Creatine and muscle recovery, a match made in heaven? Think again. A new study shows that creatine, a popular supplement within the body-building and fitness communities, does not help muscles to recover from damage due to exercise.
Released this month in the journal Muscle & Nerve, the study investigates the potential effect of creatine supplementation on muscle recovery after bouts of eccentric exercise, characterized by breaking actions which lengthen muscles.
Creatine, a nitrogen containing compound produced in the liver and kidneys (and also found in red meat and seafood), helps to supply energy to the body’s muscle cells and for decades has been used by athletes, body builders and fitness buffs to increase strength and muscle mass.
Does creatine help with muscle recovery?
While there is scientific evidence to support the claim that creatine supplementation helps to increase performance in anaerobic, power-based activities, the current study finds that specifically concerning muscle recovery, creatine shows no effect.
Fourteen healthy and recreationally active men were given either creatine supplements or a placebo before and then during eight days of exercise designed to induce a moderate amount of muscle damage, similar to that arising during exercise training. Both prior and after the exercise regimen, researchers tested for a range of factors including muscle soreness, muscle thickness, isometric strength and voluntary muscle activation, all of which are associated with muscle stress and subsequent muscle recovery. They found that the creatine supplementation had no added effect on any of the factors connected with muscle recovery.
“These findings do not support the hypothesis that high dose creatine supplementation enhances acute recovery of muscle after a single bout of eccentric exercise in young healthy men,” say the study’s authors.
The study’s authors point to one other study with results contrary to theirs – i.e. it reported positive effects of creatine supplementation on muscle recovery – and suggest that since the other study involved a greater amount of eccentric repetitions than theirs, the muscle damage produced in the two studies may have been of differing amounts, thereby leading to the contrasting results.
Participants in the current study performed exercises for the elbow flexor muscle, completing six sets of eight repetitions. They were then measured for muscle recovery over the 48 hours following the exercise.
Creatine supplementation is seen as a relatively safe practice with minor side effects; in fact, studies have suggested that by increasing muscle mass and strength creatine may have a beneficial effect for those suffering from a range of health ailments such as heart failure, muscular dystrophy and chronic pulmonary disease.
Recently, though, creatine use has come under scrutiny due to its suggested link in the death of Johan Lomu, a former New Zealand All Blacks rugby player who died at the age of 40 from a rare kidney disease. A friend and former teammate of Lomu’s, Joeli Vidiri, who also suffers from the same kidney disease – one which reportedly affects only three in 100,000 people – has suggested that their creatine supplementation during their playing years could be to blame for Lomu’s death.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Vidiri said, “We used to mix it with water and it would puff you up. I can’t remember how much we would take anymore. We took it before we trained and after too.”
But nephrologist Dr. Phillip Kalra says it was likely the case that Lomu’s pre-existing kidney condition caused the problem.
“There is no evidence that creatine hampers kidney function in a healthy patient,” said Kalra. “However, excess creatine use can definitely exacerbate pre-existing kidney conditions.”
What helps with muscle recovery?
So what does help with muscle recovery? Well, the answer is a little boring. Daniel Yetman, writing for Healthline, says you have to look at the usual suspects.
“Despite what you may read on some fitness blogs, there’s no better way to help your muscles recover than by eating healthy foods and getting a good night’s sleep, Yetman says. “Living an overall healthy lifestyle is the most important step you can take to maximize your muscle recovery. No recovery method can make up for poor nutrition and a lack of rest. Many people believe they need expensive supplements to achieve results from their workouts. Although some supplements have benefits, you’re not going to maximize your performance unless you’re already taking care of the basics.”
The author says a high protein diet, plenty of water, sleep, massage, compression garments and sweet cherry juice are some of the recommended ways to recover quickly.
How do pro athletes recover?
Men’s Health recently talked to five elite athletes about how they recover and got some interesting responses, showing that there is not just one way to recover from a workout and that different sports require different approaches.
“Recovery starts as soon as you finish your session,” said 1500 metre racer Charlie Grice. “For me, [that includes] getting in a protein shake or something. As soon as I finish a hard training session, I get something in within half an hour,” he says. “There’s a 30-minute window to start the recovery, but hydrating through the session too, with a gel or something similar. You’ve got to figure out what works for you.”
How do NFL players recover?
Brett Fischer, founder of the Fischer Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, deals with some of the most beat up athletes on the planet. After all, playing NFL football is akin to being in a car crash every week. So the recovery method used by Fischer are a little more advanced.
As a medical professional that trains and treats many NFL players, getting the players back onto the field quickly and safely is a demanding endeavor. Obviously, there are some well known and proven methods of recovery, such as massage, ice baths, electrical stimulation and proper sleep and nutrition to name a few.”
Fischer says cupping, Vasopneumatic devices (devices that cause pulsing compression to your limbs), acupuncture, cryotherapy (cold tub immersions), ozone therapy, oxygen tents and underwater treadmills are among the most popular recovery methods in the National Football League right now.
Sports Illustrated recently followed around four NFL players and found all of them take an active part in their recovery, sometime waking up as early as 4:30 am on off days to assess the damage done to them/
“Mondays, for any NFL player, are the equal and opposite reaction to what takes place on Sunday. For every collision there’s a chiropractor or an acupuncturist. For every sore limb there’s a yoga mat or stretching exercise. For every concussion there’s a dimmed light somewhere, to prevent the headaches. “The first thing I do on Monday morning is take stock,” said Steelers tackle Ryan Harris. “You add up the bruises—which ones are new, which ones are worse. This one’s from a block that helped score a touchdown. This one’s from the helmet that landed on my hammy.” This is the story of four NFL players. But it’s also the story of practically every nonkicker in the league. More than 1,300 grown men feel this way every Monday.
How do weightlifters recover from a workout?
One expert says that although focusing on recovery may be “boring” it is as much a part of success as lifting the weight itself. Greg Everett, the owner of Catalyst Athletics, is the coach of the USA Weightlifting National Champion team Catalyst Athletics, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports. He says sleep is the most important rest day activity.
“Both quantity and quality are important,” Everett says. “Unfortunately, neither can be achieved by a given athlete automatically. To improve quantity, the first step is structuring the day in such a way that a certain number of hours of sleep are possible. This scheduling should be of the same priority as the training schedule. Possibly the most effective behavior for encouraging better sleep is maintaining a consistent schedule. If the body sleeps and rises at the same time every day, it will be more inclined to continue doing so. This of course can be very difficult with the obligations of work, family and friends, but some reasonable attempt should be made to at least minimize the variation.”
But Everett says there are some overlooked ways to recover, including getting outside and managing stress through activities such as meditation.
Arnold Schwarzenegger on recovery
The greatest-ever bodybuilder has an interesting take on recovery.
“Everyone has a problem with time,” he says. “But…the day is twenty-four hours. And we sleep six. Now I know there are some out there that whoah. I need eight. But I say, just sleep a little faster.