March 20, 2001
1- Featured Article: When is the right time to take creatine?
This Month’s Featured Article:
When is the best time to take creatine?
This issue concerns most creatine users. However, in order to logically answer this question, several issues need to be considered. The first involves the movement of water from the surrounding tissues into skeletal muscle. This process has been called muscle volumizing because of the increase in muscle volume that ensues. The second issue is how the metabolic state of muscle influences creatine uptake. Lastly, it now appears that creatine levels in our blood actually regulate the rate at which creatine is transported into our muscles. These physiological processes are outlined in greater detail below.
Creatine causes fluid to flow from the surrounding tissues into skeletal muscle (see last month’s newsletter for details). This cellular water essentially follows creatine into skeletal muscle causing them to swell. During the first days of loading the amount of water retained by our muscles can be considerable, accounting for as much as 1-3 kilograms (~2-7 pounds) of added weight. Furthermore, since this process might deprive our remaining body tissues of necessary fluids, dehydration is a valid concern of creatine use.
In a sense, insulin controls cellular energy management and creatine is a form of cellular energy. Creatine is transported into skeletal muscle by specific “transported molecules” on the muscle surface. The ability of these transporters to load the muscle with creatine is enhanced by insulin. Therefore, in theory, any maneuver that increases the release of insulin should likewise increase the absorption of creatine by muscle. For this reason creatine is often taken with carbohydrates that greatly enhance insulin release, such as glucose and dextrose. Such carbohydrates are described as being highly glycemic. The more glycemic the sugar the more creatine is absorbed by our muscles. Paradoxically, although highly glycemic sugars initially cause a rapid rise in energy (sugar rush), our energy levels dramatically drop (crash) soon afterwards. Obviously, such sudden drops in energy are not desirable during exercise. Insulin-sensitivity is also influenced by muscular activity. Skeletal muscle is most receptive to the actions of insulin immediately after exercise. It is during this time that insulin causes the greatest absorption of glucose and amino acids. Since creatine is also an amino acid, it makes sense that creatine absorption is also enhanced by insulin. Because of this favorable metabolic environment, many fitness experts advise post exercise feedings to promote muscle development.
Although stimulated by insulin, the activity of the creatine transporters is inhibited by creatine itself. Therefore, too much creatine blocks its own absorption into skeletal muscle. However, these studies were conducted on the transporters of laboratory animals. Therefore, the significance of these studies to humans remains to be seen? However, if the creatine transporters of humans do behave in the same way as those of laboratory animals, then supplementing too frequently may prove counter productive. For example, a typical supplementing dose of of 5 grams can raise blood creatine levels as much as 15-20 fold. Furthermore, blood creatine levels remain elevated for a few hours before returning to normal. Therefore, multiple creatine feedings, within a short period of time, would be a waste of money, since creatine absorption would be greatly reduced after the first feeding. It takes about five hours for transporter function to return to normal after being exposed to elevated plasma creatine.
So…., when is the best time to take creatine?
It is much easier to answer, “when is the wrong time to take creatine”.
Immediately before your workout?
Immediately before your workout is not the best time to take creatine. First, large shifts in body fluid during exercise should be avoided at all cost. They could severely compromise exercise performance and even prove hazardous. Secondly, less glycemic foods are a preferable food source prior to exercise because they provide cellular energy more steadily. On the other hand, highly glycemic sugars (like those taken with creatine) should be avoided prior to exercise because of the sudden crash in energy levels they cause. Lastly, creatine needn’t be “fresh” to work. Once the muscle stores are full, creatine is stable until degraded. Therefore, the stores don’t need to be replenished immediately before exercising.
During your workout?
One study showed that taking creatine during your workout hampers exercise performance. This is probably due to the effect of dehydration on exercise performance.
Before and after your workout?
Don’t supplement too frequently. Supplementing both before and after exercise may be counterproductive because of the inhibition of creatine transporter activity that may still persist from the previous feeding.
The short answer:
The best time to take creatine is immediately after your workout when the metabolic state of skeletal muscle is most receptive to insulin-mediated uptake of creatine. Further capitalize on this situation by taking creatine with fruit juices (at least 16 ounces) that contain simple sugars such as glucose or dextrose.
How to further optimize creatine supplementation is fully discussed in Creatine: A practical guide.
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