes need to recover quicker, such as fixture congestion in football and tournaments where athletes need to recover quickly to compete again in quick succession, polyphenol-rich fruits, juices and concentrates can accelerate recovery.”
The team, which included Dr Ranchordas, Lee Rickards, Anthony Lynn, Deborah Harrop, Margo E. Baker and Mark Russell, analysed the effects of consuming polyphenolic-rich foods on maximum voluntary contraction (MIVC), which measures muscle strength; delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is muscle pain after exercise; and countermovement jump (CMJ), which is a vertical jump test performed by an individual squat-jumping as high as possible.
The research outcomes include:
- Polyphenol consumption caused small but significant increases in MIVC immediately and up to 96 hours post-exercise
- At 24, 48 and 72 hours there were small but statistically significant reductions in DOMS in response to polyphenol consumption. At 96 hours, DOMS returned towards baseline levels and there was no statistically significant difference between polyphenols and placebo
- Immediately and at 24 hours post-exercise, there were statistically significant effects of polyphenol consumption on CMJ height
The results confirm that, for sports that require explosive lower body power and maximal strength where limited recovery time is available between events, eating foods like pomegranate, tart cherry and beetroot could translate into meaningful performance effects.