Creatine is a popular sports supplement, especially in power-based sports like climbing! If you’ve been hearing more about its use, there’s a good reason why. Creatine is one of the most studied and effective performance supplements for its ability to enhance high-intensity exercise capacity, power and lean muscle mass.1 It is an amine consumed in the diet (red meat and seafood are the greatest sources) or synthesized within the body.
When produced in the body, it is formed from amino acids arginine, methionine and glycine, which are supplied by a diverse diet of animal-based proteins, whole grains, legumes, and dairy products. We generally produce 2 grams per day in the liver and kidneys, and store it in skeletal muscle. The body uses 2 grams per day, meaning we effectively lose what we produce.
Creatine is of particular interest for athletes because of its involvement in energy production. The creatine phosphate energy system produces small amounts of energy (i.e., ATP) very quickly over short durations (~5-10 seconds), making it the predominant energy production system for high-intensity exercise. Creatine phosphate itself is not directly responsible for powering muscle contraction. Rather, it is the energy released from it that produces the ATP needed to power contractions.
Because of creatine’s role in performance, many athletes supplement with it for added energy. It is thought that increasing the creatine content in muscle may increase the rate of ATP production, effectively enhancing power. It may also enhance training adaptation outcomes by 10-20%, along with improved anaerobic threshold and glycogen synthesis, thus enhancing overall performance and recovery.1,2 Newer research demonstrates that creatine supplementation may improve injury rehabilitation and prevention.1
Who Can Benefit From Creatine Supplementation?
Athletes of all ages and genders who participate in high-intensity, anaerobic, power- and strength-based exercise may benefit from creatine supplementation. Virtually any climber pushing their limits or participating in periodized training might experience performance benefits. Whether you are primarily a sport climber or boulderer, creatine has the potential to aid in power output.
Safety & effectiveness for young athletes
Creatine supplementation among young athletes has been met with speculation in the past. However, long-term studies indicate that supplementation with creatine has no adverse effect on children and adolescents. Important considerations include diet, stage of development, parental/guardian awareness of supplementation, supplement quality and dosage. First and foremost, young athletes should consume a nourishing and balanced diet. Supplementation should only support adjunct performance-enhancing benefits and both parents and coaches should be aware of its consumption. Creatine supplementation may be most appropriate for adolescents who have already gone through puberty. High-quality supplementation and correct doses should be considered.1
I’m vegan. Am I deficient in creatine?
No! Creatine is not an essential nutrient in the body, which means we do not need to consume it directly from the diet in order to produce it. A healthful and balanced plant-based diet is likely sufficient in the constituent amino acids. However, vegetarians do often have lower levels of creatine stored in skeletal muscles. As a result, supplementation may cause vegetarians to experience larger increases in power initially due to the lower levels stored in muscle prior to beginning supplementation.3
Creatine has been met with controversy since its widespread use in sports, but many of these myths have since been refuted by extensive research. The biggest concerns include weight gain, kidney damage and dehydration.
Myth: Weight Gain
Creatine supplementation does not cause weight gain related to increased fat mass. However, both loading and maintenance phases increase muscle concentrations of creatine. As a result, total body water increases, causing an initial rise in body mass. Research demonstrates long-term supplementation eventually reaches equilibrium with no changes to body mass. Creatine taken repeatedly during periodized training may increase body mass by nature of enhanced training adaptations, but this is not due to increased fat mass.4
Myth: Kidney Damage
Research supports that long-term creatine supplementation (up to 30 grams/day for up to 5 years) causes no significant side effects to health.2 When creatine is broken down, a compound called creatinine is produced. In modern medicine, creatinine is often used as a measure of kidney function and distress as increased levels can be an indicator of such concerns. However, increased creatinine is also a direct measure of lean body mass. This means that if athletes are supplementing with creatine while also actively building and maintaining muscle, they are likely to produce more creatinine.1 No current evidence supports the claim that creatine taken over short and long durations causes kidney damage.5
Myth: Dehydration & Cramping
Physiologically, creatine may affect fluid distribution in the body due to its osmotic activity. At one point, researchers suspected that this would cause dehydration along with electrolyte imbalances, especially when activities are performed in high heat environmental conditions. However, current evidence suggests that creatine supplementation may actually help prevent dehydration and muscle cramping related to exertion in heat.6
Do I need to go through a “loading” phase to benefit from creatine?
The primary goal with creatine loading is to rapidly increase muscle concentrations. The typical protocol is generally described as 0.3 grams of creatine per kilogram of bodyweight taken five times per day (~20 grams) over a period of five to seven days. This is effectively 3-5 grams of creatine taken in five separate doses each day. After the initial loading period, the dose can be reduced to 3-5 grams of creatine per day. However, there is no advantage to loading unless you are attempting to rapidly replenish muscle stores. “Cycling” protocols, whereby loading doses taken over 3-5 days every 3-4 weeks, may be just as effective as the typical loading protocols.1
Creatine is a safe and effective supplement. Its use may benefit performance by enhancing high-intensity exercise capacity and increasing lean body mass. Athletes looking for an edge in their performance may observe notable effects from its supplementation. Ultimately, creatine supplementation is your personal decision! It is not a requirement for improvement, nor is it a prerequisite for building muscle. A healthy, balanced and performance-enhancing diet will support normal creatine production within the body.
- Buford, T.W., Kreider, R.B., Stout, J.R., Greenwood, M., Campbell, B., Spano, M., Ziegenfuss, T., Lopez, h., Landis, J., and Antonio, J. (2007). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: creatine supplementation and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 4(6).
- Kreider, R.B., Kalman, D.S., Antonio, J., Ziegenfuss, T.N., Wildman, R., Collins, R., Candow, D.G., Kleiner, S.M., Almada, A.L., and Lopez, H.L. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sports, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr, 14:18.
- Dunford, M. and Doyle, J.A. (2018). Nutrition for Sports & Exercise (4). Cengage Learning, Inc.
- Powers, M.E., Arnold, B.L., Weltman, A.L., Perrin, D.H., Mistry, D., Kahler, D.M., Kraemer, W., and Volek, J. (2003). Creatine supplementation increases total body water without altering fluid distribution. Journal of Athletic Training, 38(1), 44-50.
- Poortmans, J.R. and Francaux, M. (2000). Adverse effects of creatine supplementation: fact or fiction? Sports Med, 30(3), 155-70.
6. Antonio, J., Candow, D.G., Forbes, S.C., Gualano, B., Jagim, A.R., Kreider, R.B., Rawson, E.S., Smith-Ryan, A.E., VanDusseldorp, T.A., Willoughby, D.S., and Ziegenfuss, T.N. (2021). Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 18(13).