Creatine: Benefits and Drawbacks

By Matt Klem

In high school athletics, the use of creatine has been a controversial topic, often leaving athletes and parents with questions regarding the potential benefits and consequences that it can have on athletic performance. However, there is emerging evidence indicating that if used in conjunction with a balanced diet and a consistent exercise plan, creatine can positively influence athletic and cognitive performance in athletes. Although, it is important to consider the drawbacks to using the supplement prior to incorporating it into a training regime. 

Commonly, the benefits of creatine include increased muscle strength, injury prevention, and possible cognitive benefits. At its most basic level, creatine is an amino acid found in the body, specifically in both muscles and in the brain. It is used as an energy source, however, the amounts naturally found in the body are relatively low. This is one of the reasons that some people take creatine supplements – to increase their energy reserves.

Research has shown improved effects on muscular power output that creatine supplementation can have. A group of handball players – who require strength, explosiveness, and speed for their sport – were given the supplement and then tested their one rep max for squat and bench press. They also tested their performance during repeated sprints to determine how many they could do before fatigue set in. During both cases, the athletes given creatine showed significant improvements while testing their squat and bench and were able to reduce rates of fatigue while sprinting. Not only is creatine linked to improved muscular power output while reducing fatigue, it is also associated with decreasing the risk of injury.

Athletes are constantly balancing training, rest, and recovery. Sometimes, when there is an imbalance in these phases injury can occur. Research on creatine has shown that the supplement can mitigate some of the risks that over-training can pose for athletes. One study measured the risk of dehydration and cramping among participants during intense exercise. Half of the participants were given a creatine supplement prior to exercising and the other half were not. Following the exercises, participants that took creatine showed a decreased risk of cramping and dehydration.

Aside from its physiological benefits of improving muscular power, reducing fatigue, and decreasing risk of injury, research has explored the benefits creatine can have on cognitive function. In one particular study, the use of creatine showed an increase in participants’ short-term memory and reasoning abilities. However, the implications of creatine’s cognitive benefits in the general public still need to be further examined. Overall, research supports creatine’s role in increasing muscular power, preventing injury, and as a potential cognitive aid in the elderly. It should be noted that creatine supplements also come with some drawbacks.

One drawback of using creatine as a supplement is its financial cost. Creatine monohydrate – the consumable powder form of creatine – is frequently purchased as a supplement and its price may vary by brand. On average, consumers can spend upwards of $130 a year on creatine supplements. Depending on where it is purchased and what brand, prices may vary, but on average 1000g sells for $25. This is not a large sum but over time the total can add up to several hundred dollars annually. 

A less obvious – but more significant downside of creatine – is the impact on an individual’s habits surrounding their health and wellness. Taking any supplement can lead to users over relying on it to meet their nutritional and fitness goals. A common concern is that when people begin using creatine, they will forgo building up their health and body through healthy habits and in turn, become dependent on the supplement. Athletes should emphasize constructing a consistent and balanced exercise and diet plan to achieve their goals. Without the basic building blocks such as a balanced diet and exercise routine, creatine can become a crutch rather than a beneficial supplement.

Creatine comes with its risks and rewards, and research continues to illuminate the extent of the supplement’s effects on consumers, specifically high school athletes. It is evident that athletes can benefit from creatine due to its ability to increase muscular power output while decreasing fatigue and the risk of injury. Additionally, there is evidence of creatine’s cognitive impact such as improving short term memory, but further investigation is still needed.

Incorporating creatine supplements also comes with possible drawbacks such as its financial cost and its potential to negatively influence nutrition and exercise habits.

The future of high school athletics and the role creatine plays in them continues to evolve as more research comes out on the supplement’s safety and efficacy.