If you’ve been looking for ways to improve your performance, chances are you’ve come across the idea of creatine. Creatine is extremely popular in the fitness world, but it’s often considered to be a bodybuilder’s supplement.
What are the pros and cons of creatine for runners? Creatine has become more popular in non-gym fitness recently, but that doesn’t mean you should dive into taking it without proper research.
Here’s what we know, what you should know, and the research behind it, so you can decide if taking creatine is worthwhile.
What Is Creatine & What Does It Do?
Your body naturally produces about 1 gram of creatine per day. Creatine helps provide a continuous supply of energy to your muscles as you go about your everyday activities.
About half of that 1 gram is produced by your liver, pancreas, and kidneys. The other half of that gram comes from protein-rich foods in your diet.
As the protein is broken down in the stomach, amino acids are left. Your body uses three amino acids— arginine, glycine, and methionine—to produce creatine, which it then stores in your muscles.
When your body needs more energy, the creatine converts into creatine phosphate. This helps to make adenosine triphosphate—ATP—which creates the energy for muscle contractions that help to propel you forward on a run, or help you to pick up weights.
The Role of Creatine in Exercise
Your body has 3 different energy systems that it uses at different stages during physical activities. The intensity and duration of the activity will determine the energy demands, which then determines the specific energy system in play.
When you take part in high-intensity activity like running, you can quickly deplete your creatine stores faster than your body can replace them.
During a run, each of the 3 energy systems use ATP for energy. To make the most of this, it’s useful to understand what the energy systems are and how creatine plays a role.
The 3 energy systems are:
- The Phosphagen System
- Glycolysis (anaerobic) System—also known as the Lactic Acid System
- The Aerobic System
Both the The Phosphagen System and Glycolysis System don’t require oxygen when there’s a sudden increase in energy demand. The Aerobic System does need oxygen in order to produce energy.
You use the Phosphagen System when you start a run—or any workout—and it provides enough energy for a quick, short burst of intense activity. For example, it’s the same instant energy source your body uses when you get out of your chair and walk to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee.
This is the fastest and most direct form of energy, and it relies heavily on the creatine phosphate stored in your muscles. But it’s short-lived, and quickly depletes creatine phosphate supplies.
As you continue to run past that initial burst, your body then switches to the Glycolysis Energy System, which uses glucose to create more ATP.
When this energy system is in use, your body will be able to produce enough ATP for 1 to 3 minutes of intense running.
Unfortunately, your body can’t maintain the intensity for too long before you reach your lactate threshold.
At this point, you may start to notice that your performance becomes sluggish and muscle fatigue begins to set in. This is due to your carbohydrate stores that have become depleted.
This is why performing at intense levels—80 to 90 percent of your maximum—isn’t possible for more than a few minutes.
You’ll use your aerobic energy system for low to medium-intensity activities, like running long distances or for running for a few hours like you would in a marathon. This system also comes into play for shorter distances like a 5K or 10K.
During this stage, your body will use fat as its main energy source but can also use carbohydrates or proteins to produce energy.
This spares the use of muscle glycogen, creatine phosphate, and ATP so you can use them for the short burst you need to cross the finish line.
Why Should You Use a Creatine Supplement?
Although your body does produce its own creatine, using a creatine supplement will ensure that your body has an ample supply of creatine in your muscles.
This will help you increase your overall performance, as your body is able to generate more energy production very quickly.
You’ll find that you can run further and at a higher intensity, and still have enough phosphocreatine stored in your muscles to sprint to the finish line.
Pros of Creatine for Runners
Creatine increases your short-term energy capacity, so your muscles will have the energy they need when you do hill sprints, interval workouts, or fartlek runs. This helps condition your body, improve your endurance, and increase your speed.
Research has shown that even long distance runners can benefit from using creatine as it can increase your lactate threshold. This allows you to maintain a faster pace for longer when running greater distances.
Fortunately for runners, research has shown that creatine helps to reduce muscle damage and inflammation after a run.
When you have a supply of creatine in your system, replenishing the glycogen expended during exercise happens faster, reducing recovery time.
When you have a hard workout, your muscles develop small micro-tears. As creatine stimulates protein synthesis—muscle building—supplementing with creatine can help your muscles repair faster after a hard workout.
Keep in mind that creatine won’t help for natural stiffness and muscle soreness that you feel after a run or a cross-training session.
Increases Muscle Mass
Due to its protein-synthesis properties, creatine can help build muscle mass, provided you are actively working out the muscles.
Runners who supplement with creatine may notice that their leg muscles and glutes gain mass and strength.
More powerful muscles naturally lead to increased stamina and endurance. The muscles are more able to utilize oxygen during training, giving you a performance edge.
There is also ongoing research into whether or not creatine supplementation helps older adults maintain muscle mass with lower levels of exercise. Some results are promising, although the research is still in progress.
Cons of Creatine for Running
Although there are some pros to taking creatine, runners will need to decide if the positives are worth experiencing the negatives!
Weight Gain/Water Retention
Water retention is the most well-known con of taking creatine. This can cause you to look and feel bloated and adds extra weight to your frame, which can negatively impact your running performance.
While the extra bulkiness may not be a problem for bodybuilders, runners don’t want any unnecessary weight on them as they compete.
Creatine supplementation can cause abdominal cramps, nausea, diarrhea, and bloating—apart from water retention.
For some, this will disappear after the first few days. For others, it may not go away, but you might be able to ease it by splitting your doses and staying well hydrated.
The negative here is that stomach issues can disrupt races if the creatine begins to kick in halfway through an event or training run.
Health Issues (Long-Term Use)
There’s some confusion over whether or not creatine does cause damage in the long-term. Some people suggest that long-term use of creatine can cause kidney and liver damage, but it’s helpful to understand the research involved.
Many studies point to creatine use being perfectly safe. However, these studies are usually limited to 12-week periods. There’s very little information or research for creatine use longer than that, so it’s almost impossible to make a definitive judgment.
However, there is research to suggest that creatine supplements should not be used by those who have renal disease or are on kidney medications.
The danger is that taking creatine when you have an underlying health problem—particularly of the kidney, liver, pancreases, or metabolic system—that you don’t know about, can accelerate the disease.
How to Take Creatine
If you do decide to try supplementing with creatine, knowing how to take it correctly is essential to reap the benefits.
It works most effectively when you take it before your run. This will allow your body to store it for the moments during your exercise when you need it for an energy burst.
Here’s what we recommend when you start taking creatine.
Use Powdered Creatine
You can get creatine in liquid form, but we recommend choosing powder. This will allow you to mix it with water or other drinks so you don’t have an unpleasant aftertaste. This could help to alleviate an upset stomach as well.
Starting slowly will allow you to assess your body’s tolerance for creatine. We recommend starting off with 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight—1kg equals 2.2 pounds—per day.
If your body tolerates that well, you can slowly increase until you are taking 3 to 5 grams per day, as long as there are no side effects.
Use It Consistently
You won’t see positive effects from creatine supplements unless you use them consistently. Take a maximum of 5 grams per day. Depending on your body, your routine, and your diet, you should see results in one to 4 weeks.
Who Should Not Use Creatine?
If you’re genetically susceptible to metabolic disease, kidney or liver disease, or pancreatic infection, you should avoid taking creatine.
You should also not take creatine if you have hypertension, diabetes, or you already have renal disease. It’s also best to avoid it if you’re pregnant as we don’t know how it may affect a baby in utero.