Despite a relatively long and prosperous existence, there's still considerable debate about when to take creatine. In fact, as time goes by, the subject of timing seems to get even more complicated. Some people take it only after workouts, some before workouts, while others say it doesn't matter. Let's have a quick look at the reasoning behind these ideas and hopefully put this baby to bed.
Taking creatine before a workout initially makes sense, because that way we'll have the creatine readily available during training. Of course, this novice thinking doesn't hold water because it takes a while for creatine to enter the muscle cell where it can enhance performance. In fact, it's been shown that pre-workout creatine consumption has no effect over placebo (19). What's more, we know that the anticatabolic effects of creatine are more long lived and don't suddenly take effect during a workout.
More recently, the pre-workout creatine theory got a big boost from the scientific literature. Tipton and buddies (27) showed that consuming a pre-workout meal enhanced muscle protein synthesis twice as much as the same meal consumed after a workout. This enhanced nutrient delivery and subsequent uptake could, some believe, apply to pre-workout creatine as well.
Unfortunately, we're comparing apples and oranges here. Carbohydrates stimulate blood flow and amino acids stimulate protein synthesis, but creatine does neither. We've also established that the effects of creatine occur long after the workout has occurred, while those of protein and sugars are far more acute. Sadly, the theory of a pre-workout creatine advantage doesn't seem to hold water any way you look at it.
As much as we love complicated scientific theories behind our practices, the post-workout creatine logic is quite simple: workouts deplete creatine, so post-workout we fill it back up. We can also take advantage of our post-workout insulin spike to drive the creatine into our muscles.
Perhaps the most important determinant of when to take creatine is the overwhelming mass of data available from the scientific literature. We have numerous studies showing that post-workout creatine consumption is effective, while the only study for pre-workout intake showed no acute effect.
Bottom Line: We have no scientific data to support pre-workout creatine use, but also none to suggest it's harmful. I'd stick with the tried and true method until evidence to the contrary arrives.