Taking supplements to enhance athletic performance is a controversial and wide-ranging topic.
From protein products, fat burners and energy drinks, to performance enhancing drugs, the market for sports supplements is huge, with varying degrees of research available to back-up sometimes unreliable claims.
Creatine is a different story. It’s one of the most widely used and widely researched supplements available, with studies consistently showing that it can improve exercise performance and adaptations to training.
Creatine is one of the most widely used and widely researched supplements available.
In fact, according to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), a “wide-spread consensus now exists in the scientific community” that creatine supplementation can be an effective performance enhancer that may benefit athletes involved in numerous sports, as well as individuals involved in exercise training.
What’s more, it’s legal to take, isn’t banned by sports organisations and studies on the safety of long-term creatine supplementation have reported no “adverse health effects“.
It’s worth saying now that supplementing with creatine is not necessary for performance improvements in the gym, especially if you’re just starting out. But, if you do want to try it, do some additional research first and, if possible, get advice from a sports nutritionist or dietician.
However, if you’re keen to learn more, here’s a brief introduction.
What is creatine and how does the body use it?
Creatine is a naturally occurring compound found mainly in red meat. In our bodies, around 95% of creatine is found in our muscles. It plays a key role in how we get energy for exercise. In particular, exercise that requires short, sharp bursts of energy, like sprints or weight lifting.
Unlike exercise that lasts for a longer duration, short bursts of maximum effort exercise (around 10-15 seconds) rely on the ATP-PC energy system. ATP stands for adenosine triphosphate. PC stands for phosphocreatine.
(Very) simply, to create energy, ATP breaks down to release energy for muscle contractions. After the breakdown, you are left with adenosine diphosphate (ADT) and one phosphate (Pi). Our muscles hold enough ATP for around 2-3 seconds of work, after that, we must resynthesise more.
When our bodies sense that ATP stores are low, phosphocreatine (PC) is broken down into one molecule of creatine and one molecule of Pi. The energy released during this breakdown is used to resynthesise ADP and Pi, forming ATP. And the cycle can begin again. Read more about our different energy systems.
Usually, there is enough PC in the muscles to continue this process for around 10 seconds of exercise. Once all the PC in your muscles is used up, you must give your body time to recover, this usually takes about 3 minutes, at which point around 85% of your PC stores are replenished.
Depending on how much muscle we have, we actually need around 1-3g of creatine per day to maintain normal stores in the body. About half of this we can get from our diet, the rest is created in the liver and kidneys.
Why do athletes supplement with creatine?
Research has “consistently shown” that creatine supplementation can improve exercise performance and adaptions to training, such as being able to do more work over a series of sets. This may lead to greater gains in strength, muscle mass or performance. It may also enhance recovery after you’ve finished exercising, according to the ISSN.
Generally, we can take in around 1-2g of creatine a day as part of a diet including meat or seafood. This helps to keep muscle stores at around 60 to 80% full. If you supplement with creatine, you can increase these stores by 20 to 40%.
According to research, after creatine loading, performance of high intensity or repetitive exercise can increase by as much as 10 to 20%.
A 1999 study on a group of 19 trained men, led by a team at The Pennsylvania State University, reported significant increases in strength performance and lean mass after supplementing with creatine for 12 weeks, when combined with a strength training programme. A 1997 study on untrained women reported similar results.
How should you supplement with creatine?
Generally speaking, if you’re thinking of supplementing with creatine, the ISSN advises:
- take 5 grams of creatine monohydrate (or approximately 0.3g per kg of body weight) 4 times a day, for 5 to 7 days
- after this, take 3 to 5g per day to maintain the stores
Realistically, the level of supplementation recommended will vary from athlete to athlete, and the performance gains you make will also depend on the effort you put into your training. A magic bullet creatine is not. You won’t suddenly develop biceps the size of bowling balls – or smash all your PBs – if you’re not following an exercise plan and a diet that supports those goals. Creatine, after all, is a ‘supplement’.
As I said at the outset, if you’re keen to add creatine to your exercise regime you should do your own research and, if possible, ask a sports nutritionist for the best way to add creatine to your diet. However, it’s certainly worth looking into if you’re looking to maximise your performance in the gym.