What People Don’t Understand About Creatine Supplementation
Protein powders, creatine, supplements and other ergogenic aids are important to discuss, yet are often misunderstood. Creatine is at the top of the list! This is not to say that every nutritional concept or supplement is on target and safe. But, armed with good information—and knowing what a product can or cannot accomplish—and an understanding of any long or short-term safety concerns—good decisions can be made.
Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation…Creatine Monohydrate, commonly referred to as Creatine, is scientifically proven to enhance performance in some individuals, but therein lies the MYTH and the truth. This very popular supplement is one of the most misunderstood.
Creatine supplementation can aid athletic performance by helping to enhance strength/power gains because of improved recovery ability during and between training and competition sessions.
Key Point: Creatine is not anabolic (building). Let’s say that again. CREATINE is NOT anabolic in terms of its effect.
Creatine is NOT a steroid, and does not build muscle. In other words, it does not contribute directly to muscle growth. Instead, creatine aids in the recovery process so you can work harder and recovery more quickly. This increases the training stimulus, which can stimulate greater strength and power adaptations.
What is it? Creatine is a fuel source stored in the muscle tissue that is derived from the synthesis of a number of amino acids (building blocks of proteins). Creatine is not a protein in the traditional sense. Creatine enhances physical performance by increasing the amount of free phosphates available for the re-synthesis of ATP–the energy currency of the cell that is broken down to liberate energy when we exercise–during strenuous activity of relatively short duration.
How does it work? Creatine reduces fatigue by transporting extra energy into your cells. Adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, is the compound your body uses for energy. For a muscle to contract, it breaks off a phosphate molecule from ATP. As a result, ATP becomes ADP (adenosine diphosphate). The problem: You can’t use ADP for energy, and your body only has so much stored ATP. The fix: ADP takes a phosphate molecule from your body’s stores of creatine phosphate, forming more ATP.
Put simply, if you have more creatine phosphate you can work out longer and do sets of, say, eight reps instead of six, or more quality training runs and sprints. Over weeks and months, that added workload can allow you to add lean muscle mass, lift heavier weights, become stronger, and increase volume of training.
Who’s it for? Research shows that creatine supplementation is most effective in strength, speed and explosive sports or activities. This includes strength training and sports that require repeated short bursts of effort. Research suggests the effect on endurance or aerobic-type exercise is less clear. Also, temporary weight gain (creatine pulls water into your cells) associated with creatine supplementation may be counterproductive in endurance sports and weight dependent sports.
So, you want to take creatine? Here’s how. First, check in with your support team of coaches, teachers, parents and/or guardians! Next, you’ll see a bunch of different forms of creatine on your supplement store’s shelves. The one you want is creatine monohydrate. Creatine monohydrate is the exact compound that more than 95 percent of the studies used, so why take a chance on another compound from a safety and effectiveness perspective? Be careful to read labels to be sure other undesirable ingredients are not added. If in doubt, get a second opinion. Internet shopping for supplements is always risky because you never know the purity of the product, especially if you choose an off brand or one that promises unrealistic results.
Most studies recommend taking creatine before a workout. This timing allows the free phosphate to be available to your muscles to reconstruct ATP and CP (your energy sources). Creatine should be ingested with simple carbohydrates (for example: milk/lactose; juice/fructose etc.). Generally, at least 50g of carbohydrate (200 calories) is recommended in combination with the creatine dose (2014, USSA Alpine Strength and Conditioning Symposium, May 18-19).
How much creatine? Research suggests that 3g/day for three weeks increases muscle creatine levels to the same degree as utilizing a loading dose of 20g/day for 5 days. Therefore, a loading phase, which is commonly recommended by manufacturers, is not mandatory. Creatine is body-mass, dose related. Studies suggest 3g/per day for <175lbs; 4g per day for 175-220lbs; and 5g/per day >220lbs (2014, USSA Alpine Strength and Conditioning Symposium, May 18-19).
Any creatine your body does not use is excreted as a waste product. If you constantly overdose creatine (>20g/day) you will have very expensive urine and you place extra stress on your kidneys, liver, and you might experience gastro-intestinal discomfort.
Creatine doesn’t work well for everyone. True. Some people have high levels of creatine in the muscle naturally. Meat and fish eaters are less likely to respond than vegans, who have low levels of creatine in their diet. In other words, if you are deficient in creatine, you likely will see a better result with supplementation. If you do not discern significant results in 4-6 weeks, discontinue use. Creatine does not work for everyone!
Caution: Generally, there are no known long or short-term risks associated with creatine supplementation. However, due to ethical reasons, no known studies have been done on humans under the age of 18. Because potential side effects are not known in this age group, taking creatine under the age of 18 is not recommended (2014, USSA Alpine Strength and Conditioning Symposium, May 18-19).
Note: The International Olympic Committee, professional sports leagues, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) do not prohibit creatine. However, the NCAA does not allow college trainers to provide the supplement to its athletes.
Though nutritional intake has some grey areas, and it is important to find out what works for each individual, the guidelines adapted should fall within a parameter of science-based evidence. Improper nutritional intake and timing can not only hurt performance, but can be unsafe and counter-productive to attaining your training goals. On the other hand, when research-based recommendations are followed, and adjustments are made for personal needs and physiological differences, proper nutritional timing and supplementation is a powerful tool that can have huge impact on optimal performance.
Make sure you know the truth! Food is your friend; knowledge is power!
Be sure to check out all of our blogs and bi-weekly posts. You’ll always find my favorite progressions, drills, coaching philosophy and trending topics at COREFX.ca
Douglas Brooks, MS, Exercise Physiologist, Director of Education for COREFX, is a former-Ironman® triathlete and currently directs Athlete Conditioning for Sugar Bowl Ski Academy where he works with elite junior and professional athletes. Douglas was inducted into the U.S. National Fitness Hall of Fame and has been honored by Can-Fit-Pro as the International Presenter of the Year. Coach Brooks is the author of numerous training books, and most recently, was the recipient of the IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year Award.