What is creatine? The benefits, side effects and how to incorporate it into your diet

Creatine is among the most well-researched and effective supplements – here’s everything you need to know.

If you’ve ever looked into supplements to support your training, the chances are you’ll have heard of creatine. Creatine is one of the most popular and effective supplements around – and there’s plenty of scientific evidence around its efficacy. Numerous studies show that taking creatine can help to increase strength, power, muscle growth and muscle performance.

What actually is creatine?

‘Creatine is an amino acid,’ explains head of product at Crazy Nutrition, James Aitken. ‘It’s 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 into the science further, Aitken explains how, in the body, creatine is converted into phosphocreatine. ‘Phosphocreatine acts as a rapidly available storage reservoir 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 widely researched sports supplements in the world, adds Abi Roberts, sports nutritionist at Bulk.com. ‘Creatine supplements are popularly taken by bodybuilders, powerlifters, and athletes for providing immediate energy to the muscles.’

What are the benefits of creatine?

‘Creatine is one of the most extensively 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 for athletes, sportspeople, and bodybuilders for the primary reason of increasing their ability to produce energy. While we can produce it naturally and obtain it from food, supplementation is required in order 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 particularly relevant to activities like sprinting, says Aitken, ‘as it may enhance overall exercise capacity and anaerobic performance. Additionally, creatine may support enhanced recovery by helping to reduce muscle damage and inflammation associated with intense exercise.’

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 investigated, explains Roberts. ‘While the overall results are fairly mixed, it does largely depend on what performance markers are being measured. Some studies have suggested that there are potential improvements in certain aspects of performance, such as sprinting ability and other high-intensity efforts during running, but there is yet to be any conclusive evidence to support this.’

But, as Aitken, puts it: ‘Creatine has been shown to improve muscle strength and power output, which can translate to enhanced running performance. It may help runners generate more force with each stride and sprint at higher speeds.’

He also argues that as creatine supplementation can enhance muscle endurance, it could allow runners to maintain a higher intensity for longer. ‘This may be particularly beneficial during interval training or when pushing through the final stages of a race,’ he 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 side effects to creatine?

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

‘Long-term studies suggest that there are no negative effects associated with supplementing with creatine in healthy individuals,’ adds Roberts. ‘While there have been side effects noted, this is largely dependent on an individual’s dosing strategy, pre-existing health conditions, and overall response to supplementing creatine.’

Here are the potential side effects to be aware of:

  • Gastrointestinal issues: Some people may experience stomach discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, or nausea when taking creatine. ‘These effects are typically mild and can be minimised by staying properly hydrated and splitting the 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 uptake by muscles. However, weight gain is usually temporary and related to water, not fat,’ says Aitken. Roberts adds: ‘There is speculation around creatine affecting water retention, but this is often only under the condition of a “loading phase”, which usually resolves itself after a few weeks, and does not affect everyone who chooses to do a loading phase.’
  • Muscle cramps: ‘In rare cases, creatine supplementation may cause muscle cramps or strains. Staying well-hydrated and ensuring proper electrolyte balance can help prevent these issues,’ says Aitken.
  • Kidney and liver function: ‘There is no substantial evidence that creatine causes harm to healthy kidneys or liver. However, individuals with pre-existing kidney or liver conditions should exercise caution and consult with a healthcare professional before using creatine,’ he adds. ‘Additionally, individuals with diabetes or high blood pressure should monitor their condition closely as creatine can affect blood sugar levels and blood pressure.’

What do you need to know before taking creatine?

If you’re thinking of adding a creatine supplement to your diet, there are a few things to take into consideration first…

‘It’s important to ensure that your nutrition and training strategies are already well-established,’ says Roberts. ‘To enhance your exercise performance, focus on optimising these foundational principles before turning 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 set a solid foundation for your performance improvement. Incorporating creatine can serve as an additional tool to further boost 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 daily – although individual needs may vary,’ says Aitken. ‘The loading phase is intended to quickly saturate the muscles with creatine, aiming to reach optimal levels more rapidly than with regular maintenance dosing alone. By saturating the muscles with creatine during the loading phase, individuals may experience more immediate improvements in strength, power, and exercise performance. This can benefit athletes or individuals engaged in high-intensity training who want to maximise their results in a shorter time frame.’

But it’s important to note that the loading phase is not mandatory for creatine supplementation, he says. ‘Some individuals may choose to skip the loading phase and start with the maintenance dosage directly. This approach will still lead to increased muscle creatine levels over time, albeit at a slower pace.’

Some individuals may choose to cycle off creatine for a period, while others may opt for continuous supplementation, he adds. ‘Consulting with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian can provide personalised guidance on the duration and dosage of the maintenance phase based on individual needs and goals.’

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