For athletes who do short, intense bursts of activity, creatine supplements can help provide more quick energy to working muscles.
What is creatine and what does it do?
The proteins you eat and the proteins in your body (like your muscles and organs) are composed of amino acids – the so-called “building blocks” of protein. Creatine is one of those amino acids. Your body naturally produces some creatine, but most people get additional creatine from animal proteins like meat and seafood.
Creatine is stored in your muscles, where it is used to produce energy as part of a compound called phosphocreatine (PCr). The PCr energy system in the body is very specific – PCr helps provide energy during the first few seconds of intense exercise, such as when a runner first darts away from a starting gate, or when a bodybuilder first hefts a heavy barbell. In fact, the muscles only store enough PCr for about 10 seconds of high-intensity activity. For this reason, athletes who are looking to improve their power in short duration, high-intensity exercises are the ones who are most interested in enhancing their body stores of creatine.
How much creatine is needed, and how is it used?
Most athletes use supplemental creatine to help increase levels of PCr in muscle. The goal is to support muscular contractions and, therefore, muscle strength. Creatine monohydrate is considered the most effective form of supplemental creatine.
The body naturally produces about one gram of creatine a day, and a typical mixed diet supplies another gram or two. With these two sources combined, it’s estimated that muscle creatine stores are only about 60 to 80% saturated, which means that supplements could boost levels by anywhere from 20 to 40%.
Many people start by supplementing with a daily dose of 4 to 5 grams of creatine, while others like to begin with a loading dose of 20 to 25 grams daily, divided into four doses, for 5 to 7 days. Once creatine stores are saturated, they can be maintained with 4 to 5 grams per day in most people, although heavily muscled athletes may need more. The muscles retain more creatine when it’s taken with carbohydrates alone or with a combination of carbohydrates and protein, so it’s a good idea to take it with food.
What are the side effects of taking creatine supplements?
The only consistently reported side effect from creatine supplementation is mild water retention – and therefore, some temporary weight gain. Strength athletes who want to look as lean and “cut” as much as possible may object to the effects of fluid retention on their appearance, but it is usually more noticeable during the loading phase and tends to subside. On the upside, the extra bit of fluid within cells can help athletes regulate their body temperature more effectively while exercising in the heat. Other than that, creatine supplementation is considered safe. According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, short and long-term supplementation (up to 30 g per day for 5 years) is safe and well-tolerated in healthy people.