August 2, 2005

Power athletes turn to creatine for training
Supplement helps build muscles but not great for swimming or tennis

by Jill Barker for Montreal Gazette; CanWest News Service

MONTREAL - Vanier College quarterback Marco Brouillette, 19, is one of the many young athletes who use creatine as a training aid.

After consulting a trainer and nutritionist, Brouillette starting taking the popular dietary supplement two years ago. He's not alone. Surveys suggest that 30 per cent of U.S. high school football players, and 45 to 74 per cent of athletes in power sports, supplement their diet with creatine.

Creatine made the headlines years ago when high profile athletes like Major League Baseball player Mark McGwire admitted using it. That was before McGwire moved onto bigger and better things, leaving creatine as the supplement of choice for young up-and-coming athletes and weight-room enthusiasts.

Found on the shelves of neighbourhood nutrition stores, creatine is also produced naturally in the body, and is found in meat and fish.

Athletes interested in boosting short-term energy supplement their natural creatine stores with a commercially prepared powder or liquid. Similar to the process of carb-loading, where endurance athletes saturate their muscles with carbs to enhance aerobic endurance, creatine-loading is reputed to benefit activities that take less than 90 seconds to complete (the 100-metre sprint, for example), as well as speed recovery between short, intense bursts of speed.

Despite its popularity, many researchers are hesitant to unequivocally endorse creatine as a performance-enhancing substance.

The results of laboratory field tests have been mixed, with sprinters showing some benefits but tennis players and swimmers very little.

This lack of consensus in the scientific community, despite a wealth of studies testing its effects, has kept the supplement from being banned by the International Olympic Committee, or any other sporting organization, as a performance-enhancing substance.

Still, some organizations, like the American College of Sports Medicine, state that creatine supplements can be used to enhance exercise performance on tasks that involve short periods of extremely powerful anaerobic activity.

So while the debate continues, there is considerable data to suggest creatine is most effective as a training aid, not a performance booster.

Brouillette didn't notice any increase in speed during his timed sprints after he began supplementing his creatine levels. Nor did he find an advantage out on the playing field. What he did notice was weight gain and a more muscular build.

"I got bigger and a little stronger," he said.

Weight lifters who consume creatine boast about its results. Like Brouillette, they appreciate the weight gain and the muscular physique credited to its use.

The added muscle mass is generally credited to two factors: an increase in water retention; and the increased ability to work out longer and recover more quickly between sets. So, theoretically, creatine supplements allow athletes to work harder in the weight room than those who do without.

The standard protocol for creatine use calls for a five-day loading phase of 20 grams a day. Athletes generally continue to supplement after the loading phase is over in hopes of maintaining its benefits.

Brouillette started with the traditional loading phase and now works on a cycle of three months on/two months off. He takes five grams of creatine before his workout and five grams after. On non-weight-training days, he takes only five grams.

It's a regime he decided upon after reading articles in fitness and bodybuilding magazines and talking to his trainer, but is slightly above the recommended maintenance dose of two to five grams a day.

Many athletes increase their consumption of creatine in the belief that more is better. But augmenting the dose won't result in more strength, speed, power or muscle mass. Any amount beyond what the muscles can absorb is excreted by the body.

The effects of long-term creatine use are unknown. To date there is no research suggesting potential health risks from regular use. Claims of muscle cramping, decreased resistance to heat stress and stomach upset haven't been scientifically substantiated.

Brouillette dissolves his creatine in a glass of juice, which helps in its absorption. He estimates he spends $30 a month on creatine powder and is happy with the results.

"It helps me keep my weight up at 210 pounds, which is where I want it."

Before running out and buying creatine, athletes need to understand that despite its proven benefits, creatine is no substitute for hard work. No powder can replace the results of a proper diet and a well-designed training program. And because weight gain is a side effect of its use, athletes for whom added musclemass hampers performance, like swimmers and runners, might want to think twice before using it.

But for athletes like Brouillette, who are looking for a competitive edge, creatine is both safe and effective when taken responsibly.