What Does Creatine Do? – According to Science

Creatine is a popular supplement for bodybuilders and weightlifters. It can be readily found in any health food or supplement store. It’s common for cyclists to look at weightlifters and other athletes and ask the question: what techniques do they use to see a performance benefit? And creatine is on the list of substances that should be investigated further.

Uses for Creatine

Using knowledge of human energy systems, our Sprint system uses creatine-phosphate (CP) in a one step chemical process to produce ATP from ADP. The reason our sprint system lasts some 5-10 seconds is because we run out of CP. Very simply, supplementation with exogenous creatine increases our stores of CP. This allows us to use our Sprint system for longer or more powerfully for the same amount of time.

Of course, the real mechanism is more complicated than that, but studies show this is basically what’s happening. One article shows that intramuscular CP increased with 20g of creatine daily over a 5 day period. The article also noted athletes who supplemented with creatine showed better performance in repeated efforts at high intensity. Another article speculated that creatine may not be beneficial for swimmers or runners based on the “side effect of weight gain from water retention.” A third article showed that in triathletes creatine “had no influence on the cardiovascular system, oxygen uptake, and blood lactate concentration.”

In truth, almost all cyclists do not supplement with creatine because the benefits haven’t been shown for endurance athletes. Also, the weight gain of some 2-4 pounds (1-2kg) following initial supplementation is a big turn off. With that being said, I’d like to make the argument that cyclists should be supplementing with creatine.

You Should Supplement With Creatine

The International Society of Sports Nutrition published a position stand on creatine supplementation. The full text is here, but I’ll summarize the important parts:

  • It’s the most effective supplement for high intensity exercise and lean body mass while training
  • It’s safe for short term and long term use
  • Monohydrate is the most studied and effective form
  • The best protocol appears to be ~0.3g/kg/day for at least 3 days, followed by 3-5g/d as long as needed

The International Society of Sports Nutrition seems to give creatine the thumbs up. There is actually some evidence that efforts a cyclist may encounter can improve. In a population of rowers, 20g of creatine monohydrate for 5 days caused an increase in lactate threshold of 17w versus the control group. They also saw an increase in time to failure by 12 seconds for a constant load 7w/kg effort.

What would I do?

All in all, cycling has this culture that creatine isn’t beneficial, but the research likely suggests otherwise. If you do any of the following, supplementation may be beneficial:

  • Sprint or complete efforts under 5 minutes
  • Your goal is to increase your lean body mass or gain more muscle
  • Your courses are sufficiently flat where total body mass is not significant

Not only that, it has been shown to not decrease endurance performance, meaning the only downside appears to be the initial weight gain. It seems obvious to me that creatine supplementation is a good idea. The International Society of Sports Nutrition even set out a protocol: ~0.3g/kg/day for at least 3 days, followed by 3-5g/d as long as needed. The only downside is the cost, with a steady state cost of about $0.16 per day. This may not seem like a lot, but when you have 31 supplements like Alberto Contador it starts to add up.

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