Armin Stolle mixes a scoop of a white, odorless powder into water before training in a fitness studio in Berlin’s Wedding district. The 26-year-old quickly drinks the cloudy liquid and loads a barbell with weights. “I’ve been taking creatine for about nine months now,” he says. Normally the recreational athlete plays on an American football field, but today it’s time for strength training.
“I take five grams, usually before training and also on days when I don’t train,” Stolle continues. As he says, all his fellow footballers take it, but also many other sports-loving friends. And they are no exception: according to an American survey, of the approximately 21,000 university athletes interviewed, 14% said they take creatine. If you look at German fitness influencers on social networks, you get the impression that nothing works without the white powder. But what exactly is it and is it safe?
“Creatine is first and foremost a substance produced by the body. Unlike vitamins and minerals that we have to obtain from food, creatine can be produced by the human body itself,” says nutritionist Martin Smollich from the University Hospital of Schleswig-Holstein. This occurs mainly in the liver and kidneys.
It is then stored in the muscles, Smollich says. “And this is where it has its most important impact. It is used to quickly provide energy to muscle cells.” This is important, for example, for weightlifting or sprinting. As the scientist explains, muscles can obtain energy from various sources, including creatine, sugar and fat, but the body needs more time to do this. As a result, creatine is unlikely to help during a long jogging session, for example, Smollich says.
You also have to be fast and strong in American football. Athlete Stolle’s creatine (not to be confused with keratin, a component of hair and the natural dye carotene) helps a lot, as he says between his squats. “At some point I reached my limits and then I started taking it. Now I’m faster, I have more strength and I can lift more weight during exercises.”
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Muscle physiology and metabolism expert from the German Institute for Nutritional Research (Dife) Maximilian Kleinert explains: Creatine stores in muscle cells are usually up to 80% full. By taking it you try to fill your memory 100%. “What we already have is probably sufficient, but there is still some room for improvement.” With this reserve of energy, athletes could lift their weights one or two more times, Kleinert says.
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 take it for recreational sports depends on your personal goals – you don’t need it. “But if you say, ‘I want to have higher maximal strength and bigger biceps through my training,’ then creatine speeds up that process.”
In red meats and fish
Dife expert Kleinert states that the advantages are in the order of percentages. “If you’re an Olympic athlete, obviously that one or two percent can be the difference between a gold or silver medal. But for recreational athletes, I think it’s more important to eat sensibly.”
Speaking of nutrition. Athlete Stolle also says that he doesn’t eat meat and therefore can’t get creatine from his food. This is why it is 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 muscle levels. But 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 pay attention.
According to Smollich, there is a group of people for whom regular creatine intake makes sense: seniors over 55. Older adults wear out muscles more rapidly and this is accompanied by a loss of function. “This means older people can no longer climb stairs, can no longer go shopping and are simply physically weaker. In this case, creatine, together with strength training, can help maintain muscle mass for longer in old age – and therefore functionality and quality of life,” explains Smollich.
The Stolle athlete is still a long way from this. But he still wants to take the dust.
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