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Creatine facts

Recently, members of a major American college football team (Division I of the NCAA) began supplementing their diets with creatine monohydrate for the very first time. Almost immediately, the players reported improvements in weight and strength, but they also began to experience something that was very bad: more of them seemed to be suffering from muscle cramps during practices and games. In fact, in the first game of the season, eight players were ravaged by severe cramping. Cramping had not been a problem during the previous year, when no creatine supplements were ingested.

Does creatine supplementation lead to cramp?

Concerned, the team physician took the players off creatine supplementation without delay. A week later, in a game played in 85-degree heat and 80-per-cent humidity, none of the players cramped up. Since the cramping was alleviated almost as soon as creatine was stopped, even under the kind of environmental conditions which usually produce cramping, the doctor, coaches, and players concluded that gulping down creatine had probably increased the risk of muscle cramps. They weren't alone: at least three other major college teams have stopped taking creatine this year, believing that the cramping which was slowing practices and taking star players out of games was the result of creatine ingestion.

At about the same time, a world-ranked female triathlete, in excellent condition, was preparing for one of her most important competitions of the season. In an attempt to give herself an 'edge' which could push her over the top, she took creatine supplements for five days just before the big event. Unfortunately, she bombed badly during the triathlon, slowed by severe cramping in her legs. In an amazing coincidence, her husband, also a triathlete and a creatine loader, dropped out of competition in a bicycle race held in a different part of the world on the same weekend, also because of muscle cramps.

True, a few anecdotal episodes of cramping shouldn't blight the reputation of a previously-thought-to-be fine sports supplement, but there are now more than just a couple of instances in which creatine seems to be linked with cramping. In fact, the word is spreading throughout the athletic community: beware of creatine! Instead of adding real power to your muscles, it might make them tighten up in knots!

What about it?

Can creatine really twist your sinews into angry gnarls? Scientists have suggested that it might be possible. There are a variety of physiological explanations for the phenomenon, but one popular one relies on the idea that as muscle cells load up on creatine, they might also increase their uptake of water. If this were true, it would be similar to the effect an athlete gets from 'carbo- loading'. As more glycogen is stored in muscle, water is stockpiled right along with it (this is thought to be responsible for the occasional 'heavy legs' an athlete feels after especially diligent carbo-loading).

In theory, this extra water brought on-board with creatine might dilute muscle-calcium or potassium levels. Since normal concentrations of calcium and potassium are necessary for muscle contractions, your muscles could then have difficulty functioning in their regular way. This mechanism sounds plausible enough, but one problem is that most cramping occurs after athletes have been exercising for a considerable amount of time, eg, after their muscle cells have shed any 'excess' water that they might have been holding. More doubt will be cast upon this 'water hypothesis' in a moment.

In addition, the story of the NCAA Division I football team which cramped with creatine and ran like greyhounds without it doesn't hold up well under close scrutiny. The flaw in the account is that once creatine gets inside your muscle cells, it doesn't like to leave. Basically, if you load your muscles up with the stuff and then don't take a drop more, your muscle-creatine concentrations will only dip by about 1 to 1.5 per cent per day. It would take over a month for your creatine levels to drop by just 50 per cent after you had loaded up. In the case of the football team which went cold turkey, their heavily loaded muscle cells would have been no more than 10-per cent lower in creatine for the following week's game - the contest which had no cramping. It's unlikely that such a modest downturn in creatine would completely eliminate the muscle-knotting problem.

Remember that the key causes of cramping are poor fitness levels (as you might expect to see in team members early in the season, but not later), lack of acclimatisation to hot, humid, dehydrating weather conditions (again, as you'd expect to see early in the season as the players were beginning to exercise strenuously under torrid conditions for the first time in a long time; remember that acclimatisation can take as little as seven days), inadequate hydration and poor nutrition. As you can see, there are lots of reasonable alternative explanations for the cramping, so we shouldn't rush creatine to judgement and proclaim that it is tying up athletes' muscles.

No cramping at Atlanta

A number of scientists have witnessed the successful cramp-free utilisation of creatine supplements. One of them is Steven Lawrence of the Western Australian Institute of Sport in Claremont, West Australia. He has been involved in the creatine loading and monitoring of over 100 athletes (male and female) during the past three years. Thirty-six of those athletes participated in the Atlanta Olympics, competing in the sports of field hockey, basketball, volleyball, canoeing and track and field.

Almost all of the Atlanta athletes followed a creatine-supplementation scheme which involved loading with a total of 20 grams of creatine per day (in four to six doses) for five days, followed by the taking of 10 grams of creatine one day per week for five weeks. This protocol was then repeated immediately or after a one-week respite. Some of the athletes actually supplemented with creatine for 66 consecutive weeks.

Side-effects from all that creatine? Lawrence noted only a transient increase in body weight of about two to five pounds during the initial loading week (water weight?) which consistently disappeared during the following seven days. Most specific to our discussion, 26 of the athletes creatine-loaded during 16 days of heavy training and competition in hot, humid environments. Not one of those athletes suffered from heat illness or cramp.

According to Dr. Richard Kreider of the University of Memphis in the US, the well-respected 'king' of creatine researchers, 'no published study investigating the effects of creatine supplementation on athletic performance has reported a cramping side-effect. In fact, the only side-effect reported is a gain in body mass.'

He goes on: 'People have suggested that creatine promotes water-weight gain, diluting potassium or calcium in the muscles and increasing the susceptibility to cramping. However, our research hasn't detected any changes in electrolyte status or total body water associated with creatine. What we have consistently seen are increases in lean body mass and around a 5 to 8 per cent uptick in anaerobic capacity, especially when performing repeated bouts of high-intensity exercise lasting from 6 to 60 seconds.'

Kreider himself has carried out creatine research with football players, strength trainers and elite swimmers, and is now working on a project with endurance cyclists and runners, giving them either placebo, straight creatine or creatine plus glucose (can't wait to see the results of that one!). There have been no reports at all of increased cramping with creatine in these studies.

New creatine research

Meanwhile, scientists continue to churn out new and positive data about creatine. In research presented at the International Conference on Overreaching and <a href="">Overtraining<a/> in Sport, which was held in Memphis, Tennessee, in the summer, investigators from the University of Memphis placed one group of swimmers on a 21-gram-per-day creatine loading plan for nine days, while another group of swimmers ingested only a placebo during the same time period. Before and after the nine days of supplementation, all subjects participated in three100-metre freestyle sprints, with 60 seconds of recovery between bursts. The swimmers also performed three 20-second anaerobic sprint tests in a prone position on a computerised arm argometer, also with 60-second recoveries.

Bottom line? Creatine was better. After supple-mentation, creatine-loaded swimmers swam faster than placebo takers during their first 100m sprint. In addition, creatine-stocked athletes IMPROVED their times in the second 100m sprint (from pre- to post-supplementation) by .9 seconds, while the placebo swimmers didn't improve at all. In addition, arm power during the anaerobic arm-ergometer test was up by 9 per cent after creatine loading, but didn't change with placebo. Overall, it was clear that creatine ingestion was good for 100m sprint times and raw upper-arm power.

In a separate study completed at Ohio State University, six university female swimmers supplemented with creatine for two weeks, while six others took in only placebo. During the supplementation period, the athletes completed 'performance sets', which consisted of six high-speed 50-metre intervals, with each 50m burst starting at a three-minute interval (eg, an athlete started at time zero, swam 50 metres as rapidly as possible, and then rested until three total minutes had elapsed, at which time the second 50m interval began. The third 50m interval started after six minutes, the fourth after nine minutes, and so on).

Again, creatine was better. What the Ohio State researchers found was that creatine takers gradually increased their 50-metre swimming speeds over the course of the supplementation periods, while placebo takers were stagnant. Creatine swimmers improved average 50m pace from 1.60 to 1.54 metres per second, about a 4 per cent gain in speed. Creatine and sprint swimming seem to represent a marriage made in heaven.

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