Creatine: Everything You Need to Know
It's second only to whey protein on the list of must-haves for any serious athlete. Here’s how to use creatine
Think of creatine as the backup generator for your muscles. Creatine is produced in the body in small quantities and is also found naturally in foods such as meat and fish. It’s stored in muscle cells, then used to power high-intensity muscle contraction – think short bursts such as a max-effort bench press or 100m sprint. With very limited supplies available, your body can’t always produce enough to fuel repeated high-intensity efforts, so taking it as a supplement will provide additional energy to muscles during workouts so you can train harder. The bottom line is take 3-5g a day dissolved in a hot beverage such as green tea, either before or after a high-intensity workout.
After whey protein, creatine is one of the most popular products in sports nutrition. It’s praises are often sung for helping you get more out of your workout, while it’s equally common to hear it linked to negative headlines, from making you angry or bloated or even increasing your risk of cancer. So who should you believe? Here’s everything you need to know.
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What is It?
An amino acid derivative constructed from arginine, glycine and methionine, produced naturally by the body at a rate of about 1-2g a day. It’s also degraded into creatinine and excreted in the urine at a rate of around 2g a day, so you never store much.
“Creatine is an energy-providing molecule that is remarkably well researched, especially in light of the relatively small number of studies conducted on other highly touted supplements. And not only have research findings consistently backed up creatine’s efficacy, but new benefits pop up each year,” says Kamal Patel, director of examine.com, an independent organisation that investigates the science behind supplementation and nutrition.
How New is It?
It’s been around as long as our ancestors have. The substance creatine is naturally formed in vertebrates. The supplement form is simply a way to top up your natural reserves. Back in 1912, researchers from Harvard University first noticed that ingesting creatine could dramatically boost reserves in muscle tissue. Soon after, scientists discovered creatine phosphate and identified it as a key player in the metabolism of skeletal muscle. But it took another 80 years for it to enter popular culture. Creatine first came to the public’s attention after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was reported that Great Britain’s 100m sprinter Linford Christie used the legal substance, helping him clinch the 100m gold, along with fellow Brits 400m hurdles gold winner Sally Gunnell and 100m hurdler Colin Jackson. Shortly afterwards sports nutrition companies began producing the compound commercially and the supplement has boomed ever since.
Why Would I Want It?
When used consistently after exercise, it lets you crush workouts that would’ve previously left you blubbing. It serves as a kind of back-up generator to boost your levels of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), your primary energy source during high-intensity exercise, enabling you to resist fatigue and recover quicker. A review of 22 studies into creatine found users can increase one-rep max strength by 5% and strength endurance by 14%.
There’s more: recent research from Louisiana State University suggests that taking creatine can improve glycogen levels during carb-loading, which could have benefits during endurance exercise. Finally, it can also improve mental performance – your brain uses creatine phosphate during intense bouts of activity, so if you’re doing, for instance, lots of calculations, glugging a scoop could help you stay focused.
Will it Help Me Bulk Up?
You may have overheard gym-bros waxing lyrical about amazing short-term mass gain when taking creatine, but that’s largely because creatine is hydroscopic and encourages water retention. Long-term use can stimulate protein synthesis, though, so it will work if you stick with it.
Does it Have Any Other Benefits?
Possibly. Studies suggest creatine may have neuro-protective effects for neurological diseases such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s. The jury’s out, though.
So Who Should Take It?
People doing high-intensity efforts in the gym – it has basically no effect on long, slow aerobic efforts. It’s also likely to be more beneficial to vegetarians or people who don’t eat much red meat. If your diet is very heavy in creatine-rich foods, you might not get any extra benefits from supplementation.
How Do I Take It?
Take 5g of creatine monohydrate with 400ml of water (or with your protein shake) after every training session. Why monohydrate? It’s the safest and most widely researched form of the supp, and the other types available – ethyl-ester, liquid, nitrate and others – are more expensive and less effective. It’s not very soluble though, so make sure you give it time to mix properly or it will absorb water from your body when it needs it most.
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When Should I take It?
When using creatine, timing is key. “Avoid creatine before you work out,” says doctor and weightlifting expert Nikhil Rao. “It’s hygroscopic, which basically means it acts like a sponge – it can draw water into your gastrointestinal tract and bloodstream from surrounding tissues or muscles. That’s what can give you a bloated feeling or muscle cramps. The ideal time to take creatine is immediately after your workout.”
What’s Not to Love?
An estimated 20-30% of people are naturally resistant to its effects no matter how much they cram in. Apart from that, it can make you gain weight initially because of the way it attracts water into your muscle cells, but that should only be in the short term – any increase in weight after the first week or so of taking it should be muscle mass.
Does It Have Any Side Effects?
The main side effect is weight gain, partly due to increased muscle tissue and partly the result of extra water in your muscle cells, so it’s not always ideal if you’re in a sport that uses weight categories like boxing. “There have been anecdotal reports about gastrointestinal discomfort, dehydration, muscle injury and kidney damage,” says nutrition expert Anita Bean, sports nutritionist and author of Sports Supplements. “However, there is no clinical evidence to support these statements.”
Anecdotal reports suggest it can also lead to increased anger but no research has confirmed that creatine causes any of these. A recent study published in the New England Journal Of Medicine, meanwhile, found 5g per day can improve the effectiveness of antidepressant medication.
It’s also important to mix your creatine fully and avoid drinking it with some of the powder still visibly floating around. At this point, it hasn’t fully dissolved and that means it’s going to suck water from the places where water is supposed to be.
Myth: There's a supposed link between creatine and testicular cancer
A questionnaire-based investigation published in the British Journal Of Cancer in April 2015 appeared to show a link between “muscle-building supplements” and cancer risk. “This covered 30 supplements, not just creatine,” says Bean. “These included banned prohormones such as androstenedione, which has well-known negative side effects.” The interviews found the odds of the 356 participants with testicular cancer having used one of these 30 supplements were “significantly elevated”.
“It was a pointless study – nobody knew what supplements each subject used,” Bean says. “Any risk it identified was likely to be attributable to banned substances or even ‘hidden’ steroids potentially present in one of the supplements. It didn’t show any link between creatine and cancer – in fact, thanks to the method, it failed to make a link between cancer and any one supplement.”
Myth: Creatine loading is essential
In the past a lot of what you’d read regarding creatine advised you to “load”, which basically means consuming copious amounts of the supplement. More recent research has suggested that this might actually be a waste and that less creatine is needed to deliver results than loading advocators suggest. Loading is only really required if you’re an elite athlete or pro bodybuilder – not for the casual gym-goer. Most of us only really require 5g to get tangible results.
Myth: Consuming creatine results in excessive water retention
This is a common yet flawed myth. A recent double blind, placebo-controlled study conducted in the US found that after three months of creatine use, test subjects showed no significant increase in the amount of water in their bodies at all. In actual fact, the group that had taken the creatine showed better gains in fat-free mass and total body mass.
Myth: All products marketed as creatine are the same
Just as there’s a difference between fine wines at £100 a bottle and cheaper supermarket versions for a fiver, the quality of creatine generally differs depending on how much it costs. Some of the lower-grade products have even been found to contain contaminants such as creatinine, sodium, dicyandiamide and dihydrotriazine, which take away from the purity of the product. These are harmless in small quantities, but will reduce the intended effect.
Myth: Creatine causes cramping
The idea that taking creatine can cause excessive cramping is purely anecdotal with no actual clinical evidence to support the claim. Research actually shows that creatine use is not at all associated with cramping: two studies conducted at Arkansas State University found that creatine use by 61 athletes during training camps had no effects on the frequency or intensity of muscle cramps, injury or illness. These athletes used 15-25g per day on the loading phase, and another 5g/day as maintenance.