Does Creatine Help Runners?

Creatine for runners

Runners are often looking for the latest and greatest supplement. In 2023, the trendiest supplement – and the one I get many questions about – is creatine. Does creatine help runners, or is it a supplement you can skip? This article will delve into the risks and benefits of creatine for runners. 

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a non-protein compound that is naturally produced in the body. A two-step process done in the liver, kidneys, and pancreas synthesizes three amino acids (arginine, glycine, and methionine) into creatine. Almost all of your creatine – 95% – is stored in your skeletal muscles, in the forms of phosphocreatine and free creatine. 

Your body can produce creatine from foods such as red meat and seafood. Your body needs to replenish 1-3 g of creatine per day, based on muscle mass. Since creatine is synthesized from animal products, vegetarians will often have lower creatine stores. 

Creatine supplements provide additional creatine beyond what your muscles may store from your diet. Over time, creatine supplementation results in larger creatine stores in your muscles. This results in increased muscle mass and improved performance in sports requiring strength or power. 

Creatine’s Role in Energy Production

There are four means of energy production in the human body: phosphocreatine system, anaerobic glycolysis, aerobic glycolysis, and fat oxidation. Both anaerobic and aerobic (or fast and slow) glycolysis use carbohydrates to produce ATP. Fat oxidation, as the name states, uses fatty acids to make ATP. 

Phosphocreatine system uses creatine to produce energy (ATP) via donation of its phosphate group to ADP. The phosphocreatine system is a high-power, short-duration system. It can produce very high intensity bursts of energy, but not for very long. ATP production from phosphocreatine powers activities lasting 10-15 seconds or less. The whole process is anaerobic (without oxygen), which means that creatine stores must regenerate in between bursts of energy.

 So, this energy system is used in very short, high-intensity exercises, such as sprinting and heavy resistance training. Creatine supplementation enhances the amount of creatine stored in the muscles. Larger creatine stores increase exercise capacity during high-intensity and high-power training, such as sprints and weight lifting. The position stance from the International Society of Sports Nutrition notes that creatine supplementation leads to increased sprint performance (in both single and repetitive sprints), increased work during maximal muscle contractions, and increased adaptations to strength training (including muscle size). 

Creatine and Running: What Does the Research Say?

There is a potential enhancement of aerobic capacity via greater shuttling of ATP from mitochondria. However, this is only theoretical – no research studies yet clearly demonstrate a direct benefit of creatine supplementation for endurance performance. We need more evidence to see how creatine supplementation translates to running performance. 

While all energy systems are going on in the background all the time, running does not rely on the phosphocreatine system for energy. Long-distance running relies mostly on glycolysis and oxidative metabolism. Long, steady efforts at low to moderate intensity will not see significant performance benefits from creatine supplementation. 

Some novel evidence suggests that endurance athletes may see improvements in mid-race and end-stage sprints and surges from creatine supplementation. A 2023 review in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition demonstrated that creatine supplementation enhances power output during mid-race surges and end-race sprints, particularly in cyclists and cross-country skiers. 

A steady-state road race such as a marathon does not typically involve mid-race surges. Bike races are a typical example, as many will involve short surges within a race. These events include track races, where seconds matter in the finishing kick. Short trail races and mountain races could be another area worth researching with creatine supplementation since these events often include steep climbs that spike intensity mid-race. 

Does Creatine for Runners Benefit Performance?

You will benefit more from creatine supplementation if you do both running and heavy resistance training, compared to solely running. Creatine enhances adaptations to strength training. According to the above-cited 2023 review, these benefits may be most pronounced when trying to develop strength in context of high-volume training – which is often the context in which runners lift weights (since many maintain mileage). Creatine also promotes better recovery after muscle-damaging exercise (such as resistance training); runners who lift may notice better recovery across all training with creatine supplementation.  

Older athletes may benefit from creatine supplementation. Evidence suggests that creatine may be protective against age-related muscle loss. Vegetarian and vegan athletes will also benefit from creatine supplementation since their dietary intake of creatine is likely lower. 

While it may not directly improve running performance, some evidence suggests creatine may have indirect benefits for endurance athletes. We need more studies on this – this is not definitive.

Some potential benefits of creatine for runners include:

  • Can aid in recovery during intensive training blocks
  • May improve rate of glycogen resynthesis
  • May improve heat tolerance via intracellular fluid retention

Creatine will not give the direct endurance performance benefits that carbohydrates and caffeine do. That does not mean runners should avoid it – some may improve performance from the indirect benefits. Rather, it is important to know what creatine can do – and where it’s limitations exist.

Is Creatine Supplementation Safe?

There are so many supplements on the market, and you may be wondering if creatine is good for runners – or if it comes with a risk.

Creatine supplementation is one of the safest and most effective forms of athletic supplementation. Within the past 20 years, over 250 peer-reviewed studies have looked at the safety and efficacy of creatine. Doses as high as 30 grams/day (approximately 6-10x the recommended dose) over five years have been clinically demonstrated to be safe. 

However, pregnant and breastfeeding runners should check with their doctor before starting creatine supplementation. Anyone with kidney disease should also receive medical clearance before using creatine. 

As with any supplement, your safest approach is to choose a third-party tested brand. Momentous and Klean Athlete are two reputable brands that sell certified safe for sport creatine. With any supplements, a risk exists of contamination or lack of purity, which is why buying from a third-party tested brand matters. (Read here for more on how to choose safe supplements for runners.)

All supplements have side effects, including creatine. Creatine supplementation may cause gastrointestinal upset, including bloating and nausea. If you experience these, try a smaller dosage. However, the ISSN position stand reviewed multiple studies and found that creatine supplementation does not cause severe GI upset, even when continued for a long duration. 

How to Use Creatine Supplements

Creatine monohydrate is the most effective form of supplemental creatine. Women do not need special forms of creatine; anything that suggests so is a marketing ploy. 

The recommended dosage of creatine supplementation is 3-5 grams of creatine monohydrate per day. Creatine powder is mixed with water. While the data is mixed, post-workout consumption may be more beneficial (and may mitigate any concerns about GI upset). However, due to its cumulative effect, consistent ingestion is more important than exact timing.

Some athletes may choose to follow a creatine loading protocol. This protocol brings your creatine levels up higher over the course of 7 days. The loading protocol requires 0.3 grams of creatine per kilogram of body per day, for 5-7 days, before taking a normal dose. This protocol is most beneficial for runners who want to see quicker benefits, such as if they are approaching a track race. However, regular creatine protocols and loading protocols will both reach equal levels of intramuscular creatine within 28 days. 

Side effects: it is important to note that creatine may cause fluid retention! Disregard minor changes in the scale when using creatine. 

Does Creatine Help Runners?

Creatine is a very safe and effective supplement. For runners, the decision comes down to if they would benefit from creatine. 

Creatine for runners is most beneficial if:

  • You are also strength training
  • You struggle with recovery during an intense training load
  • Your training includes repeated sprint training
  • You are an older athlete

As with any supplement, weigh the benefits and cost of creatine supplementation before you start taking it. Once you start taking it, observe your own responses. If in doubt, consult a sports dietitian about individualized supplementation. 

For more on creatine for runners, listen to episode 7 of the Tread Lightly podcast! We discuss popular supplements for runners, including creatine for runners.

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1 Response

  1. Your feedback is greatly appreciated! The article indeed delves into a crucial question for runners. Exploring the potential advantages of creatine supplementation can be a valuable resource for maximizing performance. Thank you for acknowledging the illumination this topic provides!

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