As a former division I field hockey player and lifelong athlete nutritional supplements are a topic that are not new to me.  In fact, globally, the sports nutrition market grosses $15.6 billion annually and is expected to grow more than 8% over the next 7 years.  But when my husband and I moved to a primarily plant based/mediterannean way of eating about a year ago, using sports supplements didn’t cross my mind.  Even with starting Crossfit, it didn’t occur to me we may need to use sports supplements to meet our needs.

About a year later, my husband, who had been working on his health all year and has made exceptional gains, set new goals.  Build skeletal muscle mass and get stronger.  He began a strength building program.  But as with every workout program, if your nutrition is not on point the gains in the gym will not be as great.  That’s when we turned to creatine.

Creatine is a popular nutrition supplement, particularly with bodybuilders and weight lifters.  However, there may be benefits to creatine that can extend beyond your Schwarzeneggers.  Creatine is primarily stored in the body’s muscular system.  The body makes some of its own creatine.  Besides the body making its own, we also get creatine from food.  Creatine is found largely in beef and seafood but in smaller quantities is found in other animal products.  Those who follow a vegan, vegetarian or limited meat consumption diet have a relatively low intake of creatine from dietary sources.

So what does creatine do? Studies have shown that creatine increases muscle mass, muscle strength and also improves exercise performance.  This is why creatine is the number one sports nutrition supplement for increasing strength, especially for a 1 rep max squat (and other 1 Rep Max lifts), improved speed for runners (and endurance athletes such as soccer players, swimmers or cyclist), improved recovery; especially in the heat; and reduced injuries.

Increasing the creatine stored in your body’s muscles allows your muscles to create and expend more energy.  It also helps to:

  1. Increase how much your muscles can work:  This allows for more total work or volume in a single training session.  This is key for developing long-term muscle growth.
  2. Improved muscle recovery:  Creatine can increase the communication within the muscle, telling the muscle to repair and heal itself, leading to improved recovery and ultimately new muscle growth.
  3. Reduced muscle breakdown:  May increase muscle mass by reducing muscle breakdown.
  4. Increase hydration:  Creatine supplement use increases the levels of water stored within the muscle.  This increases the size of the muscle and may also play a role in muscle growth.

Therefore, typically, creatine elicits visions of bodybuilders lifting heavy weights.  Their muscles bulging within their skin.  However, there are numerous studies involving creatine in an atypical setting.  For example, beginning creatine supplementation of 3gms once a day in sedentary adults with diabetes showed a decrease in blood sugar equivalent to that of the medication glyburide 3.5mg once a day.  Creatine, 3 gms, twice a day, has been shown to be as beneficial, in the short term, as metformin 500mg twice day.

Besides being stored in the muscle, creatine is also stored in the brain and used for energy.  While the studies in humans are limited, it has been suggested that creatine supplementation may improve brain function.  Greater improvement is likely to be seen in individuals who avoid meat or who may be early onset of a neurological disorder.  Less benefit has been shown in healthy individuals.

Throughout my research of creatine for my husband, I was not able to find any adverse side effects in healthy individuals.  I definitely came to the conclusion that creatine is what my husband needed to meet his newly set goals.  However, goals are only as good as the ability to track them.  At Ashe CrossFit and Elevation Health we use a machine called an InBody.  The InBody is a body composition analyzer that allows us to break down body weight into water, fat and muscle.  When making changes to diet and exercise, the scale alone is not a good way to track changes.  Before my husband started his new strength program and creatine supplement, we did an InBody analysis.   But before you run out and purchase creatine for daily use, please read the information below to make sure it is a good fit for you.

Considerations for use of creatine supplements

Please be thoughtful of several of these considerations for safe use.

  1. Creatine supplement should be AVOIDED in individuals with impaired kidney function.  Consult your medical provider prior to beginning creatine supplement.
  2. Expect to gain a few pounds.  This is due to the extra water that is stored in the muscles. It would be best to stay off the scale or visit Ashe Crossfit or Elevation Health to complete an InBody analysis.  The great news is you don’t have to be a patient to take advantage of having an InBody analysis done.
  3. Increase your water intake.  Because creatine increases intracellular water in the muscles and is cleared in the form of creatinine by the kidneys, consuming adequate water will help maintain proper hydration levels and will be easier on your kidneys.
  4. Creatine monohydrate has the best absorption and when consumed with a small amount of carbohydrates (~15gms or 4 oz of juice) the absorption and use within the muscle is enhanced.
  5. 100% of creatine monohydrate is absorbed by the intestines.  Supplementation may temporarily cause GI side effects such as gas.  However, this is typically only seen for the first week, called the loading week.
  6. You will not build muscle if you don’t work your muscle.  Taking a supplement of creatine is only effective in building muscle if you have an exercise plan.

Besides just buying a jar of creatine and following the instructions, we wanted to make sure we were optimizing the timing, frequency, quantity and quality of the creatine supplement.  Continue reading for details of dosing and frequency.

Dosage and Frequency

Most creatine monohydrate supplements are dosed in 5gm increments and come in a powder.  Individuals who eat a primarily plant based diet, limit red meat or men who are following a vigorous exercise routine may consider “loading” creatine during the first 5-7 days.  The loading phase involves taking up to 20 gms of creatine monohydrate daily for 5-7 days.  After the loading phase, individuals transition to maintenance, which is also the amount that can be used for any individual that wants to skip the loading phase.  The maintenance phase includes taking 5gm daily.  It is best to take creatine right before, during OR after exercise.  However, on rest days the timing does not matter. Creatine powder can be mixed into an existing shake or can be mixed with 4 oz of juice for optimal absorption.  The body can store supplemented levels of creatine in the muscle, while taking a break from supplementation, for three weeks.  Therefore, every couple months it is possible to take a 2-3 week break from creatine supplementation and then resuming to maintenance levels.

As with any supplement that gains in popularity, creatine is many times added to pre or post workout drinks.  One example of a product such as this is FitAid RX.  At Ashe CrossFit we are FitAid products which are great post workout drinks or even just great alternatives to other sugary beverages.  Throughout my research about creatine, I found that the creatine that was added to their FitAid RX drink was not enough to make any significant improvement.  It was the equivalent to about 1gm of creatine.  Therefore we decided to forgo carrying FitAid RX, for this reason.  I encourage you to be a savvy label reader.  Look for creatine that is “clean” without any flavor additives or fillers.

Two weeks after starting a new strength program along with creatine supplement, while maintaining his usual eating pattern, my husband repeated his InBody analysis.  Impressively he saw a 5lb increase in pure muscle.  Without the InBody assessment and just using a typical scale he would have merely seen an increase in 5lbs of body weight.  Setting goals, having a tracking tool and a plan to meet those goals is what Ashe CrossFit is here to do.