By Kevin Kolodziejski
Why are you a cyclist as opposed to, let’s say, a Civil War re-enactor? Because the only time for wool (and it better be merino) is the dead of winter? Because you prefer to carry your water in a cage affixed to your bike than in a canteen strapped to your belt? Because you’d rather pedal on a sunny Saturday morning than lie prone on a former battlefield playing the role of a fallen soldier?
It could be all that, but it’s definitely one thing more.
You love the cycling lifestyle.
How the thought of a weekend ride gets you to bed on time and up ahead of the alarm. How the kibitzing at the coffee shop in the middle of a Saturday sufferfest gets your mind right for the masochism still to come.
And whether you’re riding to prep for racing or to keep up with the studs on the local training rides, the goal is the same: to dig a little bit deeper, to get a little bit better.
Which is why you should consider using creatine monohydrate, the Swiss Army knife of exercise supplements. Just about every cyclist can benefit from using it in some way.
You probably associate creatine supplementation with football, weightlifting, bodybuilding, track cycling, or any primarily anaerobic sport where adding muscle and strength helps — and rightly so. It’s been used this way since the 1990s and with such success that by 2007 the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) reviewed all available research and declared “creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes in terms of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training.”
This pronouncement was based on studies such as the 2003 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that showed individuals combining resistance training with creatine ingestion produced on average 8 percent more absolute, one-repetition power and 14 percent more multiple-repetition endurance strength than a placebo group.
So for cyclists who primarily lift weights in the offseason to regain the muscle mass sucked from them by heavy summer mileage, a one-week loading phase, where 5 grams are used four or five times a day, will accrue muscle mass quickly. In one study sports nutritionist John Parrillo cites in “Parrillo Performance Nutrition Bulletin #161,” recruited subjects who were already weightlifters and followed the aforementioned procedure gained an average of 3 pounds during the loading phase.
But in the same way you’re not a Civil-War re-enactor, you’re not a weightlifter or an American Ninja Warrior, either. Adding weight, even “good” weight, scares many cyclists, yet lighter is not always better. Especially as you reach middle age. Then adding muscle mass negates or delays sarcopenia, the age-related muscle wasting that generally begins in your 30s and can diminish your lean-muscle mass up to 8 percent in that decade. By age 45, the rate usually increases to 1 percent per year and accelerates more so in your 60s.
This loss of muscle mass also means a loss of speed and power.
But a review published in the 2019 issue of Biomolecules determined that taking creatine along with lifting weights “may be an effective dietary strategy to combat age-related muscle atrophy and sarcopenia” by “increasing capacity for higher intensity exercise, and/or by enhancing post-exercise recovery and adaptation.”
Which leads us to the $64,000 question that only takes about $20 to answer: Would taking creatine do more for you than add or maintain muscle mass? Would it also improve your rides?
Admittedly, the research is uneven at best. A 2013 study in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, however, found that cyclists who used 20 grams of creatine monohydrate a day ( 4 separate 5-gram doses) for 6 days pedaled with more power and staved off fatigue better than they did prior to creatine supplementation. A 2016 study performed by Australian Catholic University and Australian Institute of Sport that used interspersed efforts over a 120 km ride to give the research a road-race feel found that those who had used creatine rather than a placebo produced more power in the final 4 km.
Moreover, an update published by the ISSN in 2012 indicates that creatine supplementation has positive effects on aerobic-endurance efforts inside rides lasting more than 150 seconds and creates “favorable physiological adaptations” that seem to increase plasma volume as well as glycogen storage and possibly even reduce oxygen consumption during “sub maximal” cycling.
Since the ISSN has long held “there is no scientific evidence that the short-term or long-term use of creatine monohydrate has any detrimental effects on otherwise healthy individuals,” you really are risking little by experimenting with it —other than the double sawbucks it takes to purchase about a pound of the stuff.