Much has been written about creatine over the years – ranging from news reports and magazine articles through to academic studies – and that can make it tough to separate the reality from the myth.
With this in mind, here’s our guide to creatine, answering the fundamental questions that you might have about this popular and often misunderstood supplement.
What is creatine and how does it work?
First things first, what actually is creatine? If you’re going to take it then you should take some time to understand what it is.
Creatine is a chemical compound – a nitrogenous organic acid to be precise – that is naturally found in your muscles.
Creatine works by moving energy around your cells and delivering a boost wherever it is needed.
It is produced by the liver, kidney and pancreas and can be consumed by eating red meat, fish and other animal products such as dairy.
What are the benefits of taking creatine?
Getting energy to your muscles is crucial if you want to be able to stave off fatigue and perform at your peak during an active workout.
Creatine is key to giving you that energy boost and, in turn, ensuring that you have the strength and stamina you need to be able to power through a tough workout.
The key benefits of creatine are, therefore, that you can boost the size of your muscles and enhance your athletic performance.
Do you need to take creatine supplements?
Why, then, if it’s in the body and foods do you need a supplement? The issue here, as with protein, is getting enough of it in your system to have the desired effect. You’d have to eat an awful lot of meat and fish (and spend lots of money in the process) in order to consume the level you’d need for a heavy workout.
Products such as creatine monohydrate power or ethyl ester tablets can assure you top up your creatine levels in a better way. As with other supplements, the sensible use of professionally-made products can be a highly effective – and safe – part of the balanced diet needed to fuel a strong and healthy body.
Who should take creatine?
Depending on what you’ve read about creatine in the past you might be forgiven for thinking that this is just for the bodybuilders. Some people do fear that they will bulk up substantially by using this supplement and, as a result, fear it’s more suited to bodybuilders or high endurance athletes.
This isn’t the case. Creatine can be highly effective for anyone looking to boost their strength and performance and, when used to fuel an active fitness regime, need not result in making you look or feel ‘bulky’. It’s all about helping your body work at high intensity and should encourage the lean muscle mass you want as you look to shed the pounds.
Creatine should not, however, be used by people who aren’t engaged in an exercise regime or eating the right foods. If your supplements don’t go hand in hand with the right diet and right regime, then they won’t work. It’s also not suitable for children.
How much creatine do you need to take?
As with most supplements, it’s worth pointing out that the amount of creatine you need to take will change depending on your weight and particular targets.
Those looking for the biggest boost from creatine – people with the toughest exercise regimes – should look to two phases – loading and then maintenance.
Creatine loading means taking a higher dose for an initial period of about five days which, typically, is about 20g. This stems from the fact that research into creatine found that a five-day burst could help to raise the amount in your muscles by more than a third. After the loading phase, people then drop to 2-3g a day.
That figure has largely stuck ever since even though it was, in effect, an arbitrary choice during investigations into the product. As a rule of thumb it’s easy to remember and has proven popular.
However, you might want to be more specific than this ‘rule of thumb’ when calculating your own requirements. You should talk to your trainer and consider your programme – as well as your weight and size.
Writing for Schwarzenegger.com, John Niefer has drawn up a useful equation that can help you to calculate your best dose and avoid the need for a loading period completely.
His formula is body mass (in kg) x 0.3 = amount of creatine monohydrate (in g).
Again, this might not be a hard and fast ‘rule’, but it gives you an equation if the traditional ‘loading’ and ‘maintenance’ route doesn’t appeal.
When is the best time to take creatine?
If you’re taking a creatine supplement before your workout, then you should do so at half an hour to an hour before you begin.
However, the best advice is to use this after you’ve finished in the gym.
Doctor Nikhil Rao, a weightlifting expert, recommends taking creatine after a workout, and certainly not before. He told Coach Mag: “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.”
Are there any side effects to taking creatine?
If you’re a fit and healthy individual, then you should be perfectly safe when taking creatine.
There are just a couple of things to be aware of. Firstly, you must drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration as creatine draws water into muscle cells. But, since you should be drinking lots of water anyway, then this shouldn’t be a big issue.
Some people may have read about issues with kidneys and liver but this should only be the case if these are unhealthy in the first place. However, you might not know that your liver or kidneys are in a poor condition and so if this is a concern you should see your doctor.
It’s also important not to take too much creatine, although the same could be said for any vitamin or mineral. As Men’s Health notes, too much vitamin C can cause diarrhoea, and too much iron may lead to stomach problems.
Finally, it’s important to buy a pure product from a brand that you trust. You need to be sure about what’s in the supplement and the quality of the ingredients.
Do athletes take creatine?
Creatine is a safe and legal supplement that is allowed by official boards such as the International Olympic Committee. It has been taken by athletes for some time now.
It attracted headlines after it emerged that Linford Christie used the supplement as part of the routine that helped him clinch the 100m gold medal at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Fellow athletes Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson also used the supplement and Arsenal striker Ian Wright also topped up his diet with creatine.
Despite being around for some time it was seen as new and groundbreaking in the 1990s and since then has gone on to be a popular part of the training regime of many top athletes.