Finally the truth about the most talked about supplement of them all, creatine.
It’s mid-August and you’re desperate to get off the bench and onto the field. Based on a recommendation from one of your team’s former standouts, you start taking creatine. And a few weeks later you notice it’s working. You feel stronger, faster and better than ever. You start out playing your teammates, vying for a starting position and winning accolades from your coach, who's absolutely amazed by your progress. And then one hot muggy day you suddenly fall to the ground, grab your calf and whale in pain. Your athletic trainer and coach rush over, give you a few swigs of a sports drink and put a cool wet towel on your forehead. Later, in the training room, you find out you're seriously dehydrated and you're still suffering from the lingering effects of your right calf muscle cramping up. After going through your training, food and supplement intake, the athletic trainer declares that creatine is the problem!
If I had a dime for every time someone told me that their coach said creatine causes cramping and dehydration, I could build a nice home gym with the cash. While there’s a ton of misinformation floating around about nutrition and dietary supplements, creatine has certainly received its fair share of kicks in the back. Like a Hollywood star with a clean record, people want to dig for dirt and try to find something wrong with this mighty supplement.
The funny thing about the “is it safe or is it dangerous” creatine controversy is that many of us eat creatine in our food (found in meat and fish) and our body naturally produces it in some of our organs, which should raise a green flag to those who think it’s harmful. So, if we can obtain it from food and produce it, why supplement? We actually don’t get enough from either source to fuel intense exercise – the type of short duration explosive exercise that characterizes sprinting, lifting weights, the shot put and other movement patterns in sports. Creatine works by replenishing our body’s stores of the substrate ATP to fuel activity. And, ATP is the primary fuel in those first few seconds of intense activity.
Literally hundreds if not thousands of studies have been conducted on creatine. And the conclusion scientists have drawn from this large body of research is this: creatine improves maximum power and strength, workload and sprint performance with zero side effects with the exception of weight gain. People typically gain about 1-2 kilograms during the loading phase and more thereafter while on the maintenance dose. How much you gain depends on your genetics, where you are in training (a novice or experienced bodybuilder or somewhere in between), whether you are a man or woman (women don’t have the hormones to build massive amounts of muscle), how hard you train (and how good your training program is) and of course, your diet.
What about all of the stuff you’ve heard regarding cramping and dehydration? Those are anecdotal reports from people. It would be like going to McDonald’s and eating a hamburger and fries and later that day you experience a finger cramp while at your computer surfing Facebook. You make the connection between the hamburger and your finger cramps when it is really unclear what caused the cramping. All of a sudden people start boycotting McDonald’s hamburgers in fear of getting intense finger cramps preventing them from checking the Facebook status updates of their friends.
All of the studies on creatine have found it is safe and according to one review study, the scientists believe it may actually decrease cramping by increasing total body water and intracellular water. Creatine also has no negative effects on kidney functioning in healthy adults. In fact, one study out of Brazil examined creatine supplementation in a man with one kidney. They used a typical dosing protocol – 20 grams per day for 5 days and 5 grams per day thereafter for 30 days. In addition, the young man consumed 2.8 grams of protein per kg bodyweight (way more than we recommend to athletes). This protocol – a high protein diet + creatine supplementation, had no negative effects on kidney functioning. In addition to this case study, creatine use is being examined for it’s potential to improve specific symptoms of disease in many sick populations (see www.clinicaltrials.gov for more information) including those with Huntington's Disease, Parkinson's Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis.
For creatine to be effective, you need to fully saturate your creatine stores. You can do this by loading with 20 grams per day (or 0.3 grams per kilogram bodyweight, whichever is less) for about 5 days. After this you can maintain your creatine stores on about 3-5 grams per day. If you don’t want to load you can take 3- 5 grams of creatine per day for about 30 days to build up your stores more slowly. Though creatine is completely safe, you may experience some stomach upset if you consume a load (20 grams or more) of creatine at one time. By spacing your loading dose out throughout the day, you shouldn’t have any problems.
So if you’re trying to make the team or just trying to get stronger and improve your athletic performance, creatine may be just what you’re looking for. In reality, studies prove that creatine is a safe, naturally occurring nutritional supplement that has zero negative side effects when taken properly… even if your misinformed athletic trainer happens to think otherwise.