Creatine for Swimmers: Should You Take It?

When it comes to enhancing athletic performance, creatine has been a popular choice in the world of supplements. You may be wondering whether this substance can also help swimmers reach their full potential as well.

Creatine provides numerous benefits to swimmers like improved muscle strength, sprint performance, and endurance, all of which are crucial for swimming. Additionally, it aids in muscle recovery after intense swimming sessions. However, it has some potential side effects like weight gain and water retention. Creatine is generally considered safe to use.

In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of creatine use for swimmers, so you can make an informed decision for your training regimen.

The Science of Creatine

Amino Acids and Composition

Creatine is a naturally occurring compound made up of three amino acids: arginine, glycine, and methionine. Your body synthesizes creatine in the liver, kidney, and pancreas, and approximately 95% of it is stored in your muscles as phosphocreatine. You can also obtain creatine through your diet, primarily from animal protein sources like meat and fish.

Phosphocreatine and ATP

Phosphocreatine plays a crucial role in your muscles’ energy production system. It acts as an immediate energy reserve, helping to quickly regenerate adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is considered the primary energy carrier within your body.

During intense, short-duration activities like swimming, your ATP stores get depleted rapidly, making phosphocreatine essential in maintaining energy levels.

Muscle Energy and Recovery

When you supplement with creatine, you increase your phosphocreatine stores, allowing your muscles to produce more ATP during high-intensity exercise. This leads to better performance, increased strength, and faster recovery between sets. 

Research has shown that while creatine supplementation might not significantly improve a single sprint swim, it can be beneficial for repeated interval swim set performance. Moreover, creatine has been shown to promote muscle growth and endurance, both essential for swimmers.

Benefits for Swimmers

Endurance Enhancement

As a swimmer, endurance is essential for your performance. Incorporating creatine into your routine can help improve your endurance in the water.

This is because, as mentioned, creatine helps increase the amount of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in your body, essentially providing more fuel for your muscles. This allows you to extend your swimming sessions and maintain a high level of performance over longer distances.

Boosting Sprint Performance

When it comes to sprint swimming, every millisecond counts. Creatine is known to fuel anaerobic exercises, making it an excellent supplement for sprinters.

By supporting your muscles with the energy they need to perform at a high level, creatine can help you explode off the blocks and maintain speed throughout your sprint. In turn, this can have a major impact on your overall swim performance.

Improved Muscle Strength

Another key aspect for swimmers is muscle strength. Strong muscles allow you to push your body against the water, leading to faster and more efficient swimming.

Creatine supplementation has been shown to promote muscle strength by increasing the size and power of your muscles. This can result in various benefits such as:

  • Enhanced propulsion through the water
  • Improved hand-eye coordination
  • Increased agility

In addition to these benefits, creatine also aids in muscle recovery, allowing you to bounce back quickly after intense swimming sessions.

By incorporating creatine into your routine, you can enjoy these performance-enhancing benefits and take your swimming to the next level.

Proper Creatine Use

There are two common ways to supplement creatine. One involves a ‘loading phase’, where you take a higher dose (20-25g per day) for the first 5-7 days, followed by a smaller maintenance dose (3-5g per day) thereafter.

This approach can increase muscle water content and may lead to a 2% increase in body weight, which might affect performance in sports where body weight matters.

The other way is to just take 5g of creatine per day and skip the loading phase altogether.

Recent studies have shown that taking creatine after exercise, rather than before, may lead to better improvements in body composition. This includes gaining more muscle and losing more fat. However, more research is needed to confirm this.

Recent studies also suggest that fears about creatine causing muscle cramps, dehydration, or kidney/liver issues are likely overstated. The long-term safety of creatine monohydrate has been well established.

Still, we will cover creatine’s potential risks below for completeness.

Potential Risks and Side Effects

Kidney and Liver Concerns

While creatine is generally considered safe for healthy individuals, be aware of potential risks associated with its use.

One concern is the effect it may have on your kidneys and liver. Although rare, there have been reports of kidney dysfunction and liver problems in some people who take creatine supplements.

To minimize the risk, be sure to stay hydrated and monitor your urinary volume. If you have a pre-existing kidney or liver condition, it’s best to consult your healthcare provider before using creatine.

Weight Gain and Water Retention

Another potential downside of creatine supplementation is weight gain and water retention. Creatine works by increasing the amount of water stored in your muscles, which can lead to an increase in body weight.

This might not be ideal for swimmers who need to maintain a certain weight for their performance. To manage this effect, you would need to lose some weight before you start taking creatine in anticipation of the weight gain, or just don’t take creatine in the first place.

Possible Cramps and Compartment Syndrome

Some users have reported muscle cramps and gastrointestinal discomfort after taking creatine. Although not proven, it’s speculated that these issues could be caused by dehydration or an imbalanced electrolyte level.

To decrease the likelihood of cramps, drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet with sufficient electrolytes.

Another rare but potential risk is the development of compartment syndrome, a painful condition caused by increased pressure within a muscle compartment.This can occur when the muscle swells due to water retention or muscle growth induced by creatine use. If you experience severe pain or swelling after taking creatine, seek immediate medical attention.

Expert Advice on Creatine Use

Dietitians and Nutritionists Recommendations

Dietitians and nutritionists often recommend creatine supplementation for athletes, including swimmers, because of its potential benefits in improving muscle mass, performance, and recovery according to this source.

When considering creatine, you should be aware that it is a supplement that can be combined with other nutrients, such as whey protein, to enhance its effects.

Creatine can benefit swimmers by providing additional energy for anaerobic activities. In events like the 50-meter sprint, the anaerobic energy contribution can be as high as 80% as found in this study.

However, if you have any health concerns, then consult a qualified dietitian or nutritionist to determine the appropriate dosage and regimen for your specific needs.

Guidelines from Sports Authorities

As a swimmer, it’s essential to be aware of the guidelines and regulations set forth by sports authorities, such as the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Creatine is not currently listed as a banned substance by WADA, which means that you can use it without violating any anti-doping rules. That makes sense, since creatine is 100% naturally occurring and you can get doses of it when eating meat.

However, you should always remain vigilant about the purity and quality of the creatine supplements you take, as some products on the market may contain prohibited substances.

For this reason, I recommend buying 100% pure creatine monohydrate. As in, when you look at the ingredients, it is entirely creatine monohydrate with no other ingredients.

To sum it all up, creatine supplementation can potentially benefit your swimming performance, but it’s essential to follow the advice of dietitians, nutritionists, and sports authorities. By doing so, you can ensure your creatine use is safe, effective, and compliant with the relevant guidelines.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I take creatine before or after swimming?

The timing of creatine supplementation can vary based on individual preferences and training schedules, but recent studies have suggested that taking creatine after exercise may lead to better improvements in body composition, including gaining more muscle and losing more fat. While more research is needed to confirm these findings, it’s generally acceptable to take creatine either before swimming as a pre-workout or after swimming, as long as it aligns with your personal fitness goals and dietary requirements.

Do professional athletes use creatine?

Yes, many professional athletes, including swimmers, use creatine because of its potential benefits in improving muscle mass, performance, and recovery. It’s especially beneficial for activities involving short bursts of high-intensity effort, like sprints. It’s important to note that while creatine is generally safe and not currently listed as a banned substance by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), athletes should always remain vigilant about the purity and quality of the supplements they take, as some products on the market may contain prohibited substances.

Why is creatine allowed in the Olympics?

Creatine is allowed in the Olympics because it’s a naturally occurring compound that can be found in everyday foods like meat and fish. It’s not considered a performance-enhancing drug in the traditional sense, but rather a dietary supplement. Its use is deemed ethical and legal as it doesn’t violate any anti-doping rules set by WADA. However, athletes are advised to ensure the purity and quality of the creatine supplements they take to avoid unintentional consumption of prohibited substances.