Creatine for Running – Myths & Evidence

by | 2 Jan 2023 | Health & running, Nutrition for runners, Older runners

If you’ve heard of creatine, the first thing that pops into mind when you hear that word is a big muscle guy pumping iron in the gym. And if you haven’t yet heard of creatine and ask around, the first thing you’ll be told is that it is something people take to grow bigger, stronger muscles.

Creatine is definitely THE most popular, and the most effective, supplement for high intensity strength workouts. But is there more to it? Are there any benefits of creatine for runners and other athletes apart from bodybuilders? Could long distance endurance runners benefit from supplementing creatine?

Before we delve into the topic of creatine for running let’s first cover some basics.

First thing first – what IS creatine?

Creatine is a natural substance produced by our bodies. We make it from protein in the diet. Once that protein is digested and broken down into amino acids, our body uses two of those amino acids – arginine and glycine, to produce creatine.

In this way we make around 1 gram of creatine per day. Once it is produced, which happens mainly in the liver, creatine gets stored in your muscles and brain.

Apart from making our own creatine, we can also obtain it directly from protein rich foods. However, even the most protein-packed foods, like red meat or fish, contain only around one to two grams of creatine per pound of their weight. So not very much.

The third way we can get creatine is of course via taking creatine supplements.

But WHY do we even need creatine? How does our body use it?

The creatine stored in your cells gets used in a very complicated chemical process called phosphorylation. The end product of this process is a molecule called ATP (adenosine tri-phosphate).

ATP is the main energy fuel for living organisms, including us humans. It gets produced by our cells all the time, and without it we would come to a complete stop.

ATP is made in our cells in several different ways. The ATP-making process that involves creatine is called ATP-PC.

Every time you use your muscles to deliver a high intensity, short burst of action – for example lifting a heavy weight, sprinting, or brief bouts of fast uphill running, the energy for such actions comes from this ATP-PC.

Apart from being used by the muscles, creatine and ATP-PC supply energy to the brain and to parts of our immune system.

Sounds great, is there anything else creatine does?

Hydration, muscle growth and muscle recovery

In addition to providing energy fuel to your muscle cells, creatine is also involved in their hydration – it plays a role in controlling how much water gets in or out of the cells. When those cells are well hydrated they are able to create more protein, which means more growth and bigger muscles! And on top of this (real) muscle growth, more water in the muscles also makes them look bigger and more rounded. More muscle protein synthesis also means faster recovery of damaged muscle tissue, so more creatine in your body could mean shorter recovery time and less sore muscles!

Creatine helps preserve glycogen

If you are a long distance runner you are probably very familiar with glycogen and its role in muscle energy and endurance running. For those not familiar with it: our body breaks down most carbohydrates from the foods we eat and converts them to glucose, a type of sugar that is a major source of fuel for our cells. When the body doesn’t have an immediate use of that glucose, it stores it in the liver and muscles for later use. This stored form of glucose is called glycogen.

In contrast to ATP-PC that our cells produce with the help from creatine (see above) the ATP energy produced from glycogen is mainly used during long term endurance activities. And because we can only store a limited amount of glycogen in our cells (enough for about 1 hour of medium-paced running) it is important that we keep replenishing those stores during longer runs by consuming glucose or carbohydrate containing energy drinks.

The lack of glucose, or glycogen, during long runs is usually responsible for ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’ crashes that some runners experience.

Well, it turns out that our friend creatine helps us to store and conserve more glycogen. When researchers studied a group of athletes they noticed that muscle glycogen content increased considerably in those athletes who took creatine supplements, compared to those who took a placebo.

When did it all start?

Creatine was discovered in the early 19th century, when a French scientist Michel Eugene Chevreul isolated it from an ingredient in beef. He named this molecule creatine, from the Greek word kreas, meaning meat.

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Later on Justus von Liebig, a German scientist, discovered that creatine was present in other meats as well. He also discovered that wild animals had ten-times higher concentrations of creatine in their muscles than domesticated animals, which led him to conclude that creatine is closely linked to physical activity and strength.

In 1912 researchers from Harvard University discovered that adding creatine to animal foods promoted their muscle growth, and in the 1920s this was confirmed to happen in humans as well. Some professional athletes started taking creatine supplements straight away, but it took until the 1950s for the affordable forms of creatine to become widely available.

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Creatine’s route to stardom and fame

Most people first heard of creatine supplements only when the famous athletes Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell said they’d helped them achieve better performances.

This made creatine so popular that in a few short years, by 1996 Atlanta Olympics, an estimated 80% of athletes were using creatine supplements.

What is the scientific evidence for taking creatine as a supplement?

Creatine supplementation is one of the most studied sports supplements. Hundreds of studies provide good evidence that creatine can not only improve exercise performance and lean muscle gain, but can play a role in preventing and/or reducing the severity of injury, enhancing rehabilitation from injuries, and helping athletes tolerate heavy training loads.

More recently clinical evidence has been building up on the potential benefits of creatine for improving cardiovascular health, glucose handling and diabetes, ageing and even depression and other aspects of mental health.

What is the scientific evidence on the benefits of supplementing creatine for runners?

There is a large body of evidence supporting the benefits of creatine for repeated bursts of high-intensity exercise, such as sprint or strength conditioning for runners.

As for distance running, the evidence is very strong for creatine improving recovery time and muscle inflammation in endurance athletes.

One study investigated the benefits of creatine for reducing muscle damage after a long distance (30km) run. The researchers compared the outcomes in the runners who took a creatine supplement versus those who received a placebo. They discovered that those runners who were taking creatine experienced significantly less muscle damage and soreness.

The results of this study provide evidence that creatine can help reduce cell damage after exercise, and can help shorten the time you need to recover after a long run.

Does creatine cause muscle cramps or dehydration?

This is a difficult one to answer with a straightforward Yes or No. Bear with us.

By browsing the internet one will come across anecdotal reports by individual runners (or other recreational athletes) who suspect taking creatine worsened their muscle cramps.

But when researchers undertook studies to investigate the effects of creatine on cramping and dehydration in larger groups of people, they found exactly the opposite. For example the study by researchers from Baylor University reported that those young athletes in their group who have taken creatine supplements experienced significantly less cramping, heat illness or dehydration, muscle strains and total injuries.

Recent research also shows that creatine may enhance physical performance in hot and/or humid weather by helping regulation of body temperature and by reducing exercising heart rate and sweat rate.

So the science so far says NO, creatine does NOT cause cramping or dehydration.

water retention hydrating and creatine supplements

On the other hand it is possible that a small percentage of people, possibly those already prone to muscle cramping, water retention and/or dehydration, do in fact experience more cramps from creatine.

And if so, it is possible that those individuals could benefit from increasing their hydration efforts and balancing electrolytes before taking creatine supplements.

Creatine for ageing – benefits for ageing runners

One of the most well-known benefits of creatine is its ability to increase muscle strength and speed up muscle growth. This is of particular importance to older adults, as muscle mass and strength naturally decline with age.

There is now robust evidence that in many cases supplementing with creatine can stop age related muscle loss, particularly when combined with regular weight training and resistance exercise!

“Daily consumption of Creatine may improve the effect of resistance training on muscle strength in adults over 55 years of age” (European Food Safety Authority EFSA and the European Commission)

Apart from helping fight muscle loss, other possible anti-aging benefits of creatine include improving brain function, lowering inflammation and improving blood sugar control. It may also help improve bone density and reduce the risk of bone fractures.

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Is creatine a steroid? Is it safe to take?

No, creatine is not a steroid. And in contrast to steroids, creatine is safe, even when taken over a long period of time.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition ISSN conducted a large analysis of over 500 studies on creatine usage and concluded that “There is no scientific evidence that the short- or long-term use of creatine monohydrate has any detrimental effects on otherwise healthy individuals.

Different types of creatine on the market – what is the best creatine for running

Creatine monohydrate is the original form of creatine. Nowadays there are many other types available to buy in the UK and elsewhere, such as creatine HCL, creatine nitrate, creatine ethyl ester and many others. Some of them are claimed by sellers to have better absorption or bioavailability compared to creatine monohydrate, however these claims are not supported by scientific evidence.

Creatine monohydrate is also the most researched creatine. It is without comparison when it comes to the sheer amount of evidence for benefits, speed of absorption and general safety. No other types of creatine provide any other type of added benefit.

For the best effects and safety it is best to stick with the original.

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Creatine before a race or…?  When is best to take creatine – before, during, or after running /workout?

The jury is still out on this one. If you take creatine supplements regularly the amount of creatine in your muscles is maintained at a constant level, so the timing of supplementation during the day should not make any difference.

On the other hand there is emerging evidence that suggests more benefits could be achieved when creatine is consumed after exercise compared to pre-exercise. This could particularly be true when creatine is consumed alongside carbohydrates after a strenuous workout, for example a long distance race.

So we would stick to the following rule of thumb: if you are running (or doing any other sport of physical activity) just your everyday ‘maintenance’ leisurely runs, don’t worry too much about when you take your creatine supplements. Any time of day should do.

But if you are training at a more demanding level, or running difficult runs and races that require carbohydrate loading afterwards, it might be a good idea to take your creatine at that same time as the carbohydrates.

How much creatine do I need? What is ‘creatine loading’ and is it compulsory?

Most people who take creatine consume between 2.5-5g per day as their regular maintenance dose.

The most scientifically proven dosage is 3g per day, and this is supported by most sports bodies and regulatory agencies – The European Food Safety Authority EFSA and the European Commission state in their documentation that “The beneficial effect of creatine is obtained with a daily intake of 3 g of creatine.

When you start taking creatine for the first time you may want to do ‘creatine loading’ – this means taking a very high dose for a short period of time in order to quickly load your muscle cells with the optimum levels of creatine. Once those high levels are achieved, you follow with the daily regular/low maintenance dose.

The most common creatine loading protocol is where you take 15-20g of creatine per day, split into 4 to 5 doses, for 5 days. Another way to achieve loading is to take 10g per day for 2 weeks followed by the maintenance schedule.

But creatine loading is NOT compulsory. The only benefit of loading creatine is that it may start working faster. Many choose to skip the loading phase and just take the daily recommended dose of creatine.

This method of ‘regular dosing only’ is as effective as creatine loading. It is simpler, more convenient and more economical. The only downside to this method is that you may have to wait longer to experience the same benefits.

Anything else I should know about taking creatine?

It is worth mentioning that the benefits you will receive from taking creatine supplements are likely to depend on your current creatine muscle stores, or in other words how much creatine you have in your body as your starting point.

This graph below shows the levels of creatine stores in 16 people before and after them supplementing creatine:

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If you already have very high creatine stores you may receive less obvious benefits from the supplements, while those with low creatine stores should see bigger improvements sooner. The only way to find out is to try.

Final verdict – creatine for runners YES or NO (or ‘Maybe’)

YES /definitely worth a try if:

  1. You are undertaking /planning to include strength conditioning as part of your running
  2. You are running sprints or medium distance runs
  3. You keep hitting the wall/bonking during longer runs and have trouble replenishing your glucose/glycogen stores fast enough
  4. Your recovery after runs takes longer than you’d like
  5. You’d like to increase your muscle strength and/or volume
  6. You are looking to achieve some other potential benefits of creatine, such as improved brain function or reducing the negative effects of ageing on your muscles or brain

NO /maybe/thread carefully if:

  1. You are very prone to muscle cramps and dehydration (in which case it might be worth tackling your hydration and electrolyte levels first and THEN trying creatine, which in certain cases has been found to help REDUCE cramping).
  2. You are running long distances competitively and do not want to risk adding any additional grams to your existing body weight in the way of water retention (on this note it is worth mentioning the study by Tomcik and colleagues on endurance cyclists which found that even though creatine supplementation resulted in a tiny increase of 0.5% in their total body weight over time, this increase wasn’t in any way detrimental to their competition performance – on the contrary, those who supplemented creatine scored better in the final race!)
  3. You have a pre-existing kidney disease – although creatine supplementation appears to have no detrimental effects on kidney function of individuals without underlying kidney diseases, it is generally advised creatine supplementation not to be used by sportsmen or women with pre-existing kidney disease as a precautionary measure.
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References

Kerksick CM, Wilborn CD, Roberts MD, et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition ISSN exercise & sports nutrition review update: research & recommendations. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(1):38. Published 2018 Aug 1

Kreider RB, Stout JR. Creatine in Health and Disease. Nutrients. 2021 Jan 29;13(2):447

Forbes SC, Cordingley DM, Cornish SM, et al. Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Brain Function and Health. Nutrients. 2022;14(5):921. Published 2022 Feb 22

Gualano B, Rawson ES, Candow DG, Chilibeck PD. Creatine supplementation in the aging population: effects on skeletal muscle, bone and brain. Amino Acids. 2016;48(8):1793-1805

Greenwood M, Kreider RB, Greenwood L, Byars A. Cramping and Injury Incidence in Collegiate Football Players Are Reduced by Creatine Supplementation. J Athl Train. 2003 Sep;38(3):216-219. PMID: 14608430

Dalbo VJ, Roberts MD, Stout JR, Kerksick CM. Putting to rest the myth of creatine supplementation leading to muscle cramps and dehydration. Br J Sports Med. 2008;42(7):567-573

Lopez RM, Casa DJ, McDermott BP, Ganio MS, Armstrong LE, Maresh CM. Does creatine supplementation hinder exercise heat tolerance or hydration status? A systematic review with meta-analyses. J Athl Train. 2009;44(2):215-223

Roberts PA, Fox J, Peirce N, Jones SW, Casey A, Greenhaff PL. Creatine ingestion augments dietary carbohydrate mediated muscle glycogen supercompensation during the initial 24 h of recovery following prolonged exhaustive exercise in humans. Amino Acids. 2016;48(8):1831-1842

Santos RV, Bassit RA, Caperuto EC, Costa Rosa LF. The effect of creatine supplementation upon inflammatory and muscle soreness markers after a 30km race. Life Sci. 2004;75(16):1917-1924

Sheikholeslami-Vatani D, Faraji H. Influence of Creatine Supplementation on Apoptosis Markers After Downhill Running in Middle-Aged Men: A Crossover Randomized, Double-Blind, and Placebo-Controlled Study. Am J Phys Med Rehabil. 2018;97(11):825-831

Tomcik KA, Camera DM, Bone JL, et al. Effects of Creatine and Carbohydrate Loading on Cycling Time Trial Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2018;50(1):141-150.

Forbes SC, Candow DG, Ostojic SM, Roberts MD, Chilibeck PD. Meta-Analysis Examining the Importance of Creatine Ingestion Strategies on Lean Tissue Mass and Strength in Older Adults. Nutrients. 2021 Jun 2;13(6):1912

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