Daddy, What Is Creatine?
“Daddy, what’s that?” asked my daughter as I added a teaspoon of powder to my glass of milk.
“It’s called creatine,” I said, adding another half scoop.
“Why are you taking it?” she asked, really only half-interested. What she really wanted to know was “when will you be done so we can play?” but she’s getting more patient as she gets older.
“Well, there are several reasons. One is that it helps me feel less sore after my workouts. Plus it is supposed to help your muscles store more water and give you a little extra power when you lift weights.”
I could tell she wasn’t really interested. I stirred my creatine-and-milk, and drank about half. I noticed some of the creatine had settled so I started to stir again.
“Is that like steroids?” she added, a wrinkled eyebrow and concerned expression on her face.
Wow, I didn’t even know she had heard of steroids.
“No way, honey. Steroids work on a completely different system. And steroids are illegal. For good reason too – they have severe side effects that can be really damaging.
“Creatine is a natural substance,” I assured her, “that you can find in red meat. It’s been tested by scientists for decades on thousands and thousands of people with negligible side effects. Some people feel a little boated from it, but that’s rare.
“So daddy’s not using anything illegal.”
She thought about this for a moment. Then added, “But you don’t really need it do you? Does everyone who lift weights take it?”
I could tell she was getting more interested in this conversation. And I was also getting worried that I wasn’t going to have all the answers she needed!
“No, not everyone takes it, because it certainly isn’t needed. In fact, for some people – called ‘non-responders’ – creatine has no impact whatsoever. But for me, I do find that it helps me recover better on the days I don’t lift. That way I’m less sore when I lift the next time and that comfort makes it more likely that I’ll lift heavier weight.
“Now, some people talk about creatine giving them a ‘pump’ – that’s when their muscles feel really powerful during a workout because of the blood pumping to the muscles. However, scientific studies have failed to confirm this as a statistically valid effect. It’s true that creatine does allow the muscles to store more water and that can give the appearance of larger muscle mass. But that’s water, not blood flow. So you might like the way you look better in a t-shirt.
“If you wanted a better pump before your workout, you’d be better off with a small amount of caffeine,” I added.
She looked at me with disgust. “Why would I ever want to have a better pump before my workout?”
I laughed. Of course, at her pre-teen age she’s not interested in big muscles.
I finished the rest of my creatine-and-milk and started to clean up. She wasn’t done…
“Sometimes you mix it with that other powder – the protein powder,” she noted. “Why?”
“Purely convenience honey – if I’m making a mix, I might was well do both at the same time. But they have nothing to do with each other. Protein powder is a nutritional supplement, like a vitamin or food substitute. Creatine works in a different mechanism and isn’t really related to nutrition.” She seemed to understand.
“You said before that there are different kinds of protein. Are there different kinds of creatine?”
I wanted to keep this simple for her, so I said “Creatine comes in different forms, but all anybody needs is creatine monohydrate. It’s the most tested, and the cheapest. The other forms haven’t been proven to be any better and they cost a lot more, so I don’t know why anybody uses them.”
“Does it matter what time of day you take the creatine,” she asked. “I think I’ve seen you mix it at night sometimes and in the morning sometimes.”
“Timing really doesn’t matter,” I informed her. “The key thing is to keep a constant supply of creatine because the body can’t store it for very long. You just need to take about 5 to 10 g a day. I go for around 7 g because most studies show that going up to 10 doesn’t have any benefits. 7 g is like a teaspoon and a half. But some guys think they need to take it just before a workout – it’s related to that myth about the ‘pump’. It’s just not true and people believe that because they don’t understand the biochemistry involved. It is pretty complicated, but the short answer is that the exact timing doesn’t matter.”
“Do you take it all the time,” she asked.
“I do take a break from it once in a while. Every 4 months or so I’ll take a week off from it. To be honest, I don’t know if you need to. But I do take that break. And when I start again, I take a higher amount for a few days – like 1 teaspoon 4 times a day for 3 or 4 days. Scientists call that ‘loading’.” The more I talked, the more I felt like I was actually taking a drug. I was starting to question my dedication to taking creatine.
But then I remembered how intensely I’m working out right now. I’ve lightened up on my running a bit, only putting in about 12 miles a week now. But my weight training is really intense and I have to admit I enjoy the reduced soreness that I attribute to creatine. I know some others have scoffed, telling me that creatine hasn’t been proven to aid in recovery. That may be the case for the general population but I believe it does help me. Maybe it’s psychosomatic.
“I don’t imagine I’ll use creatine forever though. My goals will change. But I’ll stay abreast of the research of course.”
“So should I take creatine to help me stay strong,” she asked.
“Absolutely not!” My answer was too quick and she seemed shocked, almost like she was expecting a different answer. I slowed down.
“First of all, there hasn’t been any good science on kids taking creatine. As your dad, my first priority is to protect you from harm. We know it’s safe for adults, but kids have different biochemistries. It’s not just like I’m saying ‘you’re too young’. It’s that we really have no idea how kids would react. I wouldn’t suggest anyone younger than about 20 taking creatine because you’d still be growing.
“But the other reason you don’t need creatine is that you don’t have the same goals as I do. You can get 100% of your strength-building nutrition from natural foods. And the truth is, so can I. Sure, I let you sip my protein drink once in a while because you like the taste and it’s simple protein. That’s nutrition. But as I mentioned, creatine isn’t about nutrition. For me, it’s the recovery support because my workouts are really intense. If I didn’t feel like it helped me there, I wouldn’t take it.”
As I reflected on how impressionable kids are, I realized that even adults are molded by advertising. I talk to lots of guys who have misconceptions about creatine and it’s usually because of the manufacturer’s marketing.
Are you using creatine? Why? Why not?