Confused about creatine? Here’s how to incorporate it into your diet

three women running in a non-urban area

If you’ve ever looked for supplements to support your workout, chances are you’ve heard of them creatine. Creatine is one of the most popular and effective supplements out there, and there is a lot of scientific evidence for its effectiveness. Numerous studies show that taking creatine can help increase strength, power, muscle growth and muscle performance.

What is Creatine actually?

Creatine is an amino acid, explains Crazy Nutrition’s product manager, James Aitken. It is a naturally occurring compound found in small amounts in animal products such as meat and fish. The body also naturally produces creatine in the liver, kidneys and pancreas. Creatine is used in the production and storage of energy in muscle cells.

Delving further into the science, Aitken explains how, in the body, creatine is converted into phosphocreatine. Phosphocreatine acts as a rapidly available storage tank for energy in the muscles. During intense exercise, phosphocreatine is used to generate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which provides fuel for muscle contractions.

Creatine is one of the most trusted and extensively studied sports supplements in the world, adds Abi Roberts, sports nutritionist at Bulk.com. Creatine supplements are commonly taken by bodybuilders, powerlifters and athletes to provide immediate energy to muscles.

What are the benefits of creatine?

Creatine is one of the most studied supplements and has been shown to increase physical performance in successive bursts of short-term, high-intensity exercise, says Aitken.

Roberts agrees: Creatine is beneficial to athletes, sportsmen and bodybuilders for the primary reason of increasing their ability to produce energy. While we can produce it naturally and get it from food, supplementation is necessary to optimally increase creatine stores in the muscle and reap the performance-enhancing benefits, particularly in the form of strength, power, and muscle mass.

This is especially relevant for activities like sprinting, says Aitken, as it can improve overall exercise capacity and anaerobic performance. Additionally, creatine may support enhanced recovery by helping to reduce muscle damage and inflammation associated with vigorous exercise.

three women running in a non-urban area

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What about the specific benefits of creatine for runners?

While creatine is best known for increasing muscle power and providing benefits to strength- and power-based activities, the potential benefits for endurance-based activities have also been studied, Roberts explains. While the overall results are quite mixed, it largely depends on which performance indicators are being measured. Some studies have suggested that there are potential improvements in some aspects of performance, such as the ability to sprint and other high-intensity efforts while running, but there is still no conclusive evidence to support this.

But, as Aitken states: Creatine has been shown to improve muscle strength and power, which can translate into better running performance. It can help runners generate more force with each stride and sprint at higher speeds.

He also argues that because creatine supplementation can improve muscular endurance, it could allow runners to maintain a higher intensity for longer. This can be particularly beneficial during interval training or when getting through the final stages of a race, she says. Creatine can help improve glycogen storage in muscles, which serves as an important fuel source during endurance activities like distance running. This can delay the onset of fatigue and improve overall endurance performance.

Are there any side effects to creatine?

Creatine is generally considered safe when used as directed and in appropriate doses. However, some individuals can experience certain side effects, says Aitken.

Long-term studies suggest that there are no adverse effects associated with creatine supplementation in healthy individuals, Roberts adds. While side effects have been noted, this largely depends on individual dosing strategy, pre-existing health conditions, and overall response to creatine supplementation.

Here are the potential side effects to be aware of:

  • Gastrointestinal problems: Some people may experience stomach discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, or nausea while taking creatine. These effects are typically mild and can be minimized by staying properly hydrated and spreading your dosage throughout the day, advises Aitken.
  • Water retention: Creatine can cause the body to retain water, leading to weight gain and a slightly bloated appearance. This is due to increased fluid absorption by the muscles. However, the weight gain is usually temporary and related to water, not fat, says Aitken. Adds Roberts: There is speculation that creatine affects water retention, but this is often only under the condition of a loading phase, which usually clears up after a few weeks and doesn’t affect everyone who chooses to do a loading phase.
  • Muscle cramps: In rare cases, creatine supplementation can cause muscle cramps or strains. Staying well hydrated and ensuring proper electrolyte balance can help prevent these problems, says Aitken.
  • Kidney and liver function: There is no substantial evidence that creatine causes damage to healthy kidneys or liver. However, people with pre-existing kidney or liver disease should exercise caution and consult a healthcare professional before using creatine, he adds. Additionally, people with diabetes or high blood pressure should monitor their condition closely as creatine can affect blood sugar levels and blood pressure.

What you need to know before taking creatine?

If you are considering adding a creatine supplement to your diet, there are a few things to consider first…

It’s important to ensure that your nutrition and training strategies are already established, says Roberts. To enhance your physical performance, focus on optimizing these core principles before moving on to supplementation. Pay attention to aspects such as proper nutrition, a well-structured training plan, sufficient sleep, adequate hydration and effective stress management. By addressing these fundamentals first, you can create a solid foundation for improving your performance. Incorporating creatine can serve as an additional tool to further enhance your performance, leading to more noticeable and meaningful results.

How much creatine can you take in a day?

Typically, a loading phase of 20 grams per day for 5-7 days is followed by a maintenance phase of 3-5 grams per day, though individual needs may vary, says Aitken. The loading phase aims to quickly saturate the muscles with creatine, with the goal of reaching optimal levels more quickly than with regular maintenance dosing alone. By saturating muscles with creatine during the loading phase, individuals can experience more immediate improvements in strength, power, and physical performance. This can benefit athletes or people engaged in high-intensity workouts who want to maximize their results in a shorter amount of time.

But it’s important to note that the loading phase isn’t mandatory for creatine supplementation, she says. Some individuals may choose to skip the loading phase and start directly with maintenance dosing. This approach will still lead to an increase in muscle creatine levels over time, albeit at a slower rate.

Some individuals may choose to stop taking creatine for a while, while others may opt for continuous supplementation, he adds. Consultation with a healthcare professional or registered dietitian can provide personalized guidance on the duration and dosage of the maintenance phase based on individual needs and goals.

Always consult a doctor or healthcare professional if you have any concerns or pre-existing health conditions before taking a supplement. They can assess your health, discuss any pre-existing medical conditions, and provide guidance based on your individual needs.

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