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An increased creatine level in the blood is said to promote muscle building – the power substance is correspondingly popular among strength athletes. Studies also suggest that creatine improves brain performance.
Creatine has become firmly established in recent years – even far from the bodybuilder scene – in strength and high-speed power sports. The substance is easily accessible, very inexpensive to buy in powder or capsule form from countless suppliers, and is said to have a noticeable performance-enhancing effect. But what is behind the mysterious substance, which despite its doping-like properties may even be taken in competitive phases?
Creatine in Food
Creatine (sometimes “creatine”) is needed for various processes of energy metabolism. The body can produce a part of the daily requirement itself, the rest is taken in through food. The substance is found to a small extent in isolated plant foods, but in larger quantities in animal products. Pork and beef provide about five grams of creatine per kilogram, salmon and tuna about four, and milk still provides about two grams per liter, but the cooking process is said to cause a large proportion of it to be lost.
In higher doses and optimally utilized by the body, creatine can be obtained from dietary supplements. A small dosage spoon of the powder (equivalent to about three grams) is stirred into water or juice and drunk before or optionally after training. A capsule comes (depending on the provider) to about one gram, of which you take several accordingly.
What effect is creatine supposed to have?
Athletes use creatine mainly in intense stress phases, such as in preparation for a competition, to quickly improve their performance and / or gain mass. Yannick Obenauer, sports scientist and performance optimization coach, also regularly uses creatine. Between three and five grams a day, i.e. the dose recommended in the maintenance phase for athletes at an already advanced fitness level, was already enough for him to achieve a higher training volume. Obenauer considers an increase of five to ten percent possible in the top performance range. This increased stimulus has a clearly positive effect on fitness and muscle development.
So-called loading phases are very common in the bodybuilding scene. “Accompanying intensive training, high-dose creatine is taken, about 20 grams a day, and reduced to about six grams after five days,” Obenauer tells us.
This leads to a massive mass gain in a short time. However, this is not necessarily due to muscle mass. Creatine binds water, which can be visibly stored in the body. This makes muscles appear extremely plump and pumped up – an effect that corresponds to the aesthetic ideal for many people and can also be quite desirable in terms of athletic ambition. For example, with regard to bodybuilding and fitness championships.
This can be different in other disciplines, such as boxing or running. After all, the load-strength ratios shift. “If you gain weight by drinking water, you box in a higher weight class, but you don’t necessarily have more strength,” Obenauer explains. Likewise, he says, it’s not purposeful to have to haul extra mass around the running track for what may be just visual reasons.
What does science say about creatine?
Graduate ecotrophologist Prof. Nicolai Worm confirms that creatine supplementation achieves an increase in performance. “In addition, it also seems to independently support the formation of increased muscle mass through strength training in the long term.” This is also confirmed by a review of randomized clinical trials between 2012 and 2021.1
The typical water retention could promote the metabolism of protein in cells. He also mentions the muscle trauma theory, which states that micro-injuries in the muscles caused by intensified training under the influence of creatine – “muscle soreness” – could in turn act as stimuli to subsequently increase muscle growth. “Creatine is also thought to lead to increased activity of satellite cells in conjunction with exercise. These perform essential functions in increasing the size of a muscle fiber.”
Research also suggests that creatine has a positive effect on brain performance. For example, a 2003 University of Sydney study of 45 vegetarians led by biochemist Catherine Rae showed that taking creatine could boost brain function.2 Subjects who took creatine for six weeks performed significantly better than the control group on a final memory test and a general intelligence test. The downside of the miracle drug was that the test subjects smelled from the mouth and were accompanied by permanent flatulence. Which brings us to the side effects of taking creatine.
Does creatine have side effects?
Creatine has been proven to have a performance-enhancing effect, but is still entirely legal. No dependence, no lasting health restrictions – except for the possible water retention, which should also quickly dissipate after discontinuation, only a few side effects are known. Typical for the loading phase are muscle cramps and complaints originating from the gastrointestinal tract – such as bad breath, flatulence, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. According to experience reports and science, however, all of the above-mentioned side effects occur at most when creatine is overdosed.
Dosage: How much creatine per day is reasonable?
As mentioned above, the information varies between 3 and 5 grams of creatine per day. The correct amount depends on several factors, such as physical activity, muscle mass, age, and weight. Those who take creatine daily over a longer period of time should choose a lower dosage. On training days, taking it immediately before or after a workout seems ideal.