It is often difficult for coaches and athletes to keep up on the latest training innovations and findings. The purpose of this column is to review and comment on research that is currently being done on rowing and training for endurance sports. I will try to make a link between the research and practical application for the rower.
Effect of Creatine Monohydrate Supplementation During Combined Strength and High Intensity Rowing Training on Performance. Syrotuik, D., Game, A., Gillies, E, and Bell, G. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology. Volume 26(6): pages 527-542.
Creatine supplements are among the most popular nutritional supplements on the market. It has been marketed as a means of increasing endurance, recovery, strength, muscle mass and decreasing body fat. Over the past 5 years there has been substantial research on the effects of creatine supplementation on training and performance. Most studies show an increase in endurance during short sprint events. Strength increases seem to be greater in athletes using creatine; unless they follow a periodized strength program then there is little difference between creatine groups and placebo groups. While there is growing evidence that creatine supplements can aid training there are very few studies that have been able to show a link between creatine supplementation and improved performance.
Creatine increases the energy producing capacity of the anaerobic alactic energy system. Making it an ideal supplement for short duration very high intensity efforts that rely primarily on this energy system. Creatine supplements have been thought to be of limited benefit to athletes whose event lasts more than 3 minutes, which rely heavily on the aerobic system. Several years ago a study examined the effects of acute creatine supplementation on 1000m ergometer performance and found improvements in the split time over the first 500m, which translated into a faster 1000m race time. A more recent study has looked at the effects of 6 weeks of creatine supplementation on 2000m ergometer performance.
Twenty-two college rowers (12 male, 10 female) volunteered for the study. There were randomly assigned to either a creatine supplement group or a placebo group. All subjects were tested 3 times for the following variables; body composition, VO2 max, 2000m erg performance, 6 x 250m sprint, and strength tests for the leg press and bench press. Tests were conducted prior to training, after a creatine load week and 5 weeks later at the end of the study.
The study was divided into 3 phases; a three week pre-experimental phase where the subjects rowed three steady state sessions and one 4 x 500m session per week. They performed strength workouts twice per week. The second, creatine load, phase was one week long consisting of one strength session and two 5000m rows. The final phase of the program involved two rows at anaerobic threshold, one session of 250m hard: 250m easy one session of 500m hard:500m easy, and 2 strength training sessions. The strength training program consisted of a periodized resistance program, which consisted of 5 upper body and 4 lower body exercises.
Using a double blind protocol the creatine supplement group received 0.3g/kg of creatine, dissolved in 1L of flavored drink during the loading phase and 0.03g/kg dissolved in 250 ml of flavored drink during the training phase. The placebo group consumed only the flavored drink.
Both groups increased lean body mass, decreased fat percentage, improved 2000m rowing performance, increased strength and improved performance in the 6 x 250 m test. There was no difference between the two groups for any of the variables measured.
The results of this study are quite interesting. The other two studies that have looked at creatine use and rowing performance have both shown performance improvements over a 1000m or 2500m race. The majority of improvement occurred during the first 500m of the test in those studies. This would be expected for a 1000m race, where a larger proportion of the energy used in the race will come from the anaerobic energy systems.
One way of explaining the differences in these studies is the tactics used during the erg test. Using a creatine supplement may allow you to go out a little harder during the first 500m. Since the subjects in the current study did not know if they were taking the creatine supplement or the placebo they may not have adjusted their race plan to account for the increased capacity of the anaerobic alactic system during the first 500m.
Supplementation can be expensive. Whether it is creatine or another supplement it is important to set up a controlled testing scenario to determine if the supplement you are taking is having any effect on your performance. You will need to have a very good understanding of what the supplement is supposed to be doing and the physiology of rowing to do this, but it may save you a lot of money in the long run.
While there are some problems with this study, the training volume is lower than a collegiate rower would typically use and some of the subjects were relatively inexperienced, the lack of difference between the two groups should make us stop and think before we decide to use a creatine supplement to improve rowing performance.