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Sports Nutrition

Creatine Fact and Fiction

In the summer of ’95, before my senior year of high school, i heard about this hot product called creatine. Identified in the 1830s — and named after the Greek word for “flesh” — it hit the mainstream thanks to breakout performances by several athletes at the 1992 Summer olympics in barcelona, spain. desperate to crack the starting lineup of our state championship-contending soccer team, i bought a big jar of powder and started scooping it into grape juice. i didn’t really know what it was, but I felt stronger in the gym and faster on the field, and come fall, I was a first-line fullback. These days — and even then — creatine’s not new, but it remains one of the most talked about, researched and used supplements on the market. how can you make it work for you? read on to get your own “scoop” on the facts and common fallacies around this versatile and powerful amino-acid conglomerate.

FACT: Your body produces its own creatine.

On a daily basis, your body manufactures creatine when metabolizing the protein in red meat and fish, and it helps boost your levels of ATP—the fuel source for explosive, high-intensity activities like lifting weights, sprinting and jumping. But it takes 3 pounds of raw fish to match the amount in one 5-gram dose of a creatine supplement, says Molly Morgan, R.D., owner of Creative Nutrition Solutions located in Vestal, N.Y. Unless you’re, say, a professional sumo, that’s a pretty unrealistic diet. “This is why a daily dose can have such a profound benefit on muscular power output,” explains Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., research director for Supplement Watch (supplementwatch. com). You’re more than doubling what your body can do on its own.

FACT: Using creatine can make your muscles bigger and stronger.

Adding 5 to 10 pounds of lean muscle with creatine in a matter of weeks isn’t unrealistic. “Creatine is a turbo charger for energy production during high-intensity activities — it increases muscles’ ability to exert maximal force for up to 30 seconds,” says Brad Schoenfeld, C.S.C.S, president of Global Fitness Services in Scarsdale, N.Y. “It also increases cellular hydration, giving muscles a ‘fuller’ appearance.” In other words, creatine boosts explosive strength, which is why it’s great for short bursts of energy. “Technically, it doesn’t make us stronger — it makes us more powerful,” notes Joe Cannon, M.S., C.S.C.S., author of Nutritional Supplements: What Works and Why (Infinity Pub., 2006). The more power you exert in the gym, the more weight and reps you can handle — and the bigger and stronger your muscles get.

FICTION: Taking creatine will jeopardize your health.

According to the four experts we interviewed, despite rumors of kidney and liver issues, hundreds of studies have yet to peg creatine, when used properly, as the direct cause of any health problems. That said, minor side effects may include cramping, nausea and diarrhea, Morgan says. And Talbott recommends drinking plenty of fluids. “Creatine ‘sucks’ water into the active muscle cells and can lead to a relative dehydration in other tissues, if you’re not careful,” he explains. Of course, it never hurts to consult your doc before taking any new supplement.

FACT: Creatine is used — legally — by countless college, pro and olympic athletes.

While more and more major sports icons get busted for using performance enhancers like steroids and human growth hormone, creatine stands out as a supplement that is legal and proved to work. “From my experience, it’s the most used legal supplement in strength and power sports,” Schoenfeld observes. It’s not banned by a single sporting organization and is used by many pros in the major four.

FACT: There’s a right and wrong way to take creatine.

There’s some debate regarding two major aspects of creatine usage: how much to take and when to take it. Some labels suggest beginning with a weeklong “loading phase” of 20 to 25 grams per day, followed by a maintenance phase of 2 to 5 grams a day. But our sources say that the body can only process so much, and a loading dose of 5 grams a day is plenty. Moreover, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that unless you crave immediate results, loading is unnecessary. As far as when to take it, we’ll go with the opinion of Talbott, who has the impressive combo of a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry and an M.S. in exercise science. “Take 5 grams (about a rounded teaspoon) before your workout,” he advises. “Take with some sugar—mix it in juice—to facilitate uptake and transport. I also suggest mixing creatine with a protein/carb shake right before lifting so you get the amino acids and the creatine delivered to the muscles at the same time. It will increase muscle protein synthesis by about 800 percent.” Works for us.

FICTION: Creatine produces identical results for everyone.

We’d love to say creatine will give every reader the same potent fitness edge, but doing so would be misleading. “Diet has a big impact on results,” Schoenfeld says. “Those who consume sufficient meat often have large natural creatine stores, while vegetarians often have low creatine stores.” That means vegetarians may see a much bigger boost. Additionally, a study published in the American Journal of Physiology indicates that 20 percent to 30 percent of people may be “nonresponders,” who get little or no benefit from additional creatine. To be sure what category you fall into, you’ll want to give it some time — at least a month of consistent supplementation — before giving up.

FACT: Creatine can increase endurance — to a degree.

Because of the explosive boost it provides, creatine is better for sports like boxing, karate, sprinting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, football and baseball than aerobic activities like riding a bike or running a marathon, Cannon says. However, a study published in The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine in 2006 found that a 5-gram daily dose can improve a swimmer’s 50- or 100-meter repeated- interval sprint time by up to 2 percent. So if your endurance activity involves a repetitive burst of energy broken up with rest — like the sprinting and jogging involved in a 90-minute soccer match — creatine may help.

FICTION: Female users of creatine will end up feeling bloated.

A bloated feeling is possible, but it can be avoided. “That bloating comes from water retention and taking more than the right amount for your body weight,” Cannon says. Creatine label dosage info doesn’t address gender or size, which may leave a 110-pound woman thinking she needs the same 5 daily grams as a 220-pound man. But that’s not so, say our sources. A more reasonable amount for that size would be 3 grams per day, which should provide a sharp workout boost.

FICTION: Creatine works all by itself.

While it may be tempting to supp up and wait for the magic to happen, it’s also a fantasy. You need to combine the boost the supplement provides with exercise. “Taking creatine without hard workouts will do little more than give you a bloated look and feel,” Talbott explains. Unless you want to look like Shrek, better start pairing that powder with a pump.

And yet, creatine does have an incidental body-saving benefit. According to a study published last year in Neuromolecular Medicine, even without exercise, creatine can offset the muscle wasting caused by some diseases. Clearly, it’s one powerful substance.

By any other name

We define some common variations of the supplement.

Creatine Monohydrate:
The original, it’s creatine bonded with water — each molecule is 88 percent creatine, 12 percent water. It’s by far the most researched and popular form.

Creatine Malate:
Composed of creatine bound to malic acid, an intermediate of the Krebs cycle (the metabolic pathway that creates aerobic energy inside muscles). In theory, it may produce more energy than creatine monohydrate.

Creatine Ester:
The attached ester group allows the creatine to more easily pass across cell membranes, meaning it should be absorbed better than other forms.

Creatine Alpha-Ketoglutarate:
This relatively new version is creatine bonded to a molecule of AKG, a precursor to glutamine, an amino acid that fuels muscle growth and health. The idea? It is readily absorbed by intestines and muscle cells, eliminating stomach issues and improving uptake, and the AKG reloads creatine phosphate levels between sets.