The simple answer is ‘why wouldn’t you?’ It’s cheap and it works.
Supplementing is an interesting topic to talk about for a few reasons and sometimes frowned upon depending on who you ask. Of course, as coaches, we will always aim to nail the basics of training, recovery, nutrition, and hydration before thinking about any supplementation, but we understand that some supplements have a place for the right person at the right time. Take caffeine, for example, amazing at doing its job if you need a perk up and improvement in your concentration. However, if you haven’t prioritised your sleep for the past week, and only averaging less than 5 hours per night, for example, it will be as effective as putting petrol in a car with a broken engine. It might get the car going a little bit, but ultimately the car is broken.
Physiology and where is creatine found?
The body has three main energy systems which work together to form ATP, also known as the main energy currency in the body. We have the aerobic energy system, which produces ATP slowly, using glucose and fat energy as the main energy suppliers for long-distance, for example, think Mo Farah. We then have the anaerobic energy system, this produces ATP very quickly, and typically lasts any between thirty seconds and two minutes, think 50m, freestyle swimmer. Then we have the phosphagen energy system, producing ATP the quickest out of all three energy systems, by using creatine phosphate used in the muscles. This energy system is most useful for very short events with maximal intensities, like 100m sprints, using Usain for example, or a heavy squat. The basic function of creatine is to improve our ability for the creatine phosphate system (PCr) to recycle our energy supply energy inside of our muscles and allow us to do more with the same levels of intensities. E.g. repeated sprint sprints or lifts.
Creatine is found in our bodies and in most uncooked meats. However, even the amounts found in meats wouldn’t be enough to see the improvements in performance. Particularly as creatine concentration levels decrease during cooking.
Benefits of taking creatine?
The benefits of supplementing creatine are very encouraging in a variety of aspects including improved sports performance, increased strength, getting jacked, improving cognitive function, and low moods.
Sports Performance and recovery
Studies have consistently shown that creatine supplementation can lead to great improvements in high-intensity exercise performance, producing much better training adaptations than you would without supplementing. Furthermore, research has shown that creatine supplementation may be beneficial for post-exercise recovery, injury prevention, thermoregulation, and rehabilitation (7). Following the advice from Mark's articles on hypertrophy and strength, this would be the perfect recipe to enhance your overall gains in your training.
Developmental and mental disorder
The majority of the creatine stores in the body are found in skeletal muscle, however, the brain is very metabolically active and has been shown to be responsible for up to 20% of the body's energy utilisation. Creatine kinase (CK), the main enzyme involved in the ATP and PCr system, suggesting that creatine may also be relevant for energy provision to the central nervous system (CNS). Further, mental and developmental disorders (learning delays, autism, and seizures) have been linked with decreased levels of creatine in the brain, and although the research is in small amounts, there have been some positive outcomes following supplementing creatine
Creatine and aging muscle
Now, don’t take this the wrong way, it’s just what the sciency articles say about the 50 years of age and older… Dynapenia (loss of muscle strength), typically as a result of sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass that naturally occurs with age), usually remains the until around 50 years old and then starts to decline around 1.2-1.5% per year (2), so here’s where creatine can help prevent or minimise this.
The aging population
Some studies have looked into the effects of supplementing creatine monohydrate in the again population without any exercise and found some positive results. For example,(3) got participants (aged between 64 – 86 years) to supplement creatine for two weeks and saw significant improvements in the participant's grip strength over the time period. Maybe suggest your parents/grandparents start supplementing?
Another important factor to consider for the elderly population is falling. We all probably know an elderly person that has had a fall or heard of a story of and seen the rate of recovery tends to be a lot slower than it would if a child or teen were to fall. Leg strength has been the biggest determining factor or lack of for falling in the aging population, and a few studies have found that along with and without strength training but supplementation of creatine on its own, participants scored higher in the sit down and stand test. This can be related to a few things, depending on which group did what, but overall it seems like a pretty positive outcome for both groups.
Possible side effects of taking creatine and how to manage it?
Creatine supplementation has been going on for many years now and there have been no ill effects shown in anyone. There is a slight risk of somebody developing some sort of GI distress but this can be easily managed by reducing the strength of the dose throughout the day. This isn’t really a side effect but there is such thing as people not responding at all to creatine intake. (6) found that up to 20-30% of people will be non-responders to creatine. They also identified that the other potential nonresponders would be people that eat a lot of meat, and/or people with a high strength training age.
‘Make me look watery’ – creatine stores intramuscularly (inside of the muscle), not under the skin so it would not make you look watery.
‘Makes me heavier’ - this is a thing, but not for the reasons you think. As you now know, Creatine stores water intramuscularly (inside of the muscle) so there’s a chance that it might make you heavier, not fatter.
‘Gives me headaches’ – when supplementing creatine, there is more water being drawn to the muscles by any it can, thus it might be working drinking a little more water in the days, especially if you bad at drinking, but it certainly doesn’t dehydrate you. As for monitoring your hydration status, your aim should be to have relatively clear urine throughout the day.
‘Gives me muscle cramps’ – cramping still doesn’t have a direct correlation with anything, but there are some strong suggestive links between cramping and hydration levels and other things like low potassium levels and/or fatigue. As we now know, creatine tends to send more water to the muscles in the body, so your total body water level goes up when you supplement, therefore are less likely to be dehydrated.
‘Hair loss’ - Male baldness has been related to higher DHT levels (1), and creatine supplementation has shown to increase DHT levels by up to 40% in rugby players of 2 weeks of supplementing. However, so has strength training in the gym, by up to 14%. The biggest contributor to male baldness is genetics, so if you are considering supplementing creatine then you might just want to be a bit more aware.
‘Shouldn’t take it with caffeine and has more benefits of taking it at a certain time of day’ – the ‘not taking it with caffeine’ idea came from a study that showed caffeine having inhibiting effects on creatine, had only nine subjects so from a reliability stand point, it does stand very strongly, although it might give something for you to trial with. Also, there are many other studies that strongly counter that argument, showing that it doesn’t really matter when you take the creatine, just take it daily and you will still get the benefits from it (7).
Problems with creatine
There aren’t many or any, as mentioned before its extensively researched and shown nothing but positive effects on a lot of people from all walks of life. The biggest problem we found with creatine, was the marketing of it. Creatine monohydrate is the one that works and is what you want to be taking. Supplement companies are boxing it up as a ‘new type of creatine’ giving the chance of more sales and opportunity for marking up the price, but it's all the same thing and does the job it needs to do.
The taste might be a problem, as it generally doesn’t have one. There is an easy fix to this though, as you can just mix with your juice or porridge in the morning, or over your dinner in the evening… Good luck! Companies are now selling flavoured creatine in powder form now, and it comes at zero calories, so you can just buy that.
Dosage and how to take it?
In order for creatine to work, it needs to be saturated in the blood. You can slowly achieve saturation levels through just normal dieting through the days but creatine saturation levels are around 60-80%, however, in supplementation of creatine, saturations are increased by around 20-40% more. Therefore, if you want to achieve beneficial levels of creatine into the blood, supplementing will be your best bet.
Optimal saturation levels can be achieved at 3g per day for 28 days and there on you can carry on taking 3-5g daily forever. Forever is shown to be safe as studies have looked into the effects of supplementing creatine for 21 months with no ill effects. Just to give a bit of perspective, in order for you to achieve these levels of creatine in a sitting, you will need to eat 1kg of raw red meat, daily. However, to achieve the optimal saturation levels, it is recommended that you do the loading phase for one week followed by maintenance at 20g per day then 3-5g per day. To reach the 20g per day, we recommend doing this over four servings of 5g per serving.
What to do if I stopped taking and want to start again?
It takes around 4-6 weeks for saturation levels to return to baseline, so if you have had a break for longer than the 4-6 weeks and want to get saturation levels back up to optimal, quickly, then we recommend you do a loading phase again, taking 20g per day, over 4 servings for one week, then returning to maintenance dosage at 3-5g per day.
Although the research is limited, creatine supplementation does not appear to negatively affect markers of liver or kidney function in aging adults, and there is a lot of conclusive evidence surrounding the benefits of supplementing creatine, so IMO, the question isn’t ‘should I supplement creatine?’… the question is ‘why wouldn’t I?’.
I’m going to get my grandparent to start taking it, I’ll sneak it in their tea bags if I have to.
But of course, do consult with a well-informed physician before trying anything.
We hope you enjoyed the read and got some useful and practical information from this read as always!
And of course, any questions, do feel free to drop us an email: firstname.lastname@example.org