The world of sport is a very competitive place. Athletes are forever searching for that little something extra to give them an edge. A common supplement used for this very purpose is Creatine.
Creatine is a compound synthesised from the two amino acids (protein constituents) guanidine and arginine. It is thought to improve early stages of physical performance, power capacity, muscle growth and endurance capacity. Since significant research and promising evidence surrounds creatine, it is classified as an ergogenic (performance enhancing) aid.
Its’ sporting applications are why companies get away with selling the supplemental powder form at $30 a tub. However, it also occurs naturally in the flesh of animals, and can therefore be obtained in the diet.
This begs the question; why would anyone fork out for the supplement when a $10 steak will do the trick?
A well-balanced diet provides approximately 1g creatine per day, which is not nearly enough to confer the benefits of supplementation. A study published in the 1990’s suggests that an initial loading phase of 20g creatine/day is required for meaningful bodily creatine elevation. This equates to 4.4 kg of fresh red meat. That’s one massive steak! The loading phase consists of 5 days, and following this, a maintenance phase of 3-5g creatine/day is recommended. Of which, is unlikely to be achieved without supplement. That $30 tub is starting to seem worth it.
Creatine is stored within the muscle and is used as fuel for a quick burst of anaerobic energy. For example, the first 10-15 seconds of a sprint or for the first couple of reps of a set in the gym. While creatine is a great source of energy, it runs out quick. Hence, cannot be used to sustain exercise of durations greater than a couple of seconds. Supplementation increases muscle creatine stores, eliciting improvements in hard and fast exercise.
After creatine is used up, it can be resynthesised by the body. Therefore, after a short rest period of 2-3 minutes, creatine is ready to be reused as a fuel. This cycle is enhanced with supplementation and therefore, creatine has interval training applications.
Increased creatine at the muscle exerts an osmotic pressure. Osmotic pressure can be thought about as a substances’ concentration having the ability to draw water to itself. High concentrations of creatine, draw more water into the muscle. In fact, creatine supplementation has been associated with up to as much as 2kg water weight gain. Swelling stimulates stretch receptors in the muscle that kick-start a series of metabolic pathways that lead to lean body tissue growth. Hence, creatine may have a role in increasing muscle growth and strength. Increases in strength will increase quality of training and performance at competition.
It’s not all good news – rapid muscle swelling has the capacity to result in compartment syndrome. This is characterised as soreness of the muscle and can have negative effects on training. However, the incidence of this is low and the risk is unlikely to outweigh the pros of creatine supplementation.
During prolonged exercise, a build-up of acidic particles within the muscle inhibit a key energy metabolism enzyme, PFK, contributing to fatigue. Creatine has the capacity to neutralise these acidic particles and negate fatigue. Hence, creatine has a role to play in improving endurance capacity.
Overall, evidence points to performance benefits with creatine supplementation. However, everybody is unique and the degree of improvement is not standard across the entire population. Those that will benefit most from creatine supplementation are vegetarians and vegans. This is because their diets are extremely low in creatine due to lack of meat. For this reason, vegans and vegetarians are classified as ‘high’ responders and as such, will experience most improvement from supplementation. Creatine supplements are very highly recommended for this population.
It is possible to do everything right, but still see no noticeable improvement from supplementation. People who experience this are called non-responders. Non-responsiveness can be caused by factors involving genetics, pre-supplement creatine stores, diet and more. It has been suggested that the best way to test responsiveness is to take the supplement. Potentially, this is wasteful of money and time. However, could be worth it, if found to be responsive.
In the sea of often useless and always overpriced sports supplements that dominate the market, creatine stands out as legitimate tool for athletes. With little to no known adverse effects and time-and-time again proved benefits, creatine should be, at least, considered by most athletes if they on the hunt for a little something extra to boost performance.