Rugby's obsession with bulk threatening lives of young men
The use of creatine to build muscle is a worrying trend in our schools game, writes Neil Francis
The guy running at you in the photograph is instantly recognisable. I played against him once and I played with him once. The latter was far more enjoyable. In his time with the All Blacks, his body was the personification of power, pace and performance. Now his stock holds him prisoner to depression, debilitation and dialysis.
In 1995 Jonah Lomu was diagnosed with Nephrotic Syndrome – a degenerative condition affecting the kidneys. We, the unquestioning, were told it resulted from an un-named congenital condition. In 2004 Lomu received a kidney from Grant Kereama, a local Auckland DJ. If Lomu hadn't received the transplant he would have died. In 2011 the transplanted kidney started to fail and Lomu has spent long tracts in hospital interspersed with dialysis three days a week. If Lomu does not receive a new kidney soon his outlook will be bleak.
Jonah's Auckland Blues team-mate and twice-capped All Black winger Joeli Vidiri also has Nephrotic Syndrome but, unlike Lomu, did not have the benefit of a kidney transplant. Vidiri admits that he is lucky to be alive but will need a transplant soon as his health is failing.
In the mid-1990s the all-conquering Auckland Blues put their squad on a systematic creatine programme. Vidiri has been open and vocal about why and how he picked up his life-threatening condition. Lomu has denied ever using product. Not everybody is convinced by his denial.
Everyone has an idea, however vague, about what creatine is, so there is little point going into an analysis of its constituent components or perceived benefits. It was, though, an issue which belonged to the last decade, was it not? Maybe not.
This season I watched a large number of schoolboy cup games – a panacea for the irredeemable awfulness of the fare on view in the Six Nations. The skill levels at Senior Cup level are sublime – the players embrace risk and play rugby the way it should be played. However, it is with great regret that I have noted, on more than a few occasions, behaviour that has led me to believe that creatine use within some schools is part of the programme – with or without the knowledge of the schools – and it is still sustained and widespread.
Whatever about the inherent dangers of use or abuse in supervised or unsupervised situations, I feel that the substance is a very poor supplement to take to try and improve performance (legally) in rugby. This was borne out on the empirical evidence of some of the games I watched.
Creatine does exactly what it says on the tin. The amino acid increases energy to your muscle infrastructure and, in conjunction with a balanced weights regime, will unquestionably increase muscle bulk. If you take creatine, you will undoubtedly get bigger. Rugby union is a game of power and pace – size unfortunately is becoming a greater factor in the game. It is a self-perpetuating phenomenon: as other players and teams get bigger so must your team. Fitness too is critical – the ability to last the pace for 70 minutes at schools level is paramount.
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A lot of the muscle gain brought about by taking creatine involves water retention in the muscle. In a controlled environment in a gym that is fine. In the helter-skelter of a cup match your body will dehydrate and cramp will set in. What I witnessed at Schools Cup matches this season were four or five players going down with cramp in the last quarter of the game.
What happened then was the match would have to be stopped as the cramp victim was treated and then teams of water carriers would run out onto the park to rehydrate players. It was a pathetic sight. Quite often the performance levels of the cramp sufferer would fall off dramatically and they would become passengers as their mobility suffered. They were useless to their team. Cramping/dehydration is just one of the side-effects of creatine ingestion. We are entitled to ask the question: was creatine being taken? If so, the off-set didn't make sense – increased bulk but at the cost of immobility as cramp set in; 17-year-old boys should be able to motor for 170 minutes before they tire.
Years ago, I made contact with a strength and conditioning coach in the NFL. Most of the NFL franchises have sophisticated programmes in place. In terms of contact sport American Football would be out on its own in terms of physiological conditioning and its attendant supplement regime – legal and illegal.
This coach must have thought that I was a little bit naive to mention creatine. He was very specific in his response about creatine: "We do not use that product at all in this organisation."
Creatine was "the perfect supplement if you were a body builder" – of course a body builder could choose any course of anabolic steroids he wanted. For contact sport the Buccaneers saw the side-effects were too costly. Dehydration, muscle cramping and an injury profile where the muscle bulk was too heavy for the ligamenture and tendons supporting it – twang. Injury and re-injury became a depressingly familiar scenario and creatine use was stopped .
If the NFL franchises think that the product is no good for their players then why are our schoolboys still taking it? Maybe because they can't take steroids; that practice is unfortunately widespread in South African schools.
One of the terrifying things about creatine use or abuse is the lack of awareness of the side-effects of the substance. We've mentioned kidney problems, muscle cramping and dehydration but what other side-effects are there? If you have an underlying liver or kidney problem you should not take creatine.
If you have high blood pressure you shouldn't touch it either. If you are taking antibiotics for infection or acne (prevalent in a lot of 17-year-olds) your life is in danger if you mix the two. Creatine can cause an upset stomach, sometimes quite seriously. The side-effect that struck me the most was the irregular heartbeat or palpitations.
One hundred Irish people die a year from sudden adult death syndrome (SADS), seemingly healthy 14-40 year olds inexplicably die from cardiomyopathy. Most of the victims are male and physically active. A lot of them die on our GAA, soccer and rugby fields or in their beds hours later. They get prominence in the newspapers and families are devastated and then, a few weeks later, it happens again.
If you go onto the website of the Irish Heart Foundation you will see that one of the causes of SADS is palpitations due to an irregular heartbeat. I am not a doctor but if you are playing a contact sport and you have an irregular heartbeat and dehydration while playing a very physically demanding game it would be fairly safe to say that that is a lethal combination. Who is to say creatine use/abuse is not to blame for at least one of those deaths per year?
I wonder would the autopsy show high levels of creatine in the body? Creatine undoubtedly makes you bigger but it certainly does not make you a more reliable, productive or consistent performer on your team. Whether you can prove or disprove the side-effects, it just isn't worth the risk.
Its continued use is depressing. Some schools practice a zero tolerance policy, some schools preach it and some schools just haven't a clue.