Not enough data to support timing recommendations for creatine ingestion, study says

By Hank Schultz contact

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©Getty Images - CandyRetriever
©Getty Images - CandyRetriever

Related tags: Creatine supplementation

Trying to game the system by taking creatine at certain well defined times might be a forlorn hope, according to a new study.

The new paper was the work of a who’s who in creatine research, a team that was led by Darren G Candow, PhD, of the University of Regina in Saskatchewan, Abbie Smith Ryan, PhD of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Eric S Rawson at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, PA among others. The review was published in the journal Frontiers in Sports and Active Living.

The title of the review give a good overview of the authors’ intent: “Creatine O'Clock: Does Timing of Ingestion Really Influence Muscle Mass and Performance?”

Timing: the secret sauce

Almost since the dawn of language, when humans could share information about eating, questions have been raised about whether eating or drinking things at specific times could have particular benefits.  Drinking a glass of milk shortly before  bedtime is one common example.

In the realm of sports nutrition, the timing of supplementation quickly became part of the secret sauce to obtain the greatest benefits.  This idea has been supported to some degree.  Getting a dose of protein within 45 minutes or so of the finish of a challenging workout has been short to make a measurable different in muscle protein synthesis, for example.

But what about creatine?  Can this nutrient’s effects be supercharged by delivering it during some chronological sweet spot?

“Creatine supplementation during a resistance training program has been consistently shown to increase measures of muscle mass and performance compared to resistance training alone. Based on the increase in skeletal muscle hyperemia and creatine transport kinetics in response to muscle contractions, speculation exists that ingesting creatine supplementation in close proximity to resistance training sessions may be a strategy to further augment muscle mass and performance over time,”​ the authors wrote.

Physiological arguments in favor of timing

What are the possible mechanism of action that would argue in favor of taking creatine shortly after a hard workout?  One is that the muscle cells are engorged with blood, meaning any nutrients in the blood will be delivered at a fast rate. But after ingesting the recommended 5 gram dose of creatine monohydrate, blood levels don’t peak for two hours, well after the muscles and blood flow has returned to a resting state.

So, then, why not take the creatine at a specific time before the workout?  That might make sense, the authors said, while noting that the body shunts blood away from the intestines during hard exercise, so creatine that is being digested might be not absorbed as quickly, delaying the peak concentration even beyond the 2-hour window.

Another argument in favor of the timing idea relates to how exercise affects the activity of the so-called sodium-potassium pump, an enzyme which is part of the ATP pathway.  The enzyme is a transport mechanism located in the cell wall, and as it revs up, more creatine could get into the cell, assuming a sufficient supply is already in the blood.  So it’s another potential feather in the pre working ingestion cap.

Lots of creatine research; little about timing

So what does the research show?  Unfortunately, not enough to draw firm conclusions. While there is a lot of creatine research from which to choose, only four studies with a high enough design quality could be found that bear specifically on this subject.  They compared taking creatine shortly before and shortly after resistance exercise but in only one case added a third group to measure a placebo effect.  And all of the studies showed small effects at most in terms of the timing issue.

The authors concluded that while it’s clear that creatine supplementation promotes muscle growth and strength as part of a training program, they can’t say with confidence whether that effect could be amplified with a timing protocol.

“Unfortunately, the limited number of studies that have been performed have potential methodological limitations (primarily the lack of a placebo control) eliminating the ability to determine when the optimal time (if any) is to consume creatine to maximize muscle and performance gains. To truly determine whether there is an optimal time, in relation to training, to consume creatine, future research is required to directly compare the effects of creatine supplementation several hours before, immediately before, intra-workout, immediately after, and several hours after training sessions,”​ the authors concluded.

Source:Frontiers in Sports and Active Living
20 May 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fspor.2022.893714
Creatine O'Clock: Does Timing of Ingestion Really Influence Muscle Mass and Performance?
Authors: Candow DG, et. al.

Related topics: Research, Sports nutrition

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