If you want to perform at your best, creatine is for you. It is one of the most studied supplements and is great for muscle performance and brain function. It gives you the capacity to get through a few more reps in a workout, boosts your power output and increases water retention in your muscles, which can help with muscle growth.
The history of creatine
It was discovered in the 1830s and in the 1930s research started on creatine's effect on metabolism and synthesis. In the 1970s and 1980s creatine was used as a medical intervention in the US - participants reported enhancements in high intensity activities as well as therapeutic effects. This led to creatine loading to increase athletic performance and creatine supplements became commercially available in 1993.
What actually is creatine?
Creatine is a nonessential nutrient. It is an amino acid that our bodies store in our muscles and brain to use as a natural energy source. When our bodies need energy they convert creatine into phosphocreatine, which fuels our muscles. The rate of energy production from creatine is far higher than carbohydrates. It’s the most relevant energy system for most sports.
It occurs naturally in our body and is ingested from foods, such as beef, pork and fish. Our liver, kidney and pancreas are the main sites where creatine is produced or synthesised.
Where is it stored?
95% of creatine is stored within skeletal muscle cells, with the remaining 5% found in the brain, eyes, and kidneys. The body's store of creatine is typically 2g/kg and this is maintained through a combination of our diet and body's own production. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, your creatine stores may be significantly lower relative to those consuming a mixed diet.
Why would I take creatine
Today, people are consuming far less creatine due to changes in our diets. Therefore our creatine levels may be lower than required for peak physical function.
There are two main benefits from creatine supplementation:
Increase in power output when training
Decrease recovery time
Your muscles will be less fatigued in a workout and that extra energy reserve will increase your training volume and help you train harder. Loading muscles with creatine helps create an environment to maintain or increase muscle growth and metabolically it will allow you to train more vigorously.Over 70% of studies on creatine supplementation showed statistically significant improvements in athletic performance:
5-15% increase in work performance for maximal effort muscle contractor
1-5% increases in maximal power/strength performance
Under heavy exercise stress creatine helps recovery, reduces DOMs and reduces markers of inflammation. Creatine promotes a greater influx of fluid into the cells; cell swelling initiates protein synthesis which repairs our muscles after training. Training in combination with creatine supplements increases our growth hormone, which again will help muscles repair and rebuild.
Research has also shown that creatine supplementation can benefit athletes beyond athletic performance - it has a positive effect on cognitive performance too.
How to find the right supplement?
Look for Creatine Monohydrate. This is where the bulk of research has been done and is absorbed nearly 100% into the body. Creatine powder is calorie free and whilst it is found in meat - the amino acid itself is vegetarian/vegan friendly.
How much should I take?
We lose around 2g of creatine each day. For most everyday athletes - whose priorities are training performance, good recovery, and staying injury free - you’ll want to take 3-5g of creatine per day. You can take with water or add to a shake. Ideally you’ll supplement for at least 1-2 months in order to experience the benefits.
We all have different levels of creatine and are born with these levels. We can only change them through diet or supplementation. It has been suggested that women possess a naturally higher average total muscle content of creatine (10%) compared to men.
Is creatine ‘cycling’ necessary? There isn’t much research to support this, however your body's creatine processes do not appear to be affected by longer-term use at moderate doses. If your body is saturated with creatine you will just excrete it out.
When to take?
As with most supplements you want to focus on consistency so find a time that works for you to take creatine. The research suggests taking creatine around training gives you optimal results, however it’s not entirely necessary. If you take creatine with a quick-digesting source of carbs this helps absorption, e.g. with some fruit, juice or yoghurt. Take creatine on training and rest days.
Who responds best to creatine supplementation?
Not everyone will respond to creatine supplementation in the same way. Those who seem to respond best have:
Lower initial quantities of intramuscular creatine (a blood or urine test can give you your levels)
Higher percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibres
More fat free mass
Are there any side effects?
On the whole, creatine is a very safe supplement to use. Concerns about the effects on kidneys, increased risk of dehydration, and muscle cramps have been discounted through research.
It can cause muscles to store water, something to be aware of when you start taking it - this is actually positive as it supports muscle growth. Water retention may increase but this should settle after a few weeks.
There is still research ongoing into the long-term use of creatine.
What if I’m pregnant?
Although the research is minimal in this area, it does seem that creatine usage is safe and may actually pose some unique benefits for your baby. However, always consult with your doctor first, and make sure you feel comfortable with this decision.
As with most research there continues to be a need for more data on the female population.