Is Creatine of Any Help for Swimmers?
15 July 2001
(Links updated 2010)
© Felix Gmünder
, Schwimmverein Limmat Zürich
- Role of creatine in the metabolism
Creatine and phosphocreatine are very important metabolites in all body cells, in particular in those with a high energy turnover such as cells of skeletal and heart muscle, optical cells, nerve (brain) cells, and spermatozoa.
Creatine and phosphocreatine in collaboration with the enzyme phosphocreatinase make up the following systems:
- Energy buffer,
- Energy storage, and
- Energy transport.
The energy transport system carries energy in the form of phosphocreatine from the cell's power plants, the mitochondria, to the contractile elements of skeletal muscle cells.
- The body can synthesize creatine on it's own
Creatine is formed in the body in amounts of about 1 to 2 grams per day.
- Creatine is taken up with food
Creatine is a component of meat and fish (2 to 7 grams per kilogram). If you eat creatine in pure form it is resorbed in the gut like natural creatine from meat and fish and distributed in the body via the bloodstream. If you eat additional creatine in form of powders or tablets you can overload target cells in muscle, heart, brain etc.
- Creatine requirements
Daily requirements vary from person to person. It is assumed that a daily supply of 2 to 4 grams is sufficient - half of this amount is provided by the metabolism. It is assumed that individuums performing high physical and mental efforts could need more than 1 to 2 grams provided by the metabolism, i.e. an additional 3 to 6 grams per day. But: If more creatine is consumed than can be stored, the surplus is secreted by the kidneys via urine. If creatine loading, which means eating about 20 grams or even more per day, is performed for more than one week, kidney problems as a side effect can occur as has been reported.
- Effects / Side effects / Doubts in Relation to Swimming
- Responders and Non-Responders are well known. Creatine as a dietary supplement does not produce any effect in some people which are known as non-responders. It is assumed that around 6% of the population belong to this category. Most convinced are athletes of power sports and disciplines in which the anaerobic energy supply in the muscle is dominating. Most recent research indicates that creatine has benefits also for aerobic sports and disciplines. Theoretical considerations are in line with these results.
- Track and field athletes rely on creatine most consistently, with the only exception of middle distance and distance runners who don't like to carry around the additional kilograms. This category of runners also report of muscle cramps. Magnesium as an antidote (300 to 600 mg daily) has been recommended as an antidote.
- Stomach problems can be avoided by taking creatine in a glass of warm water. Some creatine brands are more readily soluble than others.
- Overloading tendons and ligaments can be avoided by careful planning of the season and stretching.
- As a swimmer be careful not to start a creatine diet before an important meet. Check the effect off-season first.
- In swimming a positive effect will be noted mainly by sprinters. In some research reports it has been concluded that creatine in swimming is useless. However, in these studies the creatine diet was either too short (i.e. 9 days instead of weeks to 3 months) or the daily dose was not optimal (regimen s. below).
- Increased muscle power is a consequence of increased muscle mass (1 to 2 kilograms) following creatine diet. Most of the additional muscle mass is water, however. In swimming additional weight is not so tragic as compared to middle distance and distance running events.
- In competitive swimming an increase in muscle mass is not favorable, however, because water resistance will increase as a consequence. From extensive experience in the former German Democratic Republic (DDR) it is known that an increase in performance following anabolica administration was not a consequence of increased power but increased capability to recover faster from high training and competition loads. In addition anabolica made athletes more aggressive. It is believed that creatine also provides better performance by letting the body recover faster and better.
- Quality and purity are important factors: In some cheap creatine products there are toxic by-products from chemical synthesis. It is possible that some negative side-effects result from these impurities. In Europe Synergen (Podium) has been shown to belong to the best products available.
- Does creatine administration favor doping? This is difficult to answer. Creatine is a natural substance our body produces and is available in meat and fish in significant amounts. On the one hand you can argue that eating creatine will prevent athletes from taking performance enhancing drugs. On the other hand, if creatine is performance enhancing it could be considered as doping by sports authorities. Creatine could also be considered as a door opener to the real performance enhancers such as anabolica. What really worries is that the author of this page got so many e-mails from 12-14 years old athletes about details of creatine diets and possible positive effects.
- What performance enhancing effects can you expect?
- Increased intramuscular creatine (+ about 20%) and phosphocreatine (+ about 25%) availability
- Increased muscular force (up to 12%)
- Increased phosphocreatine synthesis following repetitive exhausting workloads during recovery (interval training)
- Faster recovery following highly intensive trainings and competitions
- Reduced formation of lactic acid, ammonia and hypoxanthine following exhaustive workloads
- Increased mental power during stress periods
- Does creatine enhance aerobic performance?
Creatine has been considered to only support short term, high power exercise forms by enhancing energy buffer and storage systems in muscle cells and by stimulating protein synthesis in muscles via hormone up-regulation.
Lab experiments (ergometer studies) indicate that muscle fatigue is delayed also during aerobic workloads. For biochemists: This is explained by a ATP-regenerating creatine kinase in association with calcium pumps in the sarcoplasmatic reticulum.
- Recommendations for creatine regimen
A creatine regimen for a person of 70 kg consists of 3 phases: Loading, maintaining phase, and a break:
- Loading phase: 4times 5 grams per day (20 grams per day) during 7 to 8 days. Prolonged loading is useless unless you want to risk a kidney problem.
- Maintaining phase: 3 to 6 grams per day for up to 3 months
- Following 3 months a break of 1 months is highly recommended.