Should Football Players Take Creatine?

Creatine is one of the most researched, most proven supplements in existence, but what can it do specifically for football players?

American football is an incredibly systemized sport that has data on nearly every physical attribute required to play the sport optimally for any given position. Height, weight, endurance, sprint times, body fat percentage, limb length, mobility, instincts, acceleration—you name it, football has data on it and a requirement that you need to meet if you want to move on to the next level.

The brutal reality here is the fact that some coaches may not even look at you if you don't meet one or more of these data points, regardless of how talented you are.

Having said this, the big glaring hole currently in the football establishment is the absence of providing the mainstream demographics of high school, college and professional athletes with real, science-based recommendations and truths behind the nutritional component of football performance. Although they mean well, the reality of the matter is that 99% of all coaches do not properly understand the science behind nutrition and just simply don't have the time to go through all the data. These are normal people with their own schedules after all, and guys like me have an entire schedule filled out with nutritional research alone.

This can leave parents and athletes confused about:

  • What's good advice, and what isn't?
  • What's good for performance, and what's not?
  • What's safe for me/my kid, and what's not?

Although we could discuss the importance of nutrition as it relates to football-specific performance and football training all day, I want to take you on a journey through the research and efficacy behind the popular supplement creatine and how it fits in with football performance.

Football Creatine

Creatine is one of the most researched, most proven supplements in existence. Even the most critical of science authorities cannot claim creatine is an ineffective supplement for athletes. For those of you who don't know, creatine is already naturally made in the body. We use our own creatine stores on a daily basis to drive anaerobic movement. It is also available through food, primarily red meats and some seafood.

Creatine works through various different mechanisms. It increases the amount of creatine that you have in your muscle tissue already; thus driving longer, stronger bouts of high-intensity effort. It acts as a pH buffer inside the muscle which helps recycle energy to be used again at the cellular level. Another function of creatine that many seem to be unfamiliar with is its consistent ability to boost testosterone levels in clinical trials. Men between the ages of 18-35 consistently see elevated testosterone levels when regularly supplementing with creatine. In one of my favorite examples in this area, creatine loading for seven days resulted in a 15% increase in testosterone and a 4.6% improvement in 50-meter swimming sprint times in male amateur athletes (D.Sheikholeslami Vatani, 2011).

As it stands today, creatine has been positively and repeatedly demonstrated to improve strength, power output and testosterone levels, increase lean mass, improve anaerobic running capacity, and improve your resistance to fatigue. I would say that is very powerfully connected to everything football players are doing both on and off the field to become better athletes. It also doesn't hurt there have been well over 200 studies demonstrating positive effects with creatine.

After the explanation, the question always follows:

"What type of creatine should I go with? There are so many on the market."

The supplement industry is always trying to find new ways to market new products and put a higher price tag on it. They keep making new kinds of creatine to try and trump the old-school and already-proven creatine monohydrate; are these new ones actually worth it?

Short answer, no.

Creatine monohydrate is by far the most extensively studied form of creatine. It is the old standby that has been around for decades. Many other forms have hit the market over the years claiming to have superiority over monohydrate—this usually comes complete with extreme hype and some humorous promises. They come, make quick money, and then they go. Only to be replaced by another, new and equally silly creatine option.

Let's have a look at the data so you can see why I have such a strong opinion here.

In recent years, in a crossover design Jager et al compared plasma concentration curves over an 8-hour period between creatine pyruvate, creatine monohydrate and tri-creatine citrate. In the end, investigators concluded the very small plasma differences would not contribute to any additional benefit over creatine monohydrate due to creatine monohydrates near 100% bioavailability in oral form. So there goes creatine pyruvate and tri-creatine citrate.

Moving on, presentations at the ISSN even further shut down newer expensive creatines being not worth any extra money with Tallon and Child demonstrating Kre-Alkalyn (mainly marketed as its ability to remain alkaline and not break down in the stomach) has no further resistance to acid breakdown and did not reduce the rate of creatine to creatinine conversion compared to the much cheaper and equally effective creatine monohydrate. Those same researchers also showed creatine-ethyl-ester (CEE) rapidly degrades in the stomach, even more so than creatine monohydrate which remained almost entirely unaffected. See ya later Kre-Alkalyn and CEE.

The takeaway here for you is that this is just a few of the many examples where the supplement industry tries to change something that is already good for no reason. You don't need to fix something that isn't broken. Creatine monohydrate is still the king and it is also massively cheaper than all of the above.

Additionally, when you think about it from a performance-based standpoint, why are there even different creatines on the market anyways?

From a physiology perspective, it doesn't actually make any sense.

Regardless of how expensive your creatine is, there is always going to be a limit to total intramuscular creatine saturation anyways (160mmol/kg dry weight). Meaning, no matter what creatine you take, you're going to hit a ceiling effect of performance enhancement once you fill up your creatine stores.

There are strategies such as combining it with carbohydrates to increase speed of saturation, but still at the end of the day you won't increase the capacity at which it can be stored, so you're not getting any additional benefit once intramuscular storage has been met.

The loading phase is absolutely a secondary concern unless you are under some sort of athletic time restriction. For example, if you have never taken creatine before and you're in the middle of your offseason, and football camps are coming up soon. In that case, it makes sense. Get on it so you can get the benefits from it sooner than later.

Athletes will often combine creatine with carbohydrates, or load with 20g creatine monohydrate per day for 5-7 days and then maintain with 3-5g per day afterward. Following protocols like this there have been measures of 1-2kg increases in lean mass seen in the first 4-28 days. But on the other hand, the exact same degrees of saturation can be met with 2-3g per day for 30 days.

So, if maximal saturation can be met with the cheapest and most proven creatine on the market, why are supplement companies continuing to pump out new types?

The search for the "ultimate creatine" doesn't make a whole lot of logical sense. Once your stores are filled, they are filled. Period.

To drive the point home, the intramuscular saturation of creatine in a football player's muscles will absolutely improve his/her performance both on and off the field. It will support the sport-specific energy system needed to powerfully execute explosive tackles, throws, blocks, sprints, jumps; you name it. If you're a football player playing the game the way it should be played, creatine will support your game on the field because it supports the necessary energy systems required for optimal football performance.

But, it will also support your game off the field as well.

It is going to bring more strength and power to your weight training sessions and skill work training, which in turn will allow you to emit a greater power and strength output, which translates directly to improving your game out on the field. Strength and power play massive roles in running top speed, acceleration, agility, high velocity direction change and explosiveness. Provided you are following a properly structured football training system, the addition of creatine will make you a better football player by default as you will have improved your training quality.

"Ok I get it," you say. "Creatine helps football players and creatine monohydrate is the best type to take. What the heck should I do though?"

As far as protocol goes, if you're under a time constraint, supplementing with 20g for 5-7 days and then dropping it down to 3-5g per day for maintenance is a good route to take.

If time is of no issue, simply supplementing with 2-3g per day for 30 days will yield the same intramuscular storage as the above strategy.

Of course, whenever taking creatine, maintaining high levels of hydration is optimal as it pulls water into muscle tissue which can create higher levels of dehydration. Although this is nothing major at all, some slight water storage will only require modest increases in water intake. You won't have to carry around a gallon jug of water, although you may look hard-core if you do. Keep the water coming in, and you'll be good to go.

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