Updated: Jul 21, 2021
Creatine is one of the most used sports nutrition supplements on the shelves. It has been used for many years and has helped many athletes improve their performance. But before using, it is important to get familiar with creatine in our bodies and energy metabolism. So here's our view on creatine, naturally and as a supplement.
Creatine in our bodies
Creatine is a natural substance produced in our bodies. It is mainly stored in our muscles, some in our brains as well. When we exercise our muscles require energy, and ATP molecules (adenosine triphosphate) are responsible for turning energy into power. ATP is the charged molecule used to power muscles, and when it does its work the battery runs out, resulting in an empty molecule, called ADP (adenosine diphosphate).
Technical note: the T in ATP stands for 'tri' meaning 'three' phosphates. The D in ADP stands for 'di' meaning only two phosphates, thus the molecule lost one phosphate during this process.
NOW, creatine is responsible for recycling the empty ADP molecules and adding a new phosphate (P) molecule to form a charged ATP.
Obviously, the more creatine there is in your body, the more fully charged ATP molecules can be formed from empty, ADP molecules.
Our bodies produce approximately 1 gram of creatine per day, which is enough for sufficient energy metabolism. But some athletes can benefit by taking creatine supplements.
Creatine in food
Creatine is found in certain food sources, mainly red meat, poultry and fish. Increasing your intake of these foods may increase your overall creatine levels, in addition to the creatine produced by your liver. As noted creatine is mostly found in animal products.
For athletes following a vegetarian or vegan diet, it is advised to take a creatine supplement or increase intake of creatine building blocks. Creatine can be produced by the liver, using the amino acid building blocks arginine, glycine and methionine. Foods that are rich in these amino acids can be incorporated in a plant-based diet to ensure sufficient production.
Creatine in sport
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) allow the use of creatine, and it is widely used among professional athletes. Creatine is one of the most popular supplements in sports nutrition. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition supports the use of creatine as a performance enhancing supplement. Creatine can increase maximum output and performance by 5 - 15% for athletes that perform high-intensity repetitive work. This usually refers to weight-training, bodybuilding and sports involving short periods of extremely powerful activity, especially during repeated bouts (sprinting, wrestling, boxing).
For endurance, aerobic sessions creatine has no significant effect.
Creatine in the form of creatine monohydrate is the most extensively studied and clinically effective supplement form of creatine when it comes to muscle uptake and ability to increase high-intensity exercise. The most recent position stand on creatine from the Journal of International Society of Sports Nutrition states that creatine is safe to take in healthy populations from infants to the elderly to performance athletes. They also state that long term (5 years) use of creatine has been considered safe.
If you have some creatine in your cupboard, quickly grab the bottle and read the label.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition the fastest way to increase muscle creatine stores may be to consume about 0.3 g/kg/day of creatine monohydrate for 5-7 days (LOADING) followed by 3-5 g per day after (MAINTENANCE).
Say you weigh 70kg, take 21g per day for the first 5-7 days, dividing the intakes into 5 sittings. During these days you will be loading to elevate your creatine levels.
After the loading days, you only need to consume 3-5g per day to maintain the elevated levels. During the maintenance days, consume the creatine before or after your training session.
It is advised that you 'take a break' from creatine supplementation after 12 weeks if used.
(If the label of your cupboard-creatine does not correspond, double check your product!)
Possible side-effects of creatine
Weight gain due to extra water retention to the muscle
Potential muscle cramps / strains / pulls
High blood pressure due to extra water consumption
So there you go - if you qualify as a 'high intensity, repetitive athlete' the use of creatine can enhance your performance and allow you to reap maximum benefits from your sessions. When choosing a product advise a nutrition professional or a doctor in case you have any underlying disease and use it as directed. Don't be too smart. Dosage instructions are there for a reason.
For more information on sports supplements, look at our sports nutrition guides.