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Creatine and Arm Pump

by Coach Seiji

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After battling a severe case of arm pump in the first few rounds of 2010, Millsaps and his trainer, Johnny Louch figured out the problem and won San Diego!

photo - Steve Cox

Creatine is a widely used strength-enhancing supplement and has captured recent interest in the wake of American Honda rider Davi Millsaps' vastly improved results soon after discontinuation. Although creatine has been widely accepted, Millsaps' discovery of his intake and the markedly improved results upon halting use is an example of how supplementation can cause negative effects.

Creatine is naturally found in fresh meats and the body can synthesize its own in the kidneys and liver from the amino acids found in other foods. A typical 154 lb male has 120 g of creatine in his body and it is excreted and reloaded at the rate of about 2 g per day. Creatine is used in muscle cells to shuttle phosphate in a mechanism that produces short-term energy for very intense efforts of ten seconds or less.

Supplements are not regulated so dosage can vary between manufacturers. The most popular supplementation protocol calls for a 'loading period' where 20 g/day is taken for about a week, followed by a maintenance phase of 3-5 g/day taken for up to 3 months. A less popular protocol involves taking 3-10 g/day for up to three months with no loading phase. Creatine uptake has been shown to be improved with high glycemic index carbohydrates and alpha lipoic acid so many commercially available supplements contain these ingredients as part of their 'mixture.' Again, nutritional supplements are not regulated so it is up to the manufacturer to suggest dosing and create their own mixtures and these may or may not be supported by research.

The Research
Creatine supplementation does not directly increase strength. It can enhance short duration, maximum effort performance. Studies have shown this positive effect across several activities from power lifting to sprint cycling. Studies have shown a 5-15% increase in performance and power across multiple efforts and a 1-5% increase in single strength and power oriented efforts. This increases strength through higher achievable workloads in training. Creatine can also cause rapid weight gain but many studies have shown this to be caused by increased water uptake within muscle cells. Take home message: creatine supplementation can improve your results by allowing that extra repetition, extra burst of power, and extra sprint speed in training which can result in improved strength and power. Creatine supplementation will not improve endurance performance which is the more important fitness component in motocross.

The safety of long-term creatine supplementation has been a hot topic for years. Short-term studies involving supplementation for up to two weeks have shown no adverse side effects as long as there are no kidney or liver problems. Studies involving long-term use are divided. Small scale, long term research has shown creatine supplementation to be safe but anecdotal evidence of long-term use has shown negative and sometimes serious side effects. These range from dehydration (due to both water being pulled into the muscle fibers and the added need for fluids to aid in excreting the excess creatine), kidney stones, renal failure, and even death. Millsaps' reported forearm pump was possibly caused by the increased muscle fiber water content and associated increased volume of his forearm muscles. These muscles are encased in a compartment that cannot increase in size. This can cause raised pressure on the blood vessels, restricting blood flow leaving this compartment. It could also be caused by overall dehydration. All speculation but entirely possible.

Inside Scoop from Davi's Trainer (by Virtual Trainer)
Davi and his trainer, Johnny Louch have been upfront from the beginning as to how Davi ended up taking so much Creatine. There have been several interviews and videos of Davi talking about what happened. One such interview was on Racer X Online's, 5- Minutes With feature, so I won't rehash what was said in those interviews.

I have talked to Johnny on the phone twice and basically he and Davi were pulling their hair out trying to figure out what was going on. Johnny is a very educated, experienced trainer who made one fatal error in the end. He trusted the supplement company who was supplying him vitamins when he asked if the new formula they sent contained Creatine. He was assured that it did not and the new formula was more refined and "improved". However, once Johnny started to piece the puzzle together, he learned that Davi was indeed taking approximately 1000 mg of Creatine per day! Johnny, being fully aware of the problems with Creatine, immediately took Davi off the supplement and all of the arm pump issues went away as expected.

"The big lesson I learned that I would like to share with any one who takes supplements, is to always read the label," explains Louch. "Although I had been using this certain supplement for years with my riders, when they called and told me they had improved the formula, I immediately asked it they added Creatine," he added. "I'm not a big fan of supplements in the first place and only use this one because I have had good results and such a long history with the company. Bottom line is to always check the label no matter what!"


The Dangers
Creatine supplementation has shown to produce creatine levels in urine that are 90 times normal. Creatine supplementation (as well as other supplements and drugs) work based on overload; you ingest more than your body can excrete or metabolize over a period to get the effects. Your body is hard at work trying to rid itself of the overload but you keep taking it to get continued effects. Prolonged overload and the increased stress on organs like kidneys and liver in general causes serious and often irreversible injury. A related concern is that the body loses the ability to produce creatine on its own when this type of overload is prolonged. These could be reasons for the popular practice of 'cycling' creatine use; use is stopped for periods and then restarted again after a 'rest' period.

Additional and possibly graver concerns are the impurities that can be found in creatine supplements due to the manufacturing process.

Again, this is unregulated so there are no rules regarding what is a safe impurity and what level is acceptable. Horrific results of contaminated supplement ingredients can be found; in the 1980's over 30 deaths were attributed to a contaminated amino acid supplement (L-tryptophan) and in 2001 France banned creatine sales due to possible contamination with the prion that causes mad cow disease.

Team Honda celebrates the win. Last time a Honda was in the winners circle was in 08' when Kevin Windham won Seattle.

photo - Steve Cox

Bottom line
Creatine can improve strength and power through increased loads used during this type of training. There are risks involved, some of them very serious, irreversible and possibly life threatening. Maximum strength or peak power output is rarely the limiter in motocross performance. Unless these are your absolute limiter, the possible upsides of prolonged creatine use may not outweigh the possible downsides no matter how small the actual risk. If maximum strength or peak power is truly what is holding your overall motocross ability back, then short term use during specific periods of training may be an option to consider. In the end, it is your body and your risk but keep in mind that long term research is limited, the supplement industry is unregulated and the side effects could actually negate any possible gain. Just ask Millsaps!

Research, think logically and take every possible precaution when considering supplement use. Smart and dedicated training; a wholesome, well-rounded diet; proper recovery and rest - these will bring you to your goals. Supplements are just that; a supplement to these required ingredients of success. The answer is not going to be in a bottle. Some supplements can help but it's really up to you!

Robb Beams (trains Ashley Fiolek, Ian Trettel & Loretta Lynn National Champion Adam Cianciarulo)
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the effects of creatine. The truth of the matter is - creatine does do exactly what it claims to do: FOR SOME ATHLETES. However, before we discuss if creatine supplementation is beneficial as a rider, it is imperative to evaluate its role in your everyday health.

First
, the human body produces creatine daily to sustain the demands associated with exercise. Creatine is regenerated through your body's normal bodily functions (assuming you are eating a sufficient diet and complementing this will 7-8 hours of sleep daily). However, if your body senses the presence of creatine on a regular basis, it will stop producing it within your body. This internal evaluation system can not be "tricked".

Second
, creatine has been shown in endless amounts of research to cause dehydration amongst athletes of all sports backgrounds. Muscle cramping and spasming along with feelings of nausea are not uncommon with an athlete that reacts negatively to the supplementation of creatine. Keep in mind that even the slightest level of dehydration causes the contractile strength within the muscles spindle cells to diminish - not an ideal scenario for riders and racers. To make the situation worse, riders are already at a disadvantage in regards to dissipating the negative effects of internal heat (created by working muscles and internal body systems like digestion and respiration) due to being covered from head to toe with riding gear. The scientific term for this is the Endothermic Process: your body's ability to rid itself of heat. The only way that your body can rid itself of heat is through sweat at the skin level. When you wear gear, this creates an extra layer that the sweat has to permeate to evaporate (and ultimately cool you down). If you happen to be riding or racing in a highly humid environment, your ability to cool down is hampered again because water can not evaporate against another molecule of water. This causes you to overheat internally which ultimately slows down your internal bodily functions which manifests itself in the form of slower lap times.

I have been asked by many riders, will creatine cause arm pump: no. Bad body position on the bike is the main reason for arm pump; however, dehydration (whether it comes from creatine supplementation or a poor hydration program) will result in cramping and muscle spasms. If it culminates in your forearms, you will call it arm pump. From a human performance stand point, it is called muscles spasms and they will adversely effect your ability to ride or race effectively.

Side note, in clinical studies, creatine has been documented to increase the contractile strength of a muscle; however, the additional lactic acid (a by-product of burning carbohydrates) that is produced due to the higher levels of output has resulted in larger than normal levels of blood lactate of which the blood vessels can not effectively clear from the circulatory system and in turn becomes counter productive.

Bottom line: should riders and racers supplement with creatine: no. Instead, they need to spend more time developing a comprehensive training and nutritional program that will provide the human body the elements it needs to perform at all levels and speeds.

Seiji Ishii is the head coach of www.coachseiji.com. Coachseiji.com provides online coaching and personal training services to motorsports athletes. Coach Seiji has worked with both pros and elite amateurs including: Heath Voss, Ryan Clark, Austin Stroupe, PJ Larsen, Hunter Hewitt, Drew Yenerch, Jason Anderson, and Andrew Short. Learn more at coachseiji.com or contact Coach Seiji directly.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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