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Slimy green stuff

Natural anabolic agent... legal and safe alternative to steroids... holy grail.... snake-oil... which of these is creatine?


Photo by ILM. - � 2003 Universal Studios.
One of my favourite comic strips as a kid was Popeye. It struck me as perfectly wonderful that he was able to squeeze such superhuman strength from a can of spinach. (Question to marketers: Is there canned spinach out there anywhere?).

I, like most weekend warriors, have been on a constant search for my own version of spinach (perhaps not as green and slimy as Popeye�s) ever since. Not necessarily to win the hand of my own Olive Oyl, you understand, although that would have been a bonus, before I found her. But certainly to give me the edge when fatigue sets in, to carry me boldly where no wimp has gone before.

That�s the essence of all these snake-oil things we pour into ourselves in search of the better performance. Dram, draught, drink� they all come before effort in the alphabet. It�s only natural to try them before training. And if I could find some potion that unquestionably makes everyone a better athlete, I�d be selling it from my own website rather than yakking about it on this one.

So, when I saw rugby star Bobby Skinstad getting visibly bigger and quicker before the adoring eyes of my daughters, I thought the ultimate snake-oil had been discovered. After all, even my own health club is selling creatine.

It was the tizzy the press got itself into over swimming star Penny Heyns� admitted use of the stuff which made me probe a little deeper. Phrases like �better than steroids� and �without the side-effects� made me prick up my ears.

Tim Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town, and head of South Africa�s Sports Science Institute, made two points which need to be digested before anyone rushes off and tries to nosh some creatine.

Firstly, says Noakes, you need to know creatine will make you a bit bulkier, a bit stronger, and able to do a bit more exercise. What�s a bit? About one percent, says Noakes. �Look at it this way: If you�re an 80-kilogram weakling to start off with, you�ll end up being an 81-kilogram weakling after taking creatine.�

Secondly, says Noakes � and this follows on what he has to say firstly � you have to earn the right to take creatine. �When you�re Jacques Kallis, and one of the best all-round cricketers in the world, working out using creatine is going to make enough of a difference to be significant. If he�s one percent faster, you better have your batting helmet on!�

There�s a hint of what really made a difference in all those stories about creatine use in what Noakes has to say.

Working out is an important part of what made the creatine users better performers. Says Noakes: �We can�t exclude the possibility that Penny Heyns and Jacques Kallis got better because they used creatine. But, with training, they earned the right to use it.�

Where does it come from?
The supplement you buy is a synthetic version of an amino acid found naturally in our bodies, particularly the skeletal muscles. About half of what we require daily is manufactured in the body, and the remaining daily requirement has to be met by diet. A typical dietary intake supplies one to two grams of creatine per day, from meat, eggs and fish.

How it works
Most significantly, boosting the body�s creatine stores results in less dependence on the body�s normal system to regenerate the primary source of energy, adenosine triphosphate (ATP � look it up!), which results in a lesser buildup of lactate, the result of that normal system. Increased creatine stores may also stimulate the rate of the body�s own resynthesis of its own creatine supply What this all means is that in activities where explosive power or repeated bursts of energy are needed, the athlete�s recovery will be enhanced and less fatigue experienced.

Just bear in mind that for every �Creatine helps me train harder, and I haven�t had any side effects� testimonial you�ll read, there is one which will run counter to it. And I�m not talking about the one I read which said, �When I mixed creatine with grape juice, it fermented and turned into wine.�

The stuff is everywhere. There are over 1800 creatine shopping listings on Yahoo! Shopping. And it�s not cheap.

What gave me pause � besides the fact that it�s not spinach � was the consistent warning I came across in my research. It was best put by Shelly Meltzer, a dietician with the Sports Science Institute: �There has not been enough research done with creatine. However, there is anecdotal evidence suggesting it causes renal problems amongst younger users. Other anecdotes report muscle strains or pulls and muscle cramps, especially if training in the heat, and water retention.�

Part of me still looks for that magic potion. I go though articles, hoping to discover something, previously unknown, that will transform me. While I wait for it to be discovered, I think it might be a good idea to train.

So, on reflection, my suggestion is to avoid creatine. It really is just so much spinach. –Mail & Guardian




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