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Does Creatine Work?

Everyone is talking about creatine, but I've heard it causes major water retention, which cancels out any strength gains. Is this yet another case of climbers experimenting with supplements that only work for weight-lifting or bodybuilding?

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Everyone is talking about creatine, but I’ve heard it causes major water retention, which cancels out any strength gains. Is this yet another case of climbers experimenting with supplements that only work for weight-lifting or bodybuilding? Are there any benefits for endurance athletes or for those doing strength-to-weight sports?

—Sam Meyers | Chattanooga, TN

There is buzz about creatine, and my first reaction is skepticism when it comes to the latest miracle supplement for climbing. However, if you look at the research, much of the hype around creatine seems justified. I don’t pay much attention to the manufacturers’ surveys, but independent studies point toward creatine having serious benefits, not just for power athletes, but for those whose sports require speed and endurance.

Creatine is manufactured naturally by the liver and kidneys and is available in muscle and nerve cells, where it plays a crucial role in the production of ATP, the essential muscle fuel. ATP is only available in limited supply, enough to last us for a few hard boulder moves. Once it is depleted, a secondary process kicks in to produce more ATP to sustain activity. Here, creatine phosphate combines with the by-product ADP to produce further supplies of ATP. Research proves that creatine supplementation helps ATP to be stockpiled within the muscles in a way that will greatly assist performance in sports requiring both endurance and power. Increased creatine supply will raise the lactate threshold (a good crude measure of endurance levels) by up to 14 percent according to some studies, and performance in interval training will improve correspondingly.

Clearly there is much relevance to climbing, but the big question is not whether to take creatine, but how? You are right to point out that creatine is notorious for causing water retention and increasing body weight. A few climbers who have experimented with creatine, myself included, have deduced that the answer is to train on creatine to get stronger and fitter, and then to come off it just before an important climb or competition in order to lose the excess water. This is also what the manufacturers prescribed, but new studies have found that the problem of water retention lies in the excessive dosages that were formerly recommended. It used to be advised that you should crash load with up to six scoops (12 tablespoons) a day during the first four or five days before reducing your intake to one or two scoops a day. It is now understood that less is more and that two or three scoops (four to six tablespoons) to load up are more than sufficient to produce all the performance gains without causing excessive water retention. It is also recommended that creatine is consumed with a meal (in particular with high-protein foods) in order to maximize absorption. Remember also that creatine works best when taken for limited periods of intense training (typically four to eight weeks), so don’t take it all year. If you do experiment with creatine, always read the instructions and consult your doctor first if you have a medical condition or an allergy. Note that for most people, all that is likely to happen if you over-do it with creatine is that you will bloat out with water and drain your bank balance!