The Creatine Low Down
By: Barry Murray
Most people have heard the word “creatine” before. It is the most well known and researched of all sports supplements. It was first used competitively by athletes during the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona and hundreds of studies on it have been conducted since. Despite this, there are many rumors concerning its safety and effectiveness. Here, I will present the facts.
What is it ?
Firstly, it’s not a steroid, pro-hormone or special herb. It’s a natural endogenous substance, manufactured by the body, consisting of 3 amino acids linked together. It is located in muscle tissue so it’s present in meat and fish. So yes, if you eat meat and fish, you take creatine !
What does it do ?
It gives you the ability to perform high intensity repetitions e.g. lifting weights, short sprints. By doing this, it increases lean muscle mass, strength, power and performance (1) (2). It has also been shown to improve cognitive function, particularly in the elderly(3). It can also help improve endurance by increasing glycogen storage i.e. carbohydrate (4).
How does it work ?
Creatine is a fuel. Fat is the fuel we use for low to medium intensity exercise. Carbs are the fuel we use for high intensity exercise. Creatine is the fuel we use for very high, short term exercise, i.e. energy used for the first 10-15seconds of exercise. The body manufactures its own creatine but runs out of it quickly, hence why taking an outside source helps to keep things topped up. So while you need banana’s and glucose drinks to help you run, cycle, swim, play football etc, you need creatine to lift weights, sprint intervals or do any type of resistance type drills or exercises. It gives you energy quickly by doing the following:
ADP + PhosphoCreatine+ H Creatine + ATP
ATP is energy. This is a quick reaction. Converting Fats and Carbs to energy is a much longer process, a lot more reactions. Conversion Creatine to ATP is just 1 reaction, hence why it supplies the energy required to do short fast stuff.
Essentially, creatine gives you the ability to work out and exercise harder. You gain from the adaptations that occur in your body due to this exercise i.e. new muscle fibers, increased lactate threshold, improved neuromuscular function. So you get fitter and stronger.
Why the controversy ?
“Creatine causes kidney damage” – this came about following animal trials that were given huge amounts of creatine. Several studies on humans since then have shown that creatine does not affect the kidney in any way (5).
“Creatine causes weight gain” – Some people report an increase in weight soon after supplementing creatine. The weight is due to water retention. Creatine sits in your muscle and holds onto water. As soon as you stop taking creatine, levels decrease in the muscle and water leaves, you return to normal weight. The trick here is not to load on creatine. If you follow the “take 5g, 4 times a day, for 5 days” rule, you will gain weight. However, if you take smaller maintenance dose, then you won’t get this sudden spike in creatine and you won’t get the sudden spike in weight.
“Creatine causes cramping” – There have been many reports of muscle cramps after taking creatine. However, most studies show that this is not due to creatine (6). It is more likely caused by a lack of fluids and electrolytes.
“Long-term use of creatine is bad for you” – Not true. There have been studies done which have looked at the effects of long-term supplementation of creatine and they found no effect on general health (7).
“Taking Creatine shuts down your bodies ability to produce its own creatine” – There used to be a theory that taking creatine means that the bodies endogenous (i.e. its own natural supply) stores decrease dramatically. Again, there have been studies done to show that this is not the case (8). The process may be down regulated but it does not shut down.
Who should use Creatine ?
Any athlete doing weights, short high intensity sprints or drills. Basically any athlete that wants to increase lean muscle mass, power and strength. So 100-400m sprinters, weight lifters, boxers, martial arts, rugby/football/GAA, field athletes.
Who shouldn’t use Creatine ?
Under 18’s. It is best to wait until you have finished growing before you start using creatine.
Injured athletes: giving your muscle groups the ability to work harder can be counter productive to rehab and recovery
Endurance Athletes: those that do no weights or speed work. If you’re simply doing long aerobic type training, you will not get much of the training benefits from creatine. It can improve carbohydrate storage in the muscle so it might be useful for those during ultra endurance sports like ironman and adventure racing.
How to take it ?
The muscle needs to be saturated with creatine in order for it to have an affect. You can do this 2 ways.
1. Quick Load: 0.3g/kg/day for 3 days. Then 0.05g/kg/day as maintenance dose. NOTE: this will cause initial water retention and weight gain. If you’re not worried about an extra 1-2kg, then this is fine.
2. No loading: 0.05g/kg/day as maintenance dose. E.g. 4g per day for 80Kg athlete
Always take creatine AFTER exercise. Creatine is not a stimulant, you don’t need to take it before training to give you a boost. It needs to get into the muscle, the best time for this is immediately after training during the recovery phase. That way, the muscle absorbs creatine effeciently and is ready to be used for the next session.
Always take creatine with some form of carbohydrate. Carbs trigger the release of insulin which is the hormone that helps store creatine (as well as protein, glucose ad fats). Typically, around 50g of carbs does the trick. This could be a banana + a glass of fruit juice. Or a carbohydrate powder – glucose, maltodextrin, waxy maize starch. A standard recovery drink would have some carbs in it so just add your creatine to this. You should be taking in about 50g of carbs after exercise as part of the recovery process anyway (thats a topic for another article!).
While staying on creatine has no long term side affects, it is probably wise to take a break from it now and again. This will switch the bodies own production of creatine back on and up regulate the process. This could be done every 8-12 weeks for a period of 2-4 weeks.
If taking creatine, train hard. You will not get any benefits from simply just taking creatine. Remember creatine simply gives you the fuel to train harder. So increase your reps, weights, sprinting speed/no. of intervals etc to see results. As regards the type of creatine to use, there is only one – CREATINE MONOHYDRATE. Forget the rest, there simply is no evidence to suggest the other forms of creatine are better than the pure monohydrate form. Nothing else is needed (aside from carbs as mentioned above), the ingredient list on the container should literally only contain one thing 100% Creatine Monohydrate.
Lastly, creatine does not work for everyone. Some are termed “non-responders” which means you already have enough or that you don’t absorb creatine from external sources. However, if you are an athlete that wants to increase strength and power, then it’s certainly worth a try.
1. Volek et al. (1997) Creatine supplementation enhances muscular performance during high intensity resistance exercise. Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
2. Izquierdo et al. (2002) Effects of creatine supplementation on muscle power, endurance and sprint performance. Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise.
3. McMorris et al. (2007)Creatine Supplementation and Cognitive Function in Elderly Individuals . Aging, Neuropsychology, and Cognition.
4. Nelson et al. (2001) Muscle glycogen super compensation is enhanced by prior creatine supplementation. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
5. Mayhew et al. (2002) Affects of long term creatine supplementation on liver and kidney function in American college football players. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism.
6. Dalbo et al. (2008) Putting to rest the myths of creatine supplementation leading to muscle cramps and dehydration. British Journal of Sports Medicine.
7. Poortmans et al. (2000) Adverse affects of creatine supplementation, Fact or Fiction ? Sports Medicine.
8. Kreider et al (2003) Long-term creatine supplementation does not significantly affect clinical markers of health in athletes. Molecular and Cellular.