TOrmin Stolle mixes a small measuring spoon of a white, odorless powder into water before training at a gym in Berlin’s Wedding district. The 26-year-old quickly drinks the cloudy liquid and loads weights onto a bar. “I’ve been taking creatine for about nine months,” he says. Normally the recreational athlete is on a football field, but today it is his turn to strength training.
“I take five grams, usually before training and also on non-training days,” Stolle continues. All of his soccer teammates, but also many other sports-loving friends, accept him, as he himself says. They are no exception: according to an American survey, 14 percent of around 21,000 college athletes surveyed 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 is it exactly? It is safe?
“Creatine is primarily a substance produced by the body. Unlike the vitamins and minerals we get 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, says Smollich. “And this is where it has its most important effect. 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 fats, but the body needs more time to do so. Therefore, creatine is unlikely to help, for example, during a long jogging session, says Smollich.
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 am faster, I have more strength and I can lift more weight during exercises.”
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Maximilian Kleinert, expert in muscle physiology and metabolism at the German Institute for Nutritional Research (Dife), explains: Creatine stores in muscle cells are usually up to 80 percent full. By taking it you try to fill your storage to 100 percent. “What we already have is probably enough, but there is still a little room for improvement.” With this energy reserve, athletes could lift weights one or two times longer, 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 play recreational sports depends on your personal goals: you don’t need it. “But if you say, ‘I want to have higher peak strength and bigger biceps through 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’re an Olympic athlete, of course that one or two percent can make the difference between a gold medal or a silver medal. But for recreational athletes, I think it’s more important to eat sensibly.”
Speaking of nutrition. The athlete Stolle also says that he does not eat meat and therefore cannot get creatine from the food he eats. That is why it is important for him to take synthetic creatine. The Dife expert confirms it. “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 claims that this is not 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 diseases should be careful.
According to Smollich, there is a group of people for whom a regular intake of creatine makes sense: people over 55 years of age. Older people deteriorate their muscles more and more rapidly, which is accompanied by a loss of function. “This means that older people can no longer climb stairs, they can’t go shopping and they 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 athlete Stolle is still very far from that. But he still wants to take the dust.
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