From: 3/23/98

Question: I've gotten a lot of questions about a supplement, creatine, which is available over the counter. Many people, most of whom are not professional athletes, have the mistaken impression that this substance can substantially improve athletic performance. As with so many things in life, the hype does not hold up under close scrutiny.

Yet again the old adage, "There ain't no such thing as a free ride", proves true.

Charles H. Booras, M.D.
Co-Founder and Editor,
Jacksonville Medical Park

Answer: The following is modified from an article in the January 1998 University of California at Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Most ergogenic aids - supplements that are supposed to improve athletic performance - are a waste of money. Creatine is a relatively new one, however, that has been getting lots of attention from both researchers (notably at the most recent meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine) and athletes (from Olympic track contenders to professional and collegiate athletes). It has been likened to carbohydrate loading, except that the latter boosts performance in endurance (aerobic) events such as marathons, while creatine is used for short-term, high-intensity (anaerobic) activities such as sprinting, jumping, and weight lifting.

But creatine supplements certainly aren't for recreational athletes, and even competitive athletes should think twice before trying them.

Creatine is an amino acid, but unlike most amino acids it is not incorporated into protein. It's found primarily in meat, poultry, and fish. In the body it's found mostly in the muscles (in the form of creatine phosphate), where it plays a unique role in energy production - it helps restore a compound called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP, which supplies quick energy. It also helps reduce the lactic acid that accumulates in muscles during intense exercise; lactic acid produces a burning sensation and thus limits the amount of intense exercise you can do. Most people usually get 1 to 2 grams of creatine a day from their food. The body also makes it in the liver, pancreas, and kidneys.

Most studies suggest that creatine supplements do boost short-term muscle strength and the body's ability to perform activities involving rapid bursts of energy. Athletes who might benefit include basketball, soccer, hockey, and football players, as well as those participating in short track-and-field events or competitive rowing. For instance, in one study of cyclists, those taking creatine were better able to pedal intensely for short bursts.

In two studies, creatine increased the maximum weight people could lift or boosted the number of repetitions they could perform. In those studies in which creatine didn't help, the researchers suggested that the substance wasn't taken long enough or in large enough doses.

Why few, if any, should try it…

As interesting as creatine is, the following concerns remain:

If you want to run, swim, or cycle faster, you're better off with a solid training program. One way to improve your performance is to boost the intensity of your workouts with interval training - bouts of vigorous exertion alternating with lower - intensity recovery periods.


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