In an athletic world where competitors strive for the upper hand, almost any sports nutrition product that claims to give athletes an edge will attract consumers.
One of the most misunderstood variables in strength training today is creatine monohydrate, a popular white powder that recently has sparked a debate about the risks and rewards of performance enhancing supplements.
In its brief history, creatine’s popularity has grown immensely, including among GW students, and has been lauded by some people as a wonder supplement.
But that praise has brought some criticism from the medical community after several deaths involving creatine.
The natural creatine found in muscles is a product of the metabolism of amino acids and acts only on the muscles. It is thought to give muscles bursts of energy in short trials.
Supplemental creatine augments natural creatine produced and stored in muscles and is identical to natural creatine once it is in the muscles. But it is not an anabolic steroid because it does not affect testosterone levels.
John Doimas, a junior transfer student at GW and former Northwestern University football player, has been a serious weight lifter for years and said he is skeptical of the reputed benefits of supplemented creatine.
“Creatine has more negatives than positives,” Doimas said. “Sure it will help you if you’ve hit a plateau with lifting, but the possibility of pulls, strains and cramps is always there. The Northwestern athletic department really didn’t push creatine on us, but a lot of the guys would use it in the off-season.”
St. Louis Cardinals’ slugger Mark McGwire’s use of creatine and androstenedione, a substance banned by the NCAA and the International Olympic Committee, has drawn skepticism about the validity of his record-breaking season.
And creatine’s detractors say it is an untested product that may have contributed to the deaths of two college wrestlers who used creatine supplements.
Billy Jack Saylor of Campbell University and Joseph LaRosa of the University of Wisconson-LaCrosse each died of complications stemming from “weight-cutting” techniques.
Saylor, a 19-year-old freshman trying to qualify for his first college match, needed to shed six pounds to compete at the 190-pound weight class. After refusing liquids and working out vigorously in the early morning, he died of a heart attack at 4 a.m., two days before the match.
LaRosa was attempting to lose 15 pounds for a meet the next day. He wore a sweatsuit and a rubber suit, which causes the body to sweat profusely, while riding an exercise bike in a sauna-like shower room. LaRosa lost 11 pounds in four hours before passing away.
Never before had a wrestler died trying to drop weight, making creatine vulnerable to critics’ attacks.
Creatine promotes water retention in the muscles, so athletes must ensure they are properly hydrated to avoid side effects. Water retention still will occur up to four weeks after creatine use has stopped.
The wrestlers’ decisions to dehydrate themselves to lose weight was incompatible with creatine’s increased water retention in the muscles, which causes dehydration.
The NCAA, along with the FDA, launched an investigation and decided to ban saunas, rubber suits and diuretics, but did not prohibit creatine use.
Nevertheless, sales of creatine products have shot up from $30 million in 1995, to $100 million in ’96 and an estimated $180 million in ’97.
Creatine comes in many different forms besides the most popular powder form. One such form is liquid creatine. Houston sports medicine specialist Dr. Greg Hoover sees liquid creatine as nothing more than an advertising ploy.
“Liquid creatine is advertised as being more efficient than powder, there’s no evidence this is true,” Hoover told New Hampshire’s Foster’s Daily Democrat, adding that is also more expensive.
Synthetic creatine supplementation is estimated to be 15 to 20 percent as effective in adding muscles as anabolic steroids, according to Penn State University researcher Dr. Charles Yesalis. But unlike anabolic steroids, taking creatine has no benefit if the user doesn’t work out, Baylor Sports Medicine Institute’s Dr. Lon Castle found.
Studies on the benefits of creatine have found it adds 8 to 20 percent to muscle performance in short bursts but has little effect on muscles at peak production. Essentially, creatine aids in short bursts of energy output such as heavy weight lifting.
Proper usage of creatine supplements includes a loading time followed by a maintenance period in which a lower dose is taken.
Most experts advise the user to take 15 to 25 grams of creatine, an amount found naturally in 11 pounds of steak, for each of the first four or five days of every month. The user then takes five grams a day to maintain creatine levels.
Pro Performance, General Nutrition Center’s popular creatine product, gives a brief description of what creatine supplemention does on the back of the container.
“Creatine provides support for immediate energy production for high intensity workouts and is involved in energy production in skeletal muscles.”
According to GNC’s information department, creatine monohydrate lacks any significant side effects.
“The (Food and Drug Administration) has concluded that creatine has no side effects,” Leslie Bober of GNC said. “Sometimes people first using the product will get an upset stomach, though.”
But critics of creatine cite dehydration, muscle cramping, increased heart rates, diarrhea, proneness to muscle tears and nausea as confirmation that creatine is an unsafe supplement. And studies have shown creatine to cause slightly increased liver functions, partly because of the dehydration.
“When we do blood work on athletes who use creatine, we notice their liver functions are up a little bit,” Castle said. “But they go right back to normal when they stop cycling the creatine. So maybe it does make the liver work harder. But so far we haven’t seen any signs of damage to the liver.”
Russ Johnson, a GW sophomore and transfer student from High Point University in North Carolina, ran track at High Point and used creatine to get an edge on Division I competition.
“I gained 10 to 15 pounds of muscle in two weeks,” he said. “The key to using creatine is eating a lot and drinking plenty of water.”
“It’s good for short-term gains, but extended periods of use can cause muscle cramps,” Johnson said.
Creatine’s popularity has soared recently with publicity from athletes such as McGwire, Brady Anderson of the Baltimore Orioles and Shannon Sharpe of the Denver Broncos.
Linford Christie, Great Britain’s gold medal-winning sprinter, claims creatine won the 100-meter race for him in Barcelona in 1992.
In some cases, whole teams have joined the creatine fad. More than 70 percent of the Super Bowl-winning Denver Broncos are on creatine, according to published reports. At the University of New Hampshire, 90 to 95 percent of the football players are taking creatine. Of the UNH players on creatine, 90 percent use it in the off-season, primarily to prevent injuries associated with dehydration, according to reports.
But the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers made an official statement earlier this year charging creatine with creating merely “ornamental” muscles prone to cramping and strains.
Creatine is not beneficial for athletes who require sustained energy for endurance sports, Dr. R. Michael Culpepper at the University of South Alabama at Mobile said on a Web site that includes information on the supplement.
James Karrot, a sophomore and GW novice crew team member, says he’ll take his chances.
“I’ve been at the same level for so long now and creatine is helping me gain lean mass,” Karrot said. “I haven’t experienced any cramping because I drink a lot of water, but I’m constantly dehydrated.”