Vegan Weight Lifting – Creatine Update

At the end of August I began experimenting with taking Creatine to enhance my weight lifting regimen at the gym. I decided not to follow the “typical” recommendations which suggest that a person do “loading” where you take larger doses of creatine to jack up the blood levels of this naturally occurring substance. Instead I opted for a slow daily half dose of the recommended 5 mg a day… which meant I took 2.5 mg a day for a few weeks.

Within 3 days of taking this level dosage, I felt a huge improvement in my weight lifting at the gym. Suddenly, I was able to increase the amount of weight I was lifting at all of my machines, and overall I felt more energized during my workouts. Everything seemed to be working as expected.

Unfortunately, one known side effect of taking creatine is water retention. As I monitored myself on the scale, I did notice a 1-2 pound increase and I figured it was water retention, but I was okay with that because of the tremendous improvement to the work out.

And then, I began retaining water in my ankles. It wasn’t anything severe, but I realized it was clearly a side effect from the creatine, so as a way of testing if my hypothesis was right, I stopped taking it.

Sure enough, my ankles returned to normal size and the water gains I saw on the scale disappeared.

But… I also saw the negative effect on my workout too. Where I’d previously felt stronger and more able to take on higher amounts of weight, I now felt weaker and had to take a step back on the amount of weight I was lifting.

What’s incredible to me, is that it really was that direct an effect AND that dramatic in terms of the increase and decrease to performance. It was quite surprising.

Because I do have some aspect of the scientist in me, I decided to do another “experiment” on myself. This time, I would take creatine again, but in an even smaller dosage. I figured I would try a 1/4 dose, instead of a half dose. That meant taking 1.25 mg / day, instead of the previous 2.5 mg dose I’d been using.

After maybe 4 days I did not see a dramatic improvement at the gym, but I did begin slight retaining of water and slight swelling of the ankles returned too.

So, these two tests lead me to stop taking creatine, because of the side effects I experienced.

However, it does work. Creatine does greatly enhance weight lifting, especially when – as a vegan or vegetarian – your body is not getting the natural source of creatine that meat eaters get.

Each athlete has to make their own decisions about what’s best for them. For me, I’d like to be able to use creatine, but my body does not react well to the water retention … even at lower doses.

As a vegan athlete (who does eat eggs), I have to work harder than my meat-eating, weight lifting counterparts to achieve results. My power gains at the gym will likely be slower as a result.

Also as a vegan athlete, I have to be mindful of getting enough protein too. I continue to use brown rice powder protein shakes (I use the Growing Naturals brand, which provides 24 g of protein per scoop.) The shakes are part of my recovery process, which has been beneficial.

In the more than 3 months I have gone to the gym and I’ve continued to see progress. I’ve dropped two clothing sizes (inches) and I can see much better muscle definition than I had before I started. The progress seems frustratingly slow sometimes, especially because it takes so much effort to achieve results. Also, this routine requires a freakishly zealous adherence to eating about 1400 calories a day so that I don’t back-slide.

But, I feel the results have been worth it.

Me 10-3-14 LBD cropped

Advertisements

Vegetarian and Vegan Weight Lifting – Consider Creatine

While perusing a bookstore recently, I found Vegan For Her, by Virginia Messina. It’s a very good reference book for women who are interested in a vegan lifestyle.

I was especially impressed with Chapter 8, which has 7 pages dedicated to “Powered by Plants: The Female Vegan Athlete”.

In particular, I learned something important I didn’t know. Vegetarians and Vegans are low in Creatine, and should consider supplementation, particularly for athletes who are weight lifting, like me.

Creatine is a substance that naturally occurs in the body, and supports the body’s ability to build muscle. For women who are afraid of “getting big” that is NOT what happens when a woman does weight lifting. Instead, a woman builds bone density, and builds a lean, muscular form and as a result your resting metabolic rate rises, and voila… you burn more calories even when at rest. That also means it will be more likely that you’d be able to reduce overall levels of body fat.

Needless to say, weight lifting means doing the work and I’m not talking about lifting a 5 pound dumb bell once a week! My routine is a minimum of 4 weight lifting days per week, with 2 dedicated to upper body and 2 dedicated to lower body. I’m working on 5-7 weight lifting machines per workout, and continuing to increase the amount of weight resistance I use over time.

Back to Creatine.

Here’s what VeganHealth.Org says about it (http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/weightlifting):

 

Creatine (also known as creatine monohydrate) is the only nutritional supplement that has been consistently shown to improve strength and muscle mass. The main benefit of creatine is thought to be due to its effect on reducing fatigue during repeated, short bursts of intense exercise (such as weightlifting, sprinting, soccer, rugby, and hockey . Lower fatigue during sprinting and weightlifting means increased training and greater results.

 

Creatine is a component of phosphocreatine (PCr). PCr provides energy during short bursts of powerful exercise, by providing a phosphate for the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the quickest source of energy in skeletal muscle. Depletion of PCr in muscle is associated with fatigue during such exercise.

 

Creatine can be synthesized in the body. It is also supplied in the diet by meat and fish. Supplementing with creatine has been shown to increase performance especially in people whose creatine levels in muscle were initially on the lower side of normal.

Guess whose creatine levels are typically on the lower side of normal because we don’t eat meat or fish? Yeah, you guessed it: Vegans and Vegetarians.

There are vegetarian/vegan sources of Creatine, and a company called Now Sports makes one variety of Creatine Monohydrate that I’m using right now which is vegan, based on the label. There may be others, but my local health food store stocks this one – so it’s the one I got.

If you are interested in creatine, and read about it, you’ll read about “Creatine Loading.” For athletes looking to rapidly increase the amount of creatine in their bodies, there is a process whereby you take higher doses of the supplement during the “loading phase” which usually lasts 5-6 days. After that, you would return to the normal daily dose.

Since I have never taken creatine before, I decided to play it much more conservatively. There are potential side effects to taking creatine, including retaining water, and before you decide to take ANY supplement, you should do the research to determine whether or not it’s right for you.

So, I began taking only 2.5 milligrams (mg) of creatine per day, mixed with fruit juice since creatine is more readily absorbed in the body when coupled with carbohydrates. In most reading I’ve done, 5mg per day is the recommended daily dose, with perhaps a 10mg (min) per day during a loading phase. You can see, I’m below even the daily recommended dose because I wanted to try it without overloading my system right away. I am fine taking a more gradual approach.

After only 4 days of supplementation, I can already see the difference in my weight lifting routines. I have more power and explosive energy when I begin doing my repetitions, and I do not feel as tired at the end of my four sets as I had previously.

Of course, creatine is part of a larger picture equation.

I have purposefully increased the amount of protein I eat every day, while still keeping an eye on my calories. An adult woman needs 46 grams of protein a day, but a vegan weight lifter needs more than that, and the amount of protein you eat should be calculated based on your body weight. And of course you still need carbohydrates to fuel your workout, while your protein intake (especially immediately after your lifts) will help with recovery.

I’d love to hear from other vegan athletes, especially weight lifters, to see if creatine has been helpful to you too?