When and How Do I Take Creatine Effectively to Improve Workout Performance?

Looking for ways to get better results for your workout? Many gym-goers take dietary supplements to help boost their performance.

Among the most popular natural supplements is creatine, which is most commonly used for improving exercise performance and building muscle mass.

But are food supplements safe? And how do I take creatine to improve my workout results?

What is Creatine?

Creatine is a chemical that is found in the body, mostly in muscles but also in the brain. It's also found in foods like red meat and seafood but can also be produced in a lab.

Creatine helps produce the energy that muscles need to work. There is some science that supports the use of creatine for enhancing the athletic performance of young, healthy people during brief, high intensity activity.

A majority of sports nutrition supplements in the U.S. contain creatine and its use is permitted by the International Olympic Committee, National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and professional sports, says MedlinePlus, a website of the U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Who Can Take Creatine?

Speaking to Newsweek, Dr. Edward Laskowski, a professor of physical medicine, rehabilitation and orthopedics at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and former co-director of Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine, said oral creatine may help an athlete improve their performance in certain areas, such as reaching a faster sprint speed or increasing strength.

Creatine is often used for high intensity interval training to boost rapid recovery during training and competition, he said.

In addition to strength and sprint performance, the use of creatine may increase lean muscle mass and anaerobic power in some athletes, Roxana Ehsani (RoxanaEhsani.com), a board certified sports dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Newsweek.

Among the athletes who may benefit from taking creatine include football players, powerlifters, sprinters, field competitors and bodybuilders. Creatine usage is not recommended for anyone below the age of 18, the sports dietitian said.

A man lifting weights at a gym.
A man lifting weights at a gym in January 2019. Among the athletes who may benefit from taking creatine include powerlifters. SIMON MAINA/AFP via Getty Images)

Is Creatine Safe?

Laskowski said when taken orally at the appropriate doses, creatine is "generally considered safe."

But there isn't enough reliable information to know whether creatine is safe when applied to the skin, which may cause side effects such as redness and itching, according to MedlinePlus.

Creatine is "likely safe" for most people when taken for up to 18 months. Daily doses of up to 25 grams daily for up to two weeks have been safely used, while lower doses of around four or five grams daily for up to 18 months have also been safely used, according to MedlinePlus.

The supplement is "possibly safe" when taken by mouth on a long-term basis. Daily doses of up to 10 grams for up to five years have been safely used.

However, the problem with creatine (and many other supplements) is that they have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety, efficacy or purity, Laskowski explained.

Unlike prescription and over-the-counter drugs, the FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before the products are marketed, the federal body says.

Since there are no regulated manufacturing standards, supplement products may "vary greatly in ingredient content and quality control," and many have also "not been subject to rigorous scientific scrutiny," Laskowski warned.

Supplement products at a store in Sydney.
Supplement products on shelves seen at Mr Vitamins, a chain of supplement outlets in Sydney, Australia. Creatine is one of the most popular natural supplements. Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images

How Should I Take Creatine to Improve My Workout?

Athletes can take 20 to 25 grams of creatine a day for five to six days followed by five grams a day, recommended Ehsani.

"This amount has been shown to increase creatine levels in the muscle by 20 percent, but it doesn't work for everyone," the sports dietitian noted.

"Some people's bodies don't respond to creatine, while some do," and one indicator that shows your body is responding is weight gain, she said.

Women doing HIIT routine at the gym.
Three gym-goers doing with high intensity interval training (HIIT) routine. iStock/Getty Images Plus

Larger doses of over 30 grams daily for five days may cause gastrointestinal upset, such as diarrhea, nausea and stomach cramping in some people.

"However, taking creatine alone can't help gain muscles, you have to pair it with a weight training program as well," Ehsani said.

Laskowski said there are varying dose patterns but typical schedule entails a "loading dose" of up to 20 grams taken orally per day for a week, followed by a "maintenance dose," which can be anywhere from two to 10 grams orally per day for up to three or four months.

"As with any supplement, there is no magic bullet to enhance performance, and the basics of clean eating, proper training and dedicated hard work are still the most proven components of athletic success," he said.

MedlinePlus notes that "skeletal muscle will only hold a certain amount of creatine," so adding more won't raise levels any more.

This "saturation point" is usually reached within the first few days of taking a loading dose, the website explains.

A 2012 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition showed that the effects of creatine diminish as the length of time spent exercising increases.

"Even though not all individuals respond similarly to creatine supplementation, it is generally accepted that its supplementation increases creatine storage and promotes a faster regeneration of adenosine triphosphate [ATP, the energy source for cells] between high intensity exercises. These improved outcomes will increase performance and promote greater training adaptations," the study said.

Risks and Warnings for Creatine Use

Laskowski noted creatine has not been well-studied in those who are pregnant. It's unknown whether it can be safely used while breast-feeding.

The supplement could also potentially make kidney disease worse in those who have been diagnosed with it.

Combining caffeine with creatine may reduce the effectiveness of creatine and when the supplement is taken along with high doses of caffeine, it may worsen symptoms in those with Parkinson's disease, Laskowski added.

A person exercising in NYC's Central Park.
A person working out in Central Park on May 28, 2021 in New York City. Noam Galai/Getty Images

MedlinePlus says creatine may also make mania worse in bipolar disorder patients. There have been cases of manic episodes in people with bipolar disorder who took creatine every day for four weeks.

Sports dietitian Ehsani said: "Don't forget you don't necessarily need to supplement; I recommend getting nutrients from food first. Creatine is also found in food sources like meat and fish and naturally produced in our muscles as well.

"Always consult with a sports dietitian before starting any type of supplement. Some supplements may be mixed with other banned or harmful substances, so it's always best to consult with an expert first," she said.

Vegan protein drink powders in Berlin.
Packages of vegan protein drink mix stand on display at a grocery store in Berlin, Germany in February 2018. Creatine is commonly taken to help build muscle mass. Sean Gallup/Getty Images