Red light therapy is popular among professional athletes and fitness enthusiasts as a way to achieve peak performance by building muscle, delaying the onset of fatigue, and accelerating muscle recovery. Hundreds of peer-reviewed clinical trials on red light therapy point to enhanced physical performance including improvements in strength, speed, and endurance, as well as faster muscle recovery after strenuous workouts and faster return-to-play after injury.
Red light has many therapeutic applications for athletes; the question is, should you apply red light therapy before or after a workout to supercharge your fitness and achieve your athletic goals? In this article, we’ll break down the benefits of pre- and post-workout red light therapy sessions so you can make an informed decision based on your unique athletic goals and any injuries that may be slowing you down.
Red Light Therapy Boosts Muscle Recovery
Whether you’re an elite athlete training for competition, a fitness enthusiast looking to sculpt and tone your body, or a weekend warrior who’s just out there for fun, you want to enjoy your sport at your peak. A hard workout can lead to muscle soreness and inflammation that can sideline you for days or weeks, and lead to injury if you attempt to push through it.
Light therapy is an amazing tool for speeding up muscle healing from intense training. It also offers pain relief, and supports muscle recovery as well as bone and connective tissue healing from sports-related injuries.
Red light therapy, also known as photobiomodulation and low-level laser therapy, involves using an LED device that shines red and near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths of light at the skin. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) are used to deliver a concentrated source of light energy in a specific portion of the spectrum of visible light. Red and NIR therapy ranging from 630 nm to 850nm (known as the “therapeutic window”), has special beneficial effects on the body.
Red light therapy isn’t just “skin-deep.” It affects the body at the cellular level, stimulating natural biological processes in the areas where the light is applied. The human body is photosensitive, and light triggers biological processes much like photosynthesis in plants.
A photobiological reaction happens when a specific wavelength of light interacts with photoreceptor molecules in mitochondria, which are the energy centers of each cell in the body. This interaction stimulates energy production in the cells. Red and NIR light therapy can help increase blood flow, decrease inflammation, and increase collagen production—three essential mechanisms of peak physical performance.
Read on to learn how red and near infrared light therapy can increase your strength, speed, and endurance, and how it helps accelerate post-workout recovery as well as recovery from injury.
Red Light and Enhanced Physical Performance
Every sport comes with the potential for post-workout soreness, which can lead to a break in exercise habits as well as a loss of motivation. Preventing post-workout soreness in muscle tissue is a big priority for those who are eager to return to their sport without pain, and without having to wait days or even weeks for muscles to recover.
Here’s how red- and NIR light can help you reach your personal best in any sport:
- According to a 2018 study by researchers from Korea, red light therapy reduces oxidative stress (an imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body) in the muscles through changes in mitochondrial metabolic energy processes. When exposed to red light, the mitochondria produce more of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). This leads to increased cell proliferation, which, in turn, increases tissue oxygenation. These effects result in less exercise-induced damage to muscles, meaning you’ll be able to go longer, faster, and harder.
- When cells are energized, they perform their functions more efficiently. Research has shown that this can lead to less muscle fatigue, muscle growth, and the body’s ability to adapt to increased training loads. When cells perform their specialized functions at optimal levels (and successfully replicate and regenerate), accelerated healing occurs in injured or inflamed muscles, and muscle performance increases.
- Red light therapy has also been found to minimize red-light-therapy-for-workouts-and-muscle-growth onset muscle soreness, which is the pain and stiffness you feel in muscle tissue 24 to 72 hours after a new workout—the kind where you say, “I’m hurting in muscles I didn’t even know I had!”
- Another beneficial effect of red light therapy is that it stimulates increased blood flow. More capillaries means more nutrients and oxygen delivered to cells, as well as fewer waste materials to interfere with optimal muscle functioning and recovery.
- Red light (630nm) produces a positive effect on muscle recovery after “damaging eccentric exercise” (bicep curls using the non-dominant arm). Muscle soreness, muscle weakness, and range of motion impairment were significantly improved up to 96 hours after the exercise in the red light group.
- High-level rugby players participated in a 2016 clinical trial to determine the effects of photobiomodulation (another word for red light therapy) on performance and recovery. The study observed 12 rugby players during an anaerobic fitness test. The athletes showed significant improvements in sprint times and delayed the onset of actual and perceived muscle fatigue.
How Red Light Assists in Healing Sports Injuries
Many people associate contact sports with injury. But the fact is, even non-contact and non-impact sports like cycling come with the potential for overuse injury, joint pain, nerve pain, muscle injury, and connective tissue damage. Aside from high-contact sports like football, the most common sports-related injuries are as follows:
- Running: runner’s knee, shin splints, achilles tendinitis, iliotibial band pain (affects connective tissue in the thigh and knee), hamstring pulls, plantar fasciitis, and stress fractures in the feet;
- Weight training: shoulder impingement (often called swimmer’s shoulder), injury to the patellar tendon in the knee, and back sprains and strains;
- Cycling: knee pain, achilles tendinitis, lower back strains, and neck strains;
- Swimming: shoulder impingement syndrome (swimmer’s shoulder), shoulder inflammation, rotator cuff tendonitis or tears, cartilage tears around the shoulder, neck pain, low back pain, and bicep tendonitis;
- Baseball/Softball: rotator cuff tears, knee injuries, low back sprains, and muscle sprains and strains;
- Tennis: tennis elbow, knee injuries, rotator cuff tendonitis, wrist strains, back pain, and achilles tendon strains.
All of these common sports injuries can be successfully treated using red light therapy, especially NIR light, which penetrates deep into the body’s tissues.
The healing-stimulation properties of red light therapy are far-reaching.
- Red light therapy stimulates collagen production, which strengthens cartilage and tendons and can speed up muscle recovery and healing from sports injuries. Collagen is a protein most commonly associated with healthy skin tone, but it is also a key component of muscle and connective tissue. When collagen production is stimulated through red light therapy, it aids in repairing micro-tears in muscles (a result of intense exercise) or larger traumatic injuries to muscle tissue, including tears and blunt trauma.
- NIR light helps to reduce pain from overexertion and injury. Most people want to resume their sport quickly, whether they’re sidelined from overtraining or injury. A 2016 study revealed that 830nm NIR light prompted a significant acceleration of muscle recovery and return-to-play after just a few sessions. The researchers found that NIR light enhanced blood flow, reduced inflammation, relaxed muscle spasms, and minimized the time participants reported feeling pain.
- Treatment with red light therapy has also been shown to reduce the inflammatory response from trauma to muscles, which helps reduce recovery time from sports injuries. Red light stimulates cellular repair and regeneration which leads to a more relaxed inflammatory response. Acute inflammation (swelling, heat, pain, and redness) is a normal part of healing, but chronic inflammation causes healing delays. Many athletes are trained to push through the pain no matter what, which can lead to chronic inflammation and a delayed healing response. NIR light is especially beneficial in reducing inflammation because of how it absorbs deep into muscle, connective tissue, and even bone.
- Red light therapy helps heal deep muscle tissue bruising to alleviate athletes’ pain and get them back to their sport as quickly as possible.
- Achilles tendinitis is a persistent problem among runners, cyclists, and other types of athletes. A 2006 study examined the effects of NIR light therapy on seven patients with bilateral achilles tendinitis and found that participants had significantly less inflammation and higher pressure pain threshold after treatment.
The time commitment is modest; just one 10- to 20-minute session per body part before and/or after a workout. The optimal distance from the device is about 4” to 6”, and for proper absorption of the light into the body, it must be applied to bare skin, rather than through clothing. In addition to your regular pre- and/or post-workout treatment, you can spot-treat problem areas like chronic back pain.
When you use red light therapy, you may feel immediate relief and relaxation thanks to the gentle warmth emitted by the device. You may also experience immediate improvements in strength, speed, and endurance, whereas long-term healing of sports injuries may require up to a few weeks of therapy. And since red light therapy is safe, you can continue to use it indefinitely to help maintain peak physical performance in any sport.