Creatine is one of the most popular supplements in the market. It is also a naturally occurring amino acid present in our bodies and acquired through the consumption of meat, fish, dairy products, nuts, seeds and egg whites. The majority is located in skeletal muscle with around 5% in the brain and heart. The liver can also produce creatine by combining arginine, glycine and methionine.
So what’s it for?
The main benefit of creatine is its ability to aid the production of energy. The creatine in our bodies is stored as creatine phosphate (phosphocreatine) and when ADP (adenosine di-phosphate) requires an additional phosphate in order to convert back to ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate) it can be provided by creatine. The ATP-PC system provides a rapid source of energy in anaerobic activity.
Another benefit discovered through recent research is the ability to buffer lactic-acid build up; especially useful to both endurance and strength athletes. Glycogen breakdown has the side effect of lactic acid development. This is responsible for the burning sensation and fatigue of the muscle. Hydrogen ions are released by lactic acid and can build up in the muscle cells. However, the ATP production process utilises large amounts of hydrogen ions, thus acting as a “buffer” to lactic acid build up and delaying its onset, allowing the athlete to train for longer.
Types of creatine supplement available
Creatine monohydrate – In basic terms this is creatine bound with water. Each molecule is made up of 88% creatine and 12% water. This is the most common form of creatine supplement available.
Creatine phosphate – More expensive and although it does contain phosphate, there is no evidence to suggest that it is more beneficial. It is also only 62% creatine and 38% phosphate, so would need to be consumed in larger quantities.
Creatine citrate – More water-soluble than creatine monohydrate or creatine phosphate. However, it contains just 40% creatine.
It is important to bear in mind that yielding the highest amount of creatine is not the only consideration. Absorption plays a key role. Those who favour creatine citrate point out that it has a 90% absorption rate, whilst monohydrate is just 40%.(The majority of studies to date have been carried out on creatine monohydrate.)
Different forms of supplement
Powder – the most popular and cheapest form and mixed with water or juice to produce a drink. However, there are drawbacks with absorption rates. As the solution passes through the stomach the acids begin to digest the creatine before it has had the opportunity to reach the muscles – as much as 50% can be lost.
Serum form – has a more efficient delivery and so less creatine is lost in digestion and more absorbed in the muscles. This gives the dual benefit of having to take less and being able to take it closer to your workout times. The major downside to the liquid form is the creatine has to be stabilised or it will start to breakdown into creatinine after approximately twenty minutes.
Pills – these work in the same way as the powder supplement but do not require mixing. The obvious disadvantage with this form is the inability to take a tailored dose.
Effervescent powder – similar to powder with the advantage of greater absorption rates. It has the same associated dosage problems as creatine pills.
When taken in powder form, creatine remains in the blood stream for approximately 1-1.5 hours. Creatine must be absorbed into the muscles in order to stimulate growth. Therefore, if you deplete the supply in the muscles when working out and there is creatine available in the blood stream, the muscles can replenish their supply from this source. It is advisable to take creatine around one hour prior to a training session. This will allow time for the supplement to become available to the muscles through the bloodstream. Creatine will then be available before, during (within the muscles) and after (within the bloodstream) the workout.
The creatine supply in the muscles is not limitless. On average we have between 3.5 – 4g of creatine per kilo of muscle. Studies have shown that we can store approximately 5g so taking a supplement will raise your levels.
Manufacturers of creatine supplements usually recommend a loading phase. This rapid loading protocol consists of a daily dosage of 20g for the first 5 days to be taken with a meal or snack containing a substantial amount of carbohydrates (50-100g) in 4 doses of 5g each. A weight gain of 0.6-1kg per week can be expected using this method. Following the loading phase, a maintenance dosage 3g/day is recommended.
The aim of this loading phase is to saturate the muscles. A maintenance phase then sustains this level and replaces daily degradation. Many doctors recommend that this maintenance phase lasts no longer than one month. There have been few studies on the long-term effects of the sustained use of creatine supplements and there are also no reported benefits in consumption beyond this. Any weight and muscle gain can be maintained through physical training.
Studies have been undertaken to discover if this loading phase is essential. They demonstrate that greater gains occur within the first two weeks for those who load. However, after four weeks both groups will be at an equal level. Loading will simply allow an individual to reach that level two weeks earlier.
Endurance v Strength
The effects of creatine on performance are much less clear in endurance training as aerobic activity is less reliant on the phosphocreatine energy system. It’s potential as a buffer to lactic acid build up is one obvious advantage for endurance training, but any gain in body mass may be disadvantageous as more energy is required to move a heavier body from A to B over longer periods of time. This needs to be weighed up against the potential advantage of increased maximal power/lean body mass gained through creatine supplementation alongside resistance training.
Taking the supplement with carbohydrate helps the body to assimilate creatine more readily. The associated increase in insulin helps to transport the creatine into the muscle cells, leading to improved glycogen storage in the muscles. The exact timing of the when the creatine is taken is not as critical for endurance training. It will be effective provided there is a sufficient supply available to the muscles.
It is perfectly safe for women to take a creatine supplement, although one of the side effects is increased water retention and bloating. There are supplements on the market that include additional substances intended to relieve these symptoms. Avoiding the loading phase may also help to dissipate this.
The most important point to note for anyone considering creatine supplementation is that it will have little or no effect on the average person who is not involved in intensive sporting activities. It is not a short cut solution to muscle gain and no pill or powder should ever replace a diet based on sound nutrition principles.
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