Base Knowledge: Creatine
Even endurance athletes shouldn't rule out this safe and effective ergogenic aid.
As you may have guessed, I advocate smart supplementation. I mean, real food should come first, but there’s no harm in augmenting your diet with specific nutrients that benefit performance and health.
That’s a relatively easy sell if we’re talking protein or electrolytes, but things sometimes get prickly when it comes to creatine. People often confuse it with steroids, which are terrible when used recreationally, or they think it’ll melt their kidneys, which it will not if they have healthy kidneys to begin with. Based on every credible source I know, creatine is a safe and effective ergogenic aid.
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Creatine is an amino acid that exists naturally in your body. Meat eaters get it in their diet, albeit not in the clinically-studied amounts you’ll find in sups.
Speaking of clinically-studied, it’s massively researched. The scientific community is obsessed with creatine in much the same way the teenage girl community is obsessed with Harry Styles.
I say this because when Harry made that cameo at the end of Marvel’s Eternals, my daughter flipped her lid. To me, he was just goofy kid. I didn’t even connect him with that one song by One Direction, “What Makes You Beautiful.”
But my daughter wouldn’t shut up about the fact that he was now the “cosmically-enhanced super-being” Starfox in the MCU, so I checked Harry out on Spotify and, to my surprise, he had a lot to offer.
Same with creatine. It’s widely associated with goofy bros looking to get swole—and it does indeed help them achieve that—but if you dig a little deeper, you discover it has a lot to offer, including an ever-growing list of benefits to those of us not blessed with cosmic enhancement.
How creatine works.
Science isn’t 100 percent sure about some of the ways creatine works in your body, but here’s one pathway it understands.
When you exercise, your body metabolically breaks down the various fuels you get nutritionally, such as carbs (glucose and glycogen) and fat (still fat), into adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. ATP provides energy to your cells—including your muscle cells.
Your muscles generate ATP in a variety of ways. Normally, the oxygen you breathe helps generate a continued supply, but when exercise is extra-challenging, like when lifting to failure or sprinting, you generate ATP using anaerobic (or “oxygen-poor”) pathways. In other words, your muscles can’t get the oxygen they need to make ATP fast enough, so they need to figure out alternate routes.
To do this, your muscles use phosphocreatine (aka creatine phosphate) generated by your liver, kidneys, and pancreas. However, you can only create so much phosphocreatine at a time, and once you run out, your access to ATP is diminished. Things get difficult.
Of course, when you pause exercise, you allow oxygen into your system and it recharges your ATP. That’s why you can max out on reps or sprint until your legs give out, stop for a few minutes, and then crank it up all over again.
When you supplement with creatine, you’re basically helping your body supply a little more phosphocreatine to the ATP cause, thus allowing your muscles to eek out a few extra reps or sprint a little further—and that helps you get stronger or faster in the long run.
Creatine has also been shown to help with muscle recovery. Science isn’t as sure about how that works, but it probably has something to do with combating inflammation. The volume of research regarding creatine for recovery isn’t as massive, but it’s still solid.
The recovery aspect may perk the ears of you endurance folks out there, but don’t discount the sprinting/lifting benefits, considering these sorts of training can increase your overall speed and power.
Also keep in mind that creatine won’t automatically make you burly. A woman using creatine won’t swell up and grow a beard. If you use it for training specific to building mass, sure, you’ll bulk up. Otherwise, it just allows you to do whatever you want to do, only harder.
I’m not going to do my usual “this study said this and that study said that” to back my stance on creatine—because there’s just so much research and I’ve already pushed your attention span with that protracted Harry Styles diversion. Instead, I’m going to refer you to this 2021 paper featured in Nutrients, which includes more research than the Library of Alexandria.
Other stuff creatine does.
Research on the benefits of creatine goes way beyond us sporty types. There are studies showing positive impacts for the elderly in terms of maintaining muscle mass and promoting bone health and cognitive function. (There’s brain function research for all ages, in fact.) There also research showing it may help combat depression, particularly in women. Finally, recent research shows creatine may help with fluid regulation during menstruation.
I’m not digging too deep into all the non-athletic benefits of creatine either, but this review, “Creatine in Health and Disease,” will give you everything you need to know up to 2021.
Which kind of creatine should I take?
Creatine monohydrate is the form that shows up in most of the studies. I’d stick with that.
How much creatine should I take?
Kind of like glycogen and beta-alanine, your muscles have access to a pool of creatine. You can partially fill that pool by consuming animal products, but supplementing with creatine really fills it up.
The amount you should take is up for debate. For a long time, the recommendation was 3g-5g a day. Some experts recommend less for athletic purposes, but a lot of those other benefits I just rattled off kick in at five grams, so I’d probably stay around that amount.
If you’re looking to fill up the pool quickly, you can do a loading phase by taking about 20g spread out across your day for a week or so. The downside of this is that it can cause temporary weight gain due to water retention—no bueno for most runners and cyclists.
Starting with the five grams daily and being patient will get you to the same levels in about a month. In a recent Natural Products Insider interview, creatine researcher Dr. Abby Smith-Ryan recommended limiting loading to special situations, like if you’re an athlete having a tough time recovering or if you’re about to go through a period of forced rest where you’ll probably lose muscle mass.
You don’t need to supplement. There are plenty of zippy, burly athletes who don’t bother. But this particular supplement has repeatedly been proven safe and effective—and newer science indicates it may have a bunch of other benefits.
That’s what makes creatine beautiful.
Denis, I've joined the Creatine Club since reading this article, and from what I can tell, it is indeed providing some benefits. But then last night a cycling friend told me that you're supposed to (ahem) cycle through creatine, a process that basically comprises a loading phase (which you mention), then a maintenance phase (lasting four to six weeks), then a time-off phase (lasting two to four weeks). Then, it's a lather-rinse-repeat situation. What are your thoughts on this? Thanks!
Also, thank you for the additional links you incorporated into the article that are not related to working out; i.e., inflammation, etc.