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by Alan McCubbin
September 7, 2017
Photography by Kristof Ramon
While creatine supplements are more commonly associated with bodybuilding or the various football codes, the use of creatine is also fairly common among track cyclists, especially those in the sprint disciplines. In the following article, Alan McCubbin considers some new research about the effectiveness of creatine use for road cyclists.
Back in September 2016 I wrote a piece for CyclingTips looking at the potential role of creatine supplementation in cycling performance. I noted at the time that creatine supplementation may have some benefit for sprint-type efforts on the road, but that it wasn’t clear whether this was still the case after several hours of racing. I also questioned whether the slight weight gain associated with supplementation cancelled out any benefit on hillier terrain.
In the last couple of weeks, a new study from the Australian Catholic University and Australian Institute of Sport has looked to answer those questions.
As a quick reminder, our muscles naturally contain creatine in the form of creatine phosphate. This compound is a quick and easy supply of phosphate molecules which allow energy to be produced in our muscles very quickly. The body’s supply of creatine phosphate is limited, and so while it allows very quick energy production, supply can soon run low.
The latest study from the Australian Catholic University and Australian Institute of Sport was primarily looking at the interaction between carbohydrate loading and creatine supplementation. Earlier research had shown that creatine supplementation has the potential to increase the storage capacity of carbohydrate (i.e. glycogen) in the muscle. This is believed to be because creatine supplements increase the size of muscle cells, which then allows more glycogen to be stored there too.
The study is a good one to examine the effect of creatine supplements for road cyclists for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the study looked at multiple performance measures that might be relevant to road racing – a 120km time trial, several 1km and 4km maximum efforts that occurred after every 10km of the 120km TT, and a simulated hill climb to exhaustion – in other words, how long could the cyclist ride a set tempo (in this case 90% of VO2max) until they cracked on a climb.
Secondly, the simulated climb was actually conducted on a cycling specific treadmill, inclined at 8%, so the effect of the weight gain with creatine supplementation could be observed. The 18 riders who participated in the study were reasonably fit but by no means elite male cyclists and triathletes (average age 31, riding more than 250km a week, racing for at least two years, average VO2max of 65.1 and average peak aerobic power of 388W, or 5.0 W/kg).
The participants were broken into two groups, one taking the creatine supplement, the other a placebo. Then both groups completed two performance trials – one following a carbohydrate loading diet (12g/kg body weight per day of carbs for two days prior) and the other after a more moderate amount of carbs (6g/kg body weight per day).
Eighteen cyclists and triathletes undertook the study. Half of them were supplemented with creatine, the other half with placebo. Two days prior to each test they consumed either 12g/kg/day or 6g/kg/day of carbohydrate. The test involved a 120km time trial, with 1km and 4km efforts interspersed every 10km, followed by a simulated hill climb at 90% of VO2max and 8% gradient until exhaustion.
As expected, creatine did not improve performance in the 120km time trial (which took around 3 hours 10 minutes in all groups). While there were no significant differences in most of the interspersed 1km or 4km efforts, the average power output in the final 1km effort was improved with the combined creatine and carb loading. The final 4km effort was also completed with a higher average power in the creatine-supplemented group, regardless of carb intake.
The time to exhaustion on the 8% simulated climb was not improved with creatine but, importantly, it was not worse either, even though the creatine supplemented group also experienced some weight gain compared to placebo. This suggests that creatine use would not hinder climbing ability due to additional weight as previously thought, at least on a single climb of 5-8 minutes.
Whether creatine would definitely help with shorter, flat-out sprints like the typical 200-400m efforts seen at the end of a road race we can’t say from this study, although another older study suggests a likely benefit.
The other interesting takeaway from this new study was the lack of benefit from the carbohydrate loading compared to a moderate amount of carbs on any aspect of performance. This is in line with another similar study from the same group over 15 years ago, also showing no benefit. There are a couple of potential reasons why this was the case.
Firstly, in this study the participants consumed carbs from drinks and gels during the 120km TT effort, and one possibility is that this was enough when combined with the 6g/kg/day on the moderate carb diet.
Another possible explanation put forward by the authors is around the design of the study itself. With the complexity of completing a 120km TT (an unusual distance for cyclists and triathletes alike), multiple 1 and 4km max efforts regularly interrupting the 120km TT, and the simulated hill climb at the end, it’s very possible that the participants had so many different things to focus on that they simply messed up their pacing strategies for the longer, interrupted effort, or focussed more on the shorter efforts and the simulated hill climb at the expense of the long TT.
By their own admission, in attempting to replicate an actual road race, the researchers may have in fact caused some problems with their study.
Either way, it appears that creatine supplementation, regardless of the amount of carbohydrate consumed, may be beneficial for both shorter sprints and also longer efforts of up to 4km, when done at the end of a 120km road race. And at least for shorter climbs, the creatine appears to offset any detrimental weight gain.
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.