Creatine is used as an energy source by skeletal muscles, and creatine supplements are frequently taken by athletes aiming to build their muscle mass. In other words, athletes taking creatine supplements are hoping to get more energy from their muscles during performance. How effective this technique is will depend on the athlete and the type of exercise they perform.
Creatine was first discovered to be effective as a supplement in 1912, when Harvard University researchers found that ingested creatine could boost the creatine content of muscle. Creatine occurs naturally in the body, produced by the liver, kidneys and pancreas, and the body receives further creatine in foods such as meat and fish.
The chemical came to popular attention in 1992 after it was revealed that gold medallist sprinter Linford Christie had used the supplement in the build-up to the Olympics. There is some scientific evidence that taking creatine can increase performance, although the most strong evidence for this was in anaerobic repetitive cycling sprints. Studies of the supplement when used by athletes who perform at a sustained level of intensity have shown less favourable results. The evidence seems to indicate creatine supplements are most effective for short bursts of exercise, although the actual effect of creatine supplements on the body is yet to be determined.
The most popular form of supplement, creatine phosphate, was discovered in the late 20s. A recent discovery, creatine ethyl ester, is believed to have a longer half-life within the system than creatine monohydrate, which is another popular form of creatine used in supplements, although this claim has yet to be backed up by research.
There are other ways to extend the amount of creatine absorbed by the body when taking creatine supplements. Consuming high-glycemic carbohydrates alongside creatine increases creatine muscle stores and, as a knock-on effect, performance. Creatine supplements also can contain alpha lipoic acid to further enhance concentrations in the muscle.
There are a fair number of positives to taking creatine as a supplement, and the major con is that it might not help you in your particular sport. Creatine supplements are more useful for those sports whose activities require a good anaerobic performance. For endurance sports, such as running, cycling and long distance swimming, there is less evidence that it will be helpful, although a study at Louisiana State University found that creatine supplements delayed the onset of muscle fatigue in endurance athletes by boosting their lactate thresholds.
Creatine may also have a positive effect on cognitive and memory function, as shown in a study which tested vegetarian subjects on the supplement. The subjects showed improved performance in these areas.
Creatine use is not considered doping and at the moment is not banned by the majority of sport-governing bodies. However, in the United States, the NCAA recently ruled that colleges could not provide creatine supplements to their players, though the players are still allowed to obtain and use creatine independently.
Creatine appears to have no harmful effects, although studies are still underway. It is thought that large doses put extra strain on the kidneys and renal system, so people with problems in this area should consult their doctor before taking the supplement. Follow instructions on the pack for a dosage amount if you decide to take the supplement, and remember that there is no benefit in taking a higher dose, as muscles have a maximum storage and excess will simply be lost from the body.