Creatine and Distance Running

By Rick Morris

Creatine and distance running are two terms that are not often used together. The use of creatine supplements as a performance enhancer is not new. Strength and speed athletes have been using it for years to improve their muscle strength, size, speed and power. There is good reason for that. There have been many scientific studies that have proven the ability of creatine to improve muscular strength and power. But, does creatine improve endurance or distance running performance. Many say no – I say yes. A brief review of how creatine works in your body may help understand how creatine supplementation can help you as a distance runner or endurance athlete.

Creatine – What It Is and What It Does

Every movement you make requires energy. Whether you are sprinting 60 meters or batting your eyelashes, every motion uses energy. Your body provides that energy through the use of a substance called ATP (adenosine triphosphate). The energy is released when ATP is split into ADP (adenosine diphosphate) and P (phosphate). Your body has a very limited supply of ATP. You only have enough ATP stored to fuel about 3 to 5 seconds of work. Lucky for us there are a number of ways that your body produces ATP. The quickest and easiest way for your body to produce more ATP is by borrowing a phosphate group from another substance called PCr (phosphocreatine) and combining it with the ADP. ADP + P = ATP. Your body can produce enough energy using this phosphocreatine system for 15 to 20 seconds of intense activity such as sprinting or weight lifting. After about 20 seconds your supply of PCr is gone. Your body can rebuild its supply of PCr using creatine stores, but this takes a brief recovery time of 45 to 60 seconds. That is why you must rest for a brief period after an all out sprint.

Energy for Endurance

So far so good. The phosphocreatine system uses a combination of creatine, PCr and ADP to produce a small amount of ATP to fuel up to 20 seconds of high intensity activity. But how about the energy required for distance running? Endurance events burn a combination of carbohydrates, fats and oxygen to produce energy. When running at the near sprint paces of the 800 meter or mile events, most of your energy is being produced anaerobically or “without oxygen. As the distance of your event increases and your pace decreases you begin to produce more and more energy aerobically or “with oxygen”. The process of producing ATP aerobically uses a combination of glycogen (the storage form of carbohydrates), oxygen and fats. Aerobic energy production requires the assistance of oxygen and fats, but it produces massive amounts of energy. Anaerobic ATP production does not need oxygen to work, but it does not produce as much energy as the aerobic system. Neither the anaerobic glycolysis nor the aerobic system requires any assistance from creatine or PCr.

What The Studies Say

Nearly every scientific study agrees that creatine loading does not improve your performance in endurance events. That stands to reason since you do not use creatine to produce energy during endurance events or distance running. So why do I think that creatine supplementation helps distance runners? The scientific studies do a good job of looking at the direct influence of creatine supplementation on distance runners. They say it does not help and they are correct. If you creatine load before a distance race you will not perform better. In fact, you may perform worse because loading with standard creatine monohydrate tends to cause you to gain weight due to water retention. The extra weight will slow you down. So what the heck am I talking about? If it slows you down how can it help your performance? The answer isn’t in the direct effect of creatine supplementation, it is the indirect effect.

Creatine and Training

Multi-pace training is essential in building your running speed and performance. Running workouts at lactic threshold pace, goal race pace and faster than race pace are essential if you are going to reach your potential as a runner. The higher the quality of these high intensity sessions, the faster and more efficient a runner you will become. Creatine supplementation has been proven to improve the quality of high intensity running. It has been shown to decrease the recovery time needed and increase the number of interval repetitions that you can perform. It is the gains in speed, speed endurance, power and running economy that you obtain during training that improves your performance on race day. You are able to run faster with less effort because you were able to increase the quality of your interval training, speed work and hill training. You gained the strength and power that translates into superior long distance performance.

Creatine and Lactic Threshold

Speed, strength and power are not the only phases of your running that you can improve with creatine supplementation. A recent study conducted by researchers at Texas A&M University showed that creatine supplementation can also decrease the production of lactate following a bout of anaerobic exercise. Lactate is produced by your body at all times. As your running intensity increases, more and more lactate is produced with eventually results in your blood becoming more acidic. This is one of the primary causes of fatigue in 5K and 10K races. The Texas A&M study uses the services of 44 volunteers who performed bouts of high intensity interval training on stationary cycles. The study showed that the group that used a creatine supplement produced less post exercise lactic acid.

The bottom line is that those who say that creatine supplementation has no positive direct effect on distance runners are correct. But you need to look past the direct effect. The higher quality training sessions provided by creatine supplementation can indirectly improve your distance running performance. If you choose to try creatine supplementation use it selectively and according to manufacturers directions. While creatine use appears to be safe, overuse or abuse of any supplement can have adverse or dangerous consequences. Most creatine products require a loading period of a week or more.