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Creatine does more than add muscle

Published October 13. 2012 09:01AM

Time to tell you about a workout supplement that worked too well. Again.

October is when serious cyclists get serious in the weight room, but last October I was feeling so beat up and weak that I couldn't imagine lifting with any intensity.

The beat-up feeling came from the recurring aches in my neck and traps I attributed to a bicycle crash more than 10 years ago and the ongoing discomfort in my right hip, which came from the titanium rods inserted after I fractured my femur in April of 2009. The weakness resulted from weight loss in an attempt to improve my power-to-weight ratio that had failed miserably. Not only didn't I climb any better five pounds lighter, but I was also less powerful on flat roads.

While I was resigned to living with the body aches, I wanted to use last off-season to regain the lost weight and get more power to the pedals.

The first step was hitting the weights, but mentally I was in a bad place. I had not won a race in 2011, something that hadn't happened since the first year I began racing in earnest in 1988, and I couldn't help but feel that at age 51 my cycling was beginning to decline simply because of my age.

Because of all this, I decided to try something that had worked before. I began taking creatine monohydrate, a supplement that study after study has shown to add muscle mass and improve strength.

The loading phase takes a week, but even before that I was lifting significantly more weight than I had during the season. By mid-November, I had regained the five pounds and was handling more weight than I had since I fractured my elbow in 2001. Better still, all those recurring aches in my neck and traps disappeared.

But all those good feelings only produced average results in the early racing season and my hip was still too painful at times, so I took a break from racing to train harder and determine what went wrong. I'm not a big believer in constantly monitoring my weight--I let the mirror be my guide--but I stepped on my brother's scale during one visit in early July and couldn't believe my eyes.

I was nearly 10 pounds heavier than last July. While the mirror still reflected clearly defined abs proving the weight gain was not body fat, creatine supplementation had once again worked too well for me.

I knew if I stopped taking maintenance dose of the 5 milligrams twice a day, I would quickly lose muscle mass, but I believed the creatine had stopped those body aches, and I didn't want those to return. Then I uncovered research that found endurance athletes could still retain many of the benefits of creatine supplementation without the added muscle gain by reducing the dose to 3 milligrams once per day.

I did so and lost 5 pounds quickly without regaining the aches. I started racing again a few weeks after that, and things went better than I could've ever imagined.

I won the first four races after the layoff and the creatine experiment.

Now I had been training devilishly hard in June and July, but hard training had never really improved the power I transferred to the pedals to this extent.

While I know that most readers don't race bicycles, most do work out. And most work out to feel good.

Supplementing your diet with creatine--even if you're not looking to add huge amounts of muscle mass--certainly seems to improve physical health. But the new big news about creatine's feel-good quality is that it also helps mental health.

A study published by the American Journal of Psychiatry online this August found that women who were suffering from serious depression got relief from antidepressant medicine twice as fast when they also used 5 milligrams of creatine daily.

How important is this discovery?

Doctor Perry Renshaw, professor of psychiatry at University of Utah Medical School called it the "Holy Grail of treating depression."

That's because antidepressants generally take up to 6 weeks to start working, yet research indicates the rate of success treatment decreases the longer that it takes treatment to work.

The potential economic benefit to this finding is staggering. According to a Medical News Today article on aforementioned study, just one state, Utah, paid an estimated $214 million in depression-related Medicaid and disability insurance in just one year, 2008. The lost productivity from depression in that state that year was judged to be $1.3 billion.

Although some concern was raised about kidney damage from the long-term use of creatine when the supplement became popular about 18 years ago, that now appears to be only a concern if you are taking certain prescribed kidney medications. Normally, overdoing creatine supplementation creates no long-term side effects, but may result in diarrhea and muscle cramping.

Prudent use of the supplement, however, has been shown to significantly help vegetarians (since naturally occurring creatine is found in meat), as well as people suffering from an eye disorder called gyrate atrophy of the choroid retina and congestive heart failure. It also seems to help patients recovery from heart surgery as well.

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