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Chances are you’ve heard of creatine supplements before. While more usually associated with bodybuilders or footballers, the use of creatine is also fairly common among track cyclists, especially those in the sprint disciplines. So does creatine supplementation also have a role for road cyclists? Dietitian Alan McCubbin investigates.
What is creatine and how does it work?
Creatine supplements first grabbed public attention in 1992 following the Barcelona Olympics, with several top track and field sprinters reportedly using the supplement, including 100m gold medallist Linford Christie (Christie also tested positive to a banned substance in 1988 — escaping a ban — and again in 1998 on the eve of his retirement). Creatine hit the commercial market the following year and has become one of the most popular, and most researched supplements on the market.
Without going into too much chemistry, our muscles naturally contain creatine as part of the molecule creatine phosphate (also called phosphocreatine). Creatine phosphate is a quick and easy supply of phosphate molecules which allow energy to be produced in our muscles very quickly. How?
All energy in the body is produced when adenosine diphosphate (adenosine plus two phosphate molecules) gains another phosphate molecule to become adenosine triphosphate (ATP). So the availability of free phosphate — in this case from creatine phosphate — is important to the process. But the supply of creatine phosphate is limited, and while it allows very quick energy production, that supply can soon run low1.
Creatine supplements aim to increase the amount of creatine phosphate stored in the muscle by around 20%. This extra store allows an athlete to produce maximum intensity efforts (over 5-15 seconds) for a bit longer and more frequently, with shorter recovery periods in between. This is particularly handy in team sports like football (soccer) with their constant start-stop nature.
Creatine supplements also appear to benefit muscle size and strength, making them a popular choice for athletes doing weight training. And because creatine results in some water retention inside muscle cells, it also appears to improve the ability of the muscle to tolerate the heat that’s produced during high-intensity exercise.
For these reasons, creatine supplements are frequently used by track sprinters, who combine significant weight training and plenty of very high intensity efforts in both training and races.
A supplement for road cyclists?
There are very few studies of creatine supplementation and endurance exercise performance. This is hardly surprising – creatine phosphate is not a major contributor of energy when the intensity is not flat out. But of course there are instances where very high intensity bursts of power are important to road cycling performance – sudden attacks and sprint finishes in particular.
There is evidence that these types of efforts would be improved with creatine supplements. There are also plenty of cyclists who hit the gym to try and build size and strength in the legs, and there is ample evidence that creatine will work here.
The other potential use of creatine for cyclists is after a major injury – creatine can be used to prevent muscle loss during a period of immobilisation and rehabilitation.
Creatine supplementation is associated with a slight weight gain, due to the fluid that’s also retained with it in the muscle. This is typically about 0.5-1.5kg. If you’re aiming to excel in crits and flatter road races then the benefit would most likely be greater than the weight penalty, but if climbing’s your thing then creatine may not be the supplement for you.
It’s also worth nothing that, as with virtually all supplements, research suggests different people respond differently to creatine. Up to 30% of people don’t seem to respond to creatine supplements with any significant increase in muscle creatine stores.
Sources of creatine
As creatine occurs in muscle, we ingest a small amount of it by eating meat, fish and chicken. But supplements provide a convenient source in a much greater quantity than what you’d get on your dinner plate.
The original and most studied creatine supplement is creatine monohydrate. Others have since been created with subtle changes in chemistry, such as creatine ethyl ester, creatine malate and others. Generally speaking, creatine monohydrate has the most research evidence of effectiveness, and is still the one recommended by sports dietitians.
How to take creatine
Pure creatine monohydrate comes in powder form. If you’re in a hurry to maximise those muscle creatine stores, you can take 20 grams per day for the first week, then drop to 3-5g a day (about a teaspoon) moving forward. Otherwise, starting off with 3-5 grams a day will maximise your muscle stores within about four weeks.
Taking 20g in one go can cause gastro-type symptoms, so go with four serves of 5g each, spread out over the day. The powder can be quite gritty so experiment with what you mix it with, or just get it down quickly.
A lot of creatine products suggest taking it with a high-carbohydrate drink or meal. This may increase the speed of absorption slightly, but it’s unlikely to make a significant difference.
Other concerns that have been raised about creatine in the past include an increased risk of muscle cramps or tears, and damage to kidneys. None of these have been supported by substantial research and are no longer considered issues.
Creatine naturally occurs in our muscles, although supplementation further increases this level. For most people, supplementation can increase muscle size and strength during a weight training program or reduce muscle loss following an injury. It can also improve performance in short, very high intensity efforts.
For some cyclists these factors may be considered important, and in the absence of significant safety issues supplementation may be an option. For others, it’s perhaps a supplement left to footballers and bodybuilders.
Finally, and as I’ve mentioned in a previous post the use of supplements comes with a potential risk of inadvertent consumption of banned substances. Always check the ingredients list on the pack, and if you want to be really sure, use products that have been batch tested for the presence of banned substances.
1. This process is reversible and creatine can once again bind to phosphate – but recovering all the creatine phosphate stores in a muscle after a quick burst of energy can take a few minutes.
About the author
Alan McCubbin is an Accredited Sports Dietitian, Accredited Practicing Dietitian and past president of Sports Dietitians Australia. He is also the founder of Next Level Nutrition, an online sports nutrition consultancy through which he works with a range of athletes from recreational to Olympians.