Athletes rely on creatine to improve strength, increase lean muscle mass, and help with quicker muscle recovery after a tough workout. Learn the ins and outs of how to get what you need for peak performance.

Creatine supplements are one of the most popular nutritional aids athletes use to help optimize training performance and improve post-workout recovery, and as such, is one of the most researched topics in sports nutrition literature for its wide range of benefits.

Supplementing with creatine is shown to enhance the performance of high-intensity exercises by as much as 20%.

So what exactly is creatine, how does it work to improve our performance, and how much should you be taking for best results?

What is creatine?

Creatine is an amino acid found in muscle and is one of the body’s naturally occuring energy sources that allows for the muscle to contract.

We get about half of our creatine by eating a meat diet, and the other half is created in the kidneys, pancreas, and liver before being transported to the muscles for use.

Around 95% of our creatine is stored in our muscles and is used up when we are physically active.

About 1 to 2% of the creatine in our muscles breaks down into creatinine and is excreted in our urine by the kidneys.

Because of this, certain groups like athletes who perform regular high-intense workouts need to replenish their creatine every day to keep up their normal supply.  This can be done by eating creatine-rich foods or by taking supplements.

What are the main benefits of creatine supplements?

Research has repeatedly shown that creatine supplements effectively increase the concentration of creatine in muscles to deliver a variety of fitness-related benefits.

Supplements can improve exercise performance, aid in quicker recovery post-exercise, and help to prevent injury.

Specifically, they are shown to improve sprint performance and increase muscle mass and strength adaptations during exercise, enabling an athlete to gain more endurance and therefore more strength and muscle mass during a training period.

Athletes who supplement experience less muscle tightness and strains, as well as less cramping and dehydration.

This happens because creatine helps the body retain water within the cells, promoting hydration and a better regulation of core body temperature while exercising in the heat.

Creatine supplements also help us to maintain muscle mass as we age.

Recent research that analyzed 22 studies’ findings about whether creatine supplements increased lean muscle mass among older adults who engaged in resistance training showed that those who supplemented while training saw a 3.1 lb gain in lean muscle mass compared with those who did not, which translated to better upper and lower body strength.

How does creatine work to improve muscle function?

Within our muscles, a chemical reaction occurs that converts creatine to phosphocreatine (PCr), a molecule that helps to maintain the supply of energy in our muscles.

So when  PCr is increased, the amount of energy within our muscles increases as well, allowing for higher-intensity exercise performance.

Creatine’s hydrating effect can also lead to swelling in the cells, which may prompt protein production within the muscle fibers.

Creatine and PCr also work to deliver energy from the mitochondria, the cell’s energy producer, to the parts of the cell that consume the most energy.

How should I use creatine supplements?

The most commonly studied, used, and clinically effective form of creatine supplement is creatine monohydrate.

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the best way to initially increase muscle creatine levels is to take 5 g of creatine monohydrate, which should roughly equate to 0.3g/kg of body weight, 4 times a day for 5 to 7 days.

After this time period, you can maintain your creatine levels by ingesting 3 to 5 g per day. Larger athletes may need to take as many as 5 to 10 g per day for maintenance.  

Taking creatine along with carbohydrates and protein is shown to help retain creatine even more consistently.

Are creatine supplements safe?

Given their widespread popularity, creatine supplements have been studied extensively for their safety, and the great news is that evidence for adverse side effects for healthy individuals is pretty scarce.

Despite this, some users do experience weight gain especially during the initial phase due to an increase in muscle mass and total body water.

Some creatine supplements display safety warnings on their labels for those less than 18 years old, but there is no scientific evidence that this population should avoid taking it. In fact, daily creatine supplements are considered safe for children as young as infants to ingest for up to 6 months.

What are some natural sources of creatine?

Creatine is found in high amounts in our food supply, namely in milk, red meat, pork, and fish.  

For example, one pound of uncooked beef or salmon contain 1 to 2g of creatine.

Vegetarians, therefore, naturally have lower levels of creatine in their bodies, and respond well to supplementation.

The bottom line

If you are considering adding a creatine supplement to your wellness routine, you can rest assured that doing so is a safe and effective way to derive a number of therapeutic health benefits for all ages.

But remember that before taking any new supplement, it is always best to consult with your healthcare provider to make sure it is right for you.