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BCAAs vs Creatine: Which is Better for Runners?

Should you be taking BCAAs, creatine or other supplements to improve your running? Here’s the difference between BCAAs and. creatine and what you do and don’t need. 

shake bottle with pre workout supplement

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This post is for informational purposes only. While I am a Registered Dietitian, I am not diagnosing or prescribing anything through this post. Please see your care provider for individual and personalized advice. 

BCAAs vs. Creatine

BCAAs and creatine are two of the hottest supplements in sports, but many athletes don’t know much about either. Why should you take BCAAs or creatine? If you’re supplementing with one, do you need the other? 

Creatine for runners has increased in popularity, especially as runners try to get any edge possible. But, there’s some confusion with creatine, and do you need whey protein powder too?

Check out our run down on whey protein vs. creatine for more guidance on that question.

On the other side, BCAAs for runners are pretty popular and highly searched, too. 

Let’s rewind for a second and start with the basics before deciding which is better: creatine or bcaas?

man putting powder supplement into drink

What are BCAAs?

BCAAs, or branched-chain amino acids, are a subset of amino acids that are branched. The essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine are considered BCAAs.

As essential amino acids, they can only be obtained through the diet, not produced by the body. So, we do need to consume these branched chain amino acids.

So, how do branched chain amino acids relate to running?

BCAAs for runners are integral to skeletal muscle metabolism because they can be oxidized in the muscles for fuel, rather than having to be shuttled to the liver first and then to the muscles.

In other words, BCAAs can provide a quicker fuel option.

woman in pink sports bra flexing muscles

BCAAs support muscle repair, hormone and red blood cell production, and a strong immune system.

The most important BCAA is leucine, as it regulates muscle protein synthesis, and should be consumed in the post workout period.

BCAAs not only support muscle building but also prevent muscle breakdown. BCAAs inhibit the production of cortisol, a stress hormone that breaks down muscle fibers.

Without cortisol present, muscle fibers are much more likely to be preserved. This is a good thing.

Further, BCAAs assist in glycogen stores, meaning that the body has greater fuel reserves for (future) activity, which also prevents muscle breakdown.

What is Creatine Monohydrate?

Creatine, short for creatine monohydrate, is both found in the body and consumed through animal products.

It is made from select amino acids and most often used for building muscle through high-intensity exercise, like sprinting.

If you’re consuming an adequate diet for sprinters, you should be focusing on creatine in your diet.

tub of creatine powder

A large majority of creatine in the body is stored as phosphocreatine in muscles, but small amounts also exist in the brain, kidneys, and liver.

Supplementing with creatine allows the body to produce more ATP, which increases workload, improves cell signaling and hormone balance, speeds up recovery from injury, supports hydration, improves brain health, and more.

Creatine works effectively both in the short and long term, and you do not need to exercise regularly to reap the benefits.

Additionally, creatine preserves muscle health and prevents sarcopenia or the wasting away of muscle, which decreases the risk of falls and fractures in this at-risk population.

So, while creatine is not protein powder, it can be helpful. Here’s a breakdown of whey protein vs. creatine for more distinction.

runner lying down on track

In fact, outside of athletes, creatine is often recommended to older adults, as it may lower the risk of or reduce symptoms of neurological disease, such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more.

Many weightlifting or bodybuilding athletes begin their creatine supplementation with a loading phase, meaning they take 20 grams of creatine monohydrate per day for about two weeks before reducing to a sustainable dose of 3-5 grams per day. This loading phase is an option, but it is not necessary.

Creatine supplementation is fairly low-risk, as there are no proven side effects, and creatine in the body retains water, so supplementation can actually decrease your risk of dehydration.

The recommended amount of creatine to take is 3-5 grams per day. You can do an optional loading period of 20 grams per day for two weeks leading up to this dosage, but it is optional.

PMID: 11147785

Differences Between BCAA and Creatine

While both support healthy muscles, there are some slight difference between bcaas and creatine.

  • Different mechanism – They work through different mechanisms. BCAAs contribute directly to muscle fiber growth and health, while creatine increases ATP stores so that muscle can function more effectively.
  • Different benefits – Creatine has a wider scope of influence on the body than muscle health alone. As mentioned before, creatine also benefits cell signaling, brain health, hormone levels, and more. Considering these points, creatine arguably has a broader impact on the body than BCAAs do.
  • Populations who benefit – Another key difference between creatine and BCAA is who benefits from it. In fact, outside of athletes, creatine is often recommended to older adults, as it may lower the risk of or reduce symptoms of neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and more. BCAAs are generally only recommended in the athlete population. Furthermore, creatine preserves muscle health and prevents sarcopenia, or the wasting away of muscle, which decreases the risk of falls and fractures in this at-risk population.

Overlap Between BCAAs and Creatine

Here are some similarities between BCAAs and creatine.

  • Animal food sources – BCAAs and creatine are derived from many of the same dietary sources, including meat and fish, eggs, and dairy products. BCAAs are also found in legumes, tofu and tempeh, nuts and seeds, and most protein powders.
  • Support muscle health – Both BCAAs and creatine support muscle health, which is definitely relative to athletes but not limited to athletes. And with both compounds, if you eat enough protein (at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day), supplements likely won’t bring about any greater benefits.
Skeleton with muscle groups shown

Creatine vs. BCAAs vs Pre Workout

When considering all three options, neither creatine nor BCAAs are the same as pre workout.

Pre workout supplements generally have BCAAs in them, as well as other ingredients, like caffeine, nitric oxide precursors, creatine and others.

Pre-workouts are generally taken before exercise for a “boost”, but don’t have evidence on helping to improve or repair muscle after, like BCAAs.

See this post on coffee or pre workout for more differences.

hands holding cup of coffee

This post on protein for runners is helpful to understand a runner’s protein needs. 

Should You Have Creatine Before or After Running?

Whether you have creatine before running or after is less important. What’s more important is that you are taking it consistently.

If you have a diet adequate or high in protein, you likely don’t need to supplement with creatine.

However, there’s an argument to be made if you follow a vegan or vegetarian diet, like for instance, a vegan ultramarathoner runner with high needs.

female vegan ultra runner running on trail

Key Takeaways for BCAAS:

  • If you’re eating enough protein—“enough” being 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight each day—supplementing with BCAAs is unnecessary. You’re probably getting enough to support muscle health through diet alone.
  • However, if you’re struggling to hit your protein goal, experiencing persistent muscle soreness, or easily becoming fatigued during exercise, BCAAs might be of some benefit to you. Luckily, most protein powders contain BCAAs, so just check the labels next time you’re looking for a new protein powder for running.
  • You might also benefit from BCAA supplementation if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, injured athlete, or elderly individual. Vegans and vegetarians often struggle to eat enough complete protein, since plant-based sources are not as rich as animal sources.
  • Injured athletes and elderly individuals have higher rates of muscle breakdown than the average individual, which elevates their protein needs. If you fall into one of these groups, BCAAs and/or collagen for running might be worth looking into.

Key Takeaways on Creatine for Running:

  • Supplementing with creatine monohydrate is not necessary if you’re eating a substantial amount of protein—particularly, meat and fish, since creatine is stored in the muscles. But just like creatine has a wider scope of influence on the body than BCAAs, there are more strongly supported reasons to supplement with creatine than with BCAAs.
  • You do not need to be active in order to benefit from creatine supplementation. Creatine sports both physiological benefits, like promoting hydration and an increased capacity to produce ATP, and neurological benefits, like preventing risk and improving symptoms of neurological disease.
  • Creatine is safe. In terms of safety, it’s one of the most well-researched and studied supplements out there, and has been proven safe time and time again.
  • Knowing that long distance runners have higher protein and nutrient needs, creatine for distance runners may be helpful, in that it helps preserve muscle. However, eating enough in general, especially enough protein, can do the same thing.

In a nutshell, both BCAAs and creatine are safe, but they may not be necessary if you’re already meeting your protein quota.

A note on supplements:

As with all other supplements, BCAA and creatine monohydrate supplements are not regulated by the FDA.

To ensure that you’re consuming a high quality product, make sure that the supplement you choose is third-party verified by an organization like NSF or Informed Choice.

References:

  • Op ‘t Eijnde, B., Ursø, B., Richter, E. A., Greenhaff, P. L., & Hespel, P. (2001). Effect of oral creatine supplementation on human muscle GLUT4 protein content after immobilization. Diabetes50(1), 18–23. https://doi.org/10.2337/diabetes.50.1.18
  • Peeters, Brian M.; Lantz, Christopher D.; Mayhew, Jerry L. Effect of Oral Creatine Monohydrate and Creatine Phosphate Supplementation on Maximal Strength Indices, Body Composition, and Blood Pressure, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 1999 – Volume 13 – Issue 1 – p 3-9
  • Jackman, S. R., Witard, O. C., Philp, A., Wallis, G. A., Baar, K., & Tipton, K. D. (2017). Branched-Chain Amino Acid Ingestion Stimulates Muscle Myofibrillar Protein Synthesis following Resistance Exercise in Humans. Frontiers in physiology8, 390. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2017.00390
  • MacLean, D. A., Graham, T. E., & Saltin, B. (1994). Branched-chain amino acids augment ammonia metabolism while attenuating protein breakdown during exercise. The American journal of physiology267(6 Pt 1), E1010–E1022. https://doi.org/10.1152/ajpendo.1994.267.6.E1010
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