Magical Ways to Get in Shape Faster Are Unsafe: Creatine
The commercials that claim fitness is just an easy phone call and purchase away are ironically exploiting the singular characteristic that keeps us out of shape: laziness. I have been involved in competitive running for 9 consecutive years, and I have never seen a sustainable method of getting in shape without putting out the effort to get there. I have, however, seen a number of very bad methods of trying to get ahead of the game, and the implications of their results are detailed below.
When I started running, I also joined a weight training class to try and bulk up some. I was a 115 pound distance athlete, and I was a virtual fairy compared to the majority of the guys in the weight room, which were usually football players between 180 and 300 pounds. Yet, I began to notice a pattern, as I kept close watch on the 1-repetition max (the most weight that you can lift in one attempt for various exercises) of a number of the players. Some of them stayed steady and improved slowly, while some of the others improved at a similar rate and then jumped up at random points during the semester. After hanging around the weight room for enough time, I eventually began to discover that these football players and other athletes were not improving their strength naturally. A plethora of overheard conversations eventually made me understand that these men were getting stronger by taking creatine.
Creatine is a natural compund utilized in the body's energy cycle (it is linked to the ATP energy process). It can be metabolized from meats, and it is utilized by the body for explosive, high-intensity energy movements. Recently, athletes have begun to use it to increase their performance. Understandably, none of the major athletic organizations, including the NCAA or the IOC (the International Olympic Committee, the governing body of the Olympics) have banned its use, because it is a natural compound, and because the health effects or detriments are not proven.
There are several reasons to use caution when employing creatine to improve your fitness level. First, creatine is part of the health supplement community and is not regulated by the FDA, which means it can contain anything or just calories and protein (this is probably the biggest concern for NCAA athletes that need to be drug-tested with regularity). Second, the long-term health effects are hotly debated (some claim it does nothing, while many others state that it can harm the liver and kidneys, or even cause your energy level to fall apart when you come off of creatine). Third, creatine is only for activities that are characterized by short bursts of high-intensity exercise, which means it is extremely bad for aerobic athletes (chemically, creatine rarely fits into the aerobic energy equation except for the anaerobic portions of exercise). Fourth, studies have shown that an increasingly high ratio of creatine is passed through the urine with higher doses, suggesting that athletes attempting to capitalize on this product are throwing their money down the toilet in more ways than one.
When contemplating using various products to increase your strength or speed, you should ask yourself: do you really want to be the guinea pig human tester that determines whether or not these products are safe for human consumption? In the end, the greatest long-term rewards of exercise come from putting the workouts in, and this dedication is also the best thing for your body. Medical science has proven that drastic and rapid changes are always hard on your body, and while creatine's health effects have not been proven as yet, it is probably not a coincidence that every recent user of creatine I met in the highly physical environment of Basic Training frequently ran hotter than normal and found themselves dangerously dehydrated.