Can creatine help me prepare for an Ironman? Creatine for endurance athletes may not seem like a logical supplement choice but it can provide surprising benefits outside its core muscle-building and toning promise, says a leading nutritionist.
It can help in injury recovery, general recovery, help vegans and vegetarians, aid your cognitive state and even boost your training performance, according to Mark Tallon, PhD, someone who has advised endurance athletes in training and nutrition for 15 years and competed in eight Ironman events himself.
Creatine: The most effective sports supplement…but for endurance?
Firstly, let’s nail the nerdy bit. Creatine – a member of the guanidine phosphagen family – is a naturally occurring non-protein derivative of the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine. It boosts cellular energy and in the body is located almost exclusively in skeletal muscle (~95%) with trace amounts in the brain and testes.
It is most commonly found in red meat and seafood.
It was discovered in 1832 but its use as a performance-enhancing food supplement really exploded in the 1990s among Olympians and bodybuilders. Something like 80% of athletes at the 1996 Atlanta Olympiad used it in their preparation, according to reports at the time.
The International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) along with the American Dietetic Association, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine have all stated that creatine is the best ergogenic (effective) sports nutrition supplement.
With this kind of support, strong scientific backing and approved health claims, creatine’s popularity is kind of a no-brainer. (The fact you can buy a 500mg tub of quality creatine for less than a tenner doesn’t hurt either.)
Problem is most of these benefits relate to a pretty specific effect: Building lean muscle in conjunction with resistance training. And bulking up on muscle is not something most weight-paranoid endurance athletes or budding Ironmen and Ironwomen are typically much bothered with, especially as increasing muscle mass usually means increasing weight.
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‘Creatine has a place in the endurance market’
But according to Dr Tallon, there are other arrows in the creatine quiver that are frequently overlooked.
“It’s not marketed for endurance but creatine has a place in the endurance market,” he told The Draft, noting people training hard for an Ironman like Kona are frequently in a carbohydrate-depleted state, which can cause muscular problems. Creatine can help.
“It provides an anabolic signal so can be useful in the maintenance of muscle mass. So people with a carbohydrate/calorie deficit, a way to maintain lean tissue might be to take a creatine supplement, which is almost zero calories,” he said.
Nobody likes to get injured but the fact is injuries and niggles are common, and creatine can help there too.
“For people with broken bones, if they take creatine it helps maintain the muscle mass within that limb,” Dr Tallon said. “So for people injured or ill and not doing so much training, creatine can help support lean muscle mass. It means you can get back into your training quicker because you haven’t had that muscle atrophy. So it can be a tool in that nutritional case.”
Injections of pace
Nick Morgan, founder of UK-based sports nutrition consultancy, Sports Integrated, said creatine could be useful for those at the elite end of the spectrum, who may need to find the energy and strength for bursts of pace at the tail end of events in pursuit of glory.
“I see a role for it in competitive racing where there might be repeated high-intensity bursts within endurance races,” he said. “Scientifically it has relevance, for injections of pace.”
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Loading and bloating
A common side-effect of creatine use, especially during the popular technique of short-term creatine loading, is water retention or bloating, but Dr Tallon thinks that’s not something that should bother endurance athletes.
“There are some negative aspects to it where you are carrying some additional water weight because the body becomes saturated with creatine. But you cycle that off when you get closer to the event pretty easily.”
“And retaining fluids can actually have some joint benefits.”
That said, Dr Tallon is not a huge fan of creatine loading, especially for the endurance fraternity.
“Creatine loading is typically something like 5g 4-5 times per day for 4-5 days and then you go onto a maintenance dose of 3-5g/day. The evidence shows if you take 3-5g every day for 30 days you end up with the same muscle level without the water retention issues.”
Dr Tallon said even daily intakes as low as 2g could bring benefits without any worries about the battle of the bloat.
Meeting meat avoider deficiencies
With creatine typically sourced from meat and fish in regular diets, another grouping who can benefit from creatine supplementation are vegetarians and vegans.
“It is good for vegetarians and vegans because they are usually creatine deficient and it can definitely have an impact on their top-end work when training,” Dr Tallon said.
Emerging research is showing creatine can benefit cognitive function including reducing mental fatigue, improving sleep patterns and improving memory, which can help Ironpeople to feel better and make better decisions.
Perhaps even more interestingly for endurance, some studies show creatine can actually reduce physical fatigue.
Watch this space.
Dr Tallon is the UK-based founder of triathlon training service TriathlonLab and food law consultancy Legal Foods. He has completed eight Ironmans with a PB of 9:30 and hasn’t given up his dream of competing in Kona one day.