Armin Stolle mixes a small measuring spoon of a white, odorless powder into water before working out at a gym in Berlin’s Wedding district. The 26-year-old quickly drinks the cloudy liquid and carries a weighted bar. “I’ve been taking creatine for about nine months,” he says. Normally the recreational athlete is on an American football field, but today it’s time for strength training.
“I take five grams, usually before training and also on non-training days,” continues Stolle. All his football colleagues, but also many other friends who love the sport, accept it, as he says. They are no exceptions: according to an American survey, 14% of the approximately 21,000 college athletes interviewed said they took creatine. If you look at German fitness influencers on social media, you get the impression that nothing works without white powder. But what exactly is it – and is it safe?
“Creatine is first and foremost a substance produced by the body. Unlike the vitamins and minerals that we obtain from food, creatine can be produced by the human body itself”, says nutritionist Martin Smollich, from the University Hospital of Schleswig-Holstein. This mainly happens in the liver and kidneys.
It’s then stored in the muscles, says Smollich. “And this is where it has its most important impact. It is used to quickly supply energy to muscle cells.” This is important for weightlifting or sprints, for example. As the scientist explains, muscles can obtain energy from different sources, including creatine, sugar and fat, but the body needs more time to do this. Consequently, creatine is unlikely to help during a long running session, for example, says Smollich.
You also need to be fast and strong in American football. The Stolle athlete’s creatine (not to be confused with the hair component keratin and the natural dye carotene) helps a lot, as he says between squats. “At some point I reached my limit and started taking it. Now I’m faster and have more strength and can lift more weight during exercises.”
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The specialist in muscle physiology and metabolism at the German Institute for Nutritional Research (Dife) Maximilian Kleinert explains: The creatine stores in muscle cells are usually up to 80% full. When you pick it up, you try to fill your storage to 100%. “What we already have is probably enough, but there is still room for improvement.” With this energy reserve, athletes could lift their weights one or two times as much, says Kleinert.
This means that creatine not only increases performance in a short period of time, but also muscle volume and maximum strength, says nutritionist Smollich. Whether it makes sense to do it for recreational sports depends on your personal goals – you don’t need it. “But if you say, ‘I want to have greater maximal strength and bigger biceps during my training,’ then creatine speeds up that process.”
In red meat and fish
Dife expert Kleinert states that the advantages are in the percentage range. “If you are an Olympic athlete, of course one or two percent can make the difference between a gold or silver medal. But for recreational athletes, I think it’s more important to eat sensibly.”
Speaking of nutrition. The Stolle athlete also says that he doesn’t eat meat and that’s why he can’t get creatine from his diet. That’s why it’s important for him to take synthetic creatine. The Dife expert confirms this. “Creatine is found in relatively high concentrations in red meat and fish and, together with the body’s own synthesis, a balanced diet covers our creatine needs.” Interestingly, vegetarians and vegans sometimes have lower levels in their muscles. However, Kleinert also says this isn’t a big deal in everyday life.
According to Smollich, Kleinert and the European Food Authority EFSA, consumption is generally harmless. Only people with previous kidney disease should be careful.
According to Smollich, there is a group of people for whom regular creatine intake makes sense: seniors over 55 years of age. Older people break down muscles more and more quickly, and this is accompanied by a loss of function. “This means that older people can no longer climb stairs, they can no longer go shopping and they are simply physically weaker. Here, creatine, together with strength training, can help maintain muscle mass longer into old age – and therefore functionality and quality of life”, explains Smollich.
The Stolle athlete is still a long way from that. But he still wants to take the dust.
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