Creatine closely follows whey protein in the list of most popular sports nutrition products. It’s convenient, it’s backed up by thorough research and it’s a valuable part of nutrition for plenty of athletes – but it also commonly features in health scare stories. It’s been blamed for everything from shortening your temper and bloating your stomach to kidney problems and even increasing your risk of cancer.
So before you decide whether to take it or not, check out this expert advice from sports dietitian Chris Cashin, speaking on behalf of the British Dietetic Association.
What is creatine?
Creatine is a compound that is produced by the body, mainly in the liver, that consists of the amino acids arginine, glycine and methionine. It is used in the muscles to produce energy. It can be obtained from food – primarily fish and meat. Vegetarians and vegans can obtain the amino acids to make creatine as long as they eat a wide range of plant-based foods – not supplements.
How long has it been used as a sports supplement?
It has been used for more than 20 years and was certainly around when I trained as a sports dietitian in the late 1990s.
What are the benefits of using creatine?
It improves energy production, enabling you to exercise for longer and and recover faster. It is also thought to promote protein manufacture and muscle mass increases, known as hypertrophy.
Who can benefit from using it? Is it only really for very serious athletes?
Anyone who weight trains or does any sport that involves high-intensity movements such as sprints, jumps and throws will benefit. I find it is commonly used in sports like rugby and football. It has been widely researched and some studies have shown that it does not work at all in some people – that may be up to 50% of people. You will not know unless you try it! It does increase cell volume and some people report weight gain, therefore it is rarely used in weight category sports.
How often should you take it?
It is usual to start with a five-day loading dose where you take four 5g doses and after that a maintenance dose of 2g per day. Most people do not have any side effects although some notice water retention. There are studies that have used some different doses but this is the method most commonly seen. It is generally suggested that you take it in cycles of three to four months and then have a break for a month.
Studies have not conclusively shown when is the best time to take it, but it may be best taken after a meal and with 40-100g of carbohydrate. While there are no major side effects apart from weight gain there have been anecdotal reports that it can cause muscle cramping, gastrointestinal upsets and muscle damage. I have found that when athletes report these side effects they’re taking an incorrect dose – usually too much!
When buying creatine is there anything you should look out for on ingredient lists?
Creatine monohydrate is the most commonly used form of creatine. It dissolves easily in water and is generally cheaper. There is no evidence that creatine in any other form is better absorbed – this would include serum, citrate and phosphate. You should look out for protein bars or other supplements that have it added, because more is not better!
Chris Cashin is the lead on sports nutrition at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, where there is a new Master’s course in Sport and Exercise Nutrition