Creatine is one of the most popular training supplements on the market; almost everyone has heard of it, but few know what it does or where it even comes from. This is not to say that creatine is a sham–far from it! It is a very effective supplement that many athletes should be taking. Why? I am SO glad you asked.
First off, creatine is not a type of steroid or anything remotely close to that. It is, however, a performance enhancer in another way. Creatine is an organic acid that the body can synthesize on its own from the amino acids glycine, arginine, and methionine. This takes place in the kidneys and liver, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) the pancreas.
I’ve mentioned ATP previously before, but let’s review. ATP, or adenosine triphosphate, is what your muscles use for energy. When a muscle needs to contract, it breaks down the bonds in the ATP molecules, leaving ADP, or adenosine diphosphate. The process of breaking those bonds releases the energy that the muscles need to harness in order to function. However, in order to continually function, the body needs to convert ADP back into ATP so it can start the process all over again and continue to make energy for the muscles. This is where creatine comes in.
60% of the body’s creatine stores are in the form of creatine phosphate (CP). The fastest way for the body to restore ATP is to break the bonds in the creatine phosphate molecule, and use the phosphate portion to turn ADP back into ATP. This process happens very quickly (about 10 seconds or so), and once the creatine is depleted, your body turns to other methods of restoring ATP.
Now, one might ask the question, “But if the body does this on its own, why take extra creatine?” It is scientifically proven that the body’s natural levels of CP are well below the maximum level of CP that the body can sustain. By supplementing with creatine, you can reach that maximum level, thereby increasing your body’s ability to regenerate ATP.
One might then ask, “But what does that do for me?” By increasing the body’s ability to regenerate ATP, one can expect to be able to increase the amount of time that they can exert a maximal effort into a specific task. For example, a lineman will be able to go all out in the trenches for a longer period of time, making him a more effective player. One can also expect quicker recovery time during and after workouts. It is important to note that creatine primarily benefits power athletes (who use the ATP system) and not endurance athletes (who primarily use the aerobic and anaerobic systems), although studies have shown that creatine supplementation has a positive effect on both of these systems as well.
Dosing creatine can be complicated, and there are many methods that can be followed. The typical model is to go through a “loading phase” where you take high amounts to shock your body, and then a “maintenance phase” consisting of a constant, lower dose. These doses are “cycled” over a period of so many weeks–for example, in a four week cycle one would have one week of loading phase, three weeks of maintenance, and then four weeks off, and then the cycle would start again.
I personally follow the cycle outlined in the following article. There is a calculator on there to figure out how much creatine one should be taking, as well as when to take it, and what your cycle should look like. This is similar to the typical model, with a few minor modifications.
Lastly, everyone obviously wants to make sure this is safe. There has been no research that has raised concern over creatine supplementation. There really aren’t any known side effects, although everyone reacts differently. It is important to know that the amount that people need varies. Those who have a high dietary intake of red meat (which contains creatine) will require less than, say, a vegetarian. Some people also naturally have high levels of creatine, and don’t really respond to creatine supplementation. There are more specific details in the article I posted, but if you’re an athlete looking to improve performance, creatine supplementation is definitely something to consider.