Creatine is undoubtedly one of the most effective supplements for athletes. It’s among the most well researched supplements, with its ability to increase muscle strength and lean body mass and improve running speed, exercise capacity and training adaptations very well studied . However, the majority of research is done in adult populations, with less research into its use and safety in young athletes. Despite this, it’s an increasingly popular supplement amongst youth athletes, particularly so in teenage boys . So, we answer the questions; do young athletes need creatine and is it safe?
Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid produced by the body and present in muscle cells. It’s made in the liver, pancreas and kidney and is also consumed from various food sources including meat, fish and other animal products. The amount obtained from the diet is fairly minimal though, and vegan and vegetarian athletes may have lower stores than athletes regularly consuming animal products .
Creatine is central to energy production, particularly for short, explosive bouts lasting less than 10 seconds. It plays a key role in the regeneration of ATP (the energy that muscles use for movement), but because stores of creatine in the muscle are limited, they will quickly run out, meaning the muscle will no longer be able to contract . Increasing intake of creatine either through the diet or supplements means that more creating will be stored in the the muscle and therefore more energy can be regenerated quicker. Which ultimately means that the muscle can work at an explosive pace for longer or with more force.
There is much less evidence of how effective creatine supplements might be for youth athletes, with little to no evidence in athletes under the age of 15. However, it has been shown to improve timed performance and dynamic strength in swimmers [3,4] and improved sprinting, dribbling and shooting in footballers [5,6]. But these improvements may not be as big as those seen in adult athletes.
More importantly with these studies, no negative health effects and no stomach discomfort was reported in any of the youth athletes and its safety as a supplement is well established.
One of the biggest concerns and confusions for athletes or parents is the belief that creatine causes kidney or liver damage. However, in healthy populations with no underlying health concerns, this is not the case. Numerous randomised controlled trials (the must robust scientific evidence) found that there were no negative effects on health with short- and long-term supplementation .
The most commonly reported side effect of creatine supplementation is stomach pains and upset. But this is likely dependent on the dose taken, with higher doses associated with more symptoms.
Because water is drawn into the muscle as creatine levels increase, weight gain is not uncommon amongst athletes. However, it's important to understand that this isn’t the same as gaining fat-mass and will likely be reversed if supplementation is stopped, but it's important to consider for athletes where the power to weight ratio is important.
Although there may be benefits to creatine supplementation, this doesn’t necessarily mean that youth athletes should or need to be taking it. Focusing on a well-balanced and nutritious diet should be the number one priority before looking for any ‘quick fixes’ from supplements. Making sure the body is properly fuelled and refuelled for training sessions will provide a much greater improvement to training and performance than simply supplementing with creatine.
Once athletes have their diet and training regime nailed down, then creatine can be used as a safe and effective nutritional strategy for youth athletes who ;
It’s always advised that before taking any form of supplements, youth athletes and parents should both make sure they’re fully educated on the product and should consult with a registered sports nutritionist first. Similarly, any products taken must be recognised by Informed Sport to reduce the risk of consuming contaminated or harmful products.
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Just as your youth athlete will need to fuel well to stay healthy, the same goes for parents too. Ensuring you eat a healthy and balanced diet will help to keep your energy levels high, so you’re better equipped to handle the stress and challenges that life throws at you.