By: Marcia Homer, MS, CSN
As endurance athletes, we are a unique bunch aren’t we? With, perhaps, a particular set of skills? (Shout out to Liam Neeson fans here..) Considering that the majority of Americans have trouble finding the time or energy to work out at all, let alone train for a grueling endurance bike race while juggling all of life’s other demands, it begs the question: Why and how do we do it? While many endurance athletes say there’s nothing special about their physical abilities (other than the fact that we tend to want to push our physical boundaries), clearly people who are drawn to and are able to accomplish feats such as marathons, triathlons and challenging endurance events are different somehow. And because I’m a betting woman (Draft Kings is the most used app on my phone), I would bet that we all have one thing in common: we’re looking for an edge. Or at least the proper fuel that we’ll need to sustain our crazy, demanding athletic endeavors.
As I’ve noted before, there are several perfectly legal ergogenic aids that we, as athletes, can incorporate into our training routines to enhance performance. Last month we took a look at caffeine, this month let’s take a look at creatine.
What is creatine?
I’m glad you asked! Creatine is a non-essential nutrient derived from the amino acids L-arginine, glycine, and L-methionine. Without getting too technical, it is a compound formed during protein metabolism and is present in living tissue. About 95% of the creatine in your body is found in skeletal muscle, where it’s stored as phosphocreatine.
What does it do?
Creatine provides your muscles with the high-energy molecules necessary to produce energy for muscular contraction. Increasing your body’s creatine stores increases quick energy production, allowing you to train harder. High levels of creatine can enhance your muscle’s ability to renew energy for up to 20-second high energy bursts. If you’ve ever been completely exhausted but thought “I’ve got one more rep in me”, creatine is the fuel source you can thank for that additional rep.
Creatine is mainly recognized for its efficacy in high-intensity training, such as sprinting and weightlifting and there are several studies that report these effects (Kendall et al., 2009). Evidence supporting its usefulness for endurance training, however, is not quite so clear and studies have been mixed on the subject.
Tang et al., 2014 performed two identical 60 min running exercises with 12 adult men before and after creatine supplementation (12 gram/day for 15 days) and found that creatine was beneficial to the decrease of carbohydrate and protein degradation in muscle (an easier recovery period but not necessarily a greater performance threshold).
Engelhardt et al., 1998 created a test for triathletes combining endurance and interval performance. The athletes ingested 6 grams of creatine daily for 5 days. On day 6, the tests showed that the creatine supplementation was found to have no influence on the cardiovascular system, oxygen uptake, or blood lactate concentration. So, endurance performance was not influenced, although they did find that interval power performance was significantly increased by 18%.
So – why use it?
If there isn’t clear evidence creatine works for enhancing endurance performance, why should we use it? I would argue that multi-pace training is essential in building your endurance speed and performance – regardless if you’re on a bike, in a pool or on the road. As an endurance runner, my experience has taught me that running workouts at lactic threshold pace, goal race pace and faster-than-race-pace are essential if I want to reach my potential as a runner. The higher the quality of these high intensity sessions, the faster and more efficient I can become. Creatine supplementation has been proven to improve the quality of high intensity activity. It has been shown to decrease the recovery time needed and increase the number of interval repetitions that you can perform. It is the gains in speed, speed endurance, and power that you obtain during training that improves your performance on race day. If you gain strength and power, how can that NOT translate to superior endurance performance?
When should I take it?
Creatine can be used anytime during the day or before or after exercise as part of a pre/post-workout drink.
How much do I need?
Increasing your body’s stores of creatine can be accomplished in one of two ways. First, you may choose to “load” creatine at a dosage of approximately 15-20 grams per day for 7 days, followed by a maintenance dose of approximately 3-5 grams per day for 28 days (amount may vary depending on your weight, age and fitness level but this is an acceptable level for most athletes). This will result in a more rapid accumulation of creatine in muscles and can be important if you are preparing for a big competition.
Alternatively, if you have more time available, you can achieve similar results simply by taking 3-5 grams of creatine daily for 28 days. Carbohydrate (sugar) is typically consumed with creatine to enhance and normalize skeletal-muscle uptake. Following the finding that carbohydrate solution further increases muscle creatine levels more than creatine alone, creatine sports drinks have now become popular.
Are there side effects?
Creatine can cause water retention at the cellular level. But, unless you have a specific concern—like hypertension that requires treatment with diuretics—it’s typically not a medical issue. If you’re concerned about looking bloated, the water retention happens in your muscles, so it actually makes you look a bit larger.
There is a possibility of stomach distress or diarrhea if you take too much creatine in a single dose – without much else in your stomach. The solution is easy. Simply increase your water and food intake or just take smaller doses of creatine throughout the day. All of the common side effects associated with creatine stem from its absorption profile in the intestines. At low doses, around 1-3 grams, creatine is absorbed well. As the dose gets higher, the absorption decreases.
Bottom line: your body is its own unique scientific experiment. In our continued search for a competitive edge, creatine may be that extra boost of recovery your muscles long for – as well as that explosion of energy that will you get you across the finish line!
Antonio, J., & Ciccone, V. (2013). The effects of pre versus post workout supplementation of creatine monohydrate on body composition and strength. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 10(1), 1-10.
Engelhardt, M., Neumann, G., Berbalk, A., & Reuter, I. (1998). Creatine supplementation in endurance sports. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 30(7), 1123-1132.
Kendall, K., Smith, A., Graef, J., Fukuda, D., Moon, J., Beck, T., . . . Stout, J. (2009). Effects of four weeks of high-intensity interval training and creatine supplementation on critical power and anaerobic working capacity in college-aged men. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(6), 1663-1672.
Tang, F., Chan, C., & Kuo, P. (2014). Contribution of creatine to protein homeostasis in athletes after endurance and sprint running. European Journal of Nutrition, 53, 61-71.