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Red Light Therapy for Athletes: Boost Muscle Recovery & Performance?

Last Updated on February 1, 2023

Red light therapy has gained a recent following among athletes who claim that it improves both muscle recovery and physical performance. Here, we examine what the science has to say about it and if you should use red light therapy.

Being an athlete looks so sexy on television. Fans see the guts, glory, and accolades, but they don’t see the sweat equity that goes into repairing your body after the bright lights turn off.

Thankfully, the marvels of modern medicine have made it easier for athletes to maximize their recovery efforts so they can get back in the game faster. Red light therapy is quickly becoming the go-to way for athletes to recuperate, rehabilitate injuries, and enhance performance.

Today, we’ll look at everything there is to know about red light therapy for muscle recovery and sports performance.

Why Is Recovery Important In Sports?

Recovery is perhaps the most critical aspect of athletics because it allows our muscles time to repair, rebuild, and strengthen. Without proper recovery, your body enters a cycle of constant activity where it never has the time it needs to recuperate and recover. When that happens, the result is poor performance or even injury.

During strenuous activity or exercise, microscopic tears develop in muscle tissue. The soreness and discomfort you feel after a hard workout is the result of this exercise-induced muscle damage.

Woman using a foam roller after a workout

During the recovery process, these tiny tears can heal, making you stronger and more muscular in the process. Athletes relish these feelings of soreness, as it’s the body’s way of letting them know their hard work is paying off.

Beyond the importance of recovery for muscle repair, recovery also allows the body to restore its glycogen reserves. Glycogen is what your body uses to fuel your muscles for peak performance.

Recovery days also allow for mental rest, and they’re critical in preventing overtraining syndrome.

Not surprisingly, many athletes suffer from overtraining syndrome. Some experts suggest that up to 60% of elite and professional athletes suffer from overtraining syndrome, often characterized by increased fat storage, decreased libido, and moodiness [1].

What Happens When You Don’t Allow For Muscle Recovery

Many athletes and fitness enthusiasts are guilty of pushing through all the signs their body sends them when it’s time to rest and recover. If that sounds like you, you should be aware that there are some potential pitfalls.

When you don’t give your body enough time to recover, those microtears in your muscles that we discussed above can’t heal fully. Instead, they grow and compound on each other until your muscle finally hits a breaking point and you injure yourself.

Providing your muscles with time to recover doesn’t mean being sidelined for too long, especially if you take steps to maximize the time you have to recover.

In a moment, we’re going to discuss how you can use red light therapy to make the most of your recovery time so you can get back into the game faster.

If you haven’t heard of red light therapy before, you might know it as low-level laser therapy, photobiomodulation therapy, or light-emitting diode therapy.

How Can Athletes Benefit From Red Light Therapy?

Red light therapy harnesses the power of red and near infrared light and delivers it to your cells to improve their function. Red light therapy aids in adenosine triphosphate (ATP) production, which is the body’s way of storing and using energy. ATP is crucial to the body’s recovery processes.

Red light therapy for athletes delivers several positive effects to help you achieve peak performance and reach the next level. Athletes worldwide are using this light treatment to quicken muscle recovery, boost their performance, and help them recover when they’re rehabbing an injury.

NFL stars like Patrick Peterson and Keenan Allen have used red light therapy for peak performance. The Phoenix Suns and Nike’s Oregon Project have also used red light therapy for its physical performance and muscle recovery benefits.

Boost Muscle Recovery

Inflammation and muscle soreness are commonplace among all athletes and weekend warriors. If you’re getting after it, you’re bound to feel some soreness and discomfort following a strenuous activity session.

One of the most significant benefits of red light therapy is its ability to aid in the different facets of muscle recovery. This unique therapy allows muscles to recover while reducing the inflammation that causes pain and discomfort after a hard workout.

Reduced Muscle Soreness

Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is something that all athletes deal with, and it’s perhaps the leading cause of soreness and discomfort after high-level athletic performance. Even if you aren’t an elite athlete, you probably deal with DOMS each time you hit a tough workout at the gym. It’s that soreness you feel for several days after.

One of the most promising characteristics of red light therapy is its ability to reduce or eliminate DOMS after strenuous activities. A 2006 randomized, double-blind placebo-controlled trial used red light therapy devices on the biceps brachii muscles to determine its ability to address muscle soreness.

Man doing a bicep curl at the gym while using red light therapy

The group that received red light therapy treatment experienced a marked reduction in pain and discomfort associated with DOMs compared to the group that received a placebo treatment [2].

Another randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was similar in test design but focused on the rectus femoris muscle. This study looked at both performance and recovery. While the researchers found no evidence that low-level laser therapy significantly improved performance, they were able to conclude that it effectively reduced creatine kinase levels and increased lactate removal [3].

This conclusion suggests that red light therapy is an effective supplement to post-workout routines, as it delivers tangible muscle recovery benefits.

Creatine kinase is an enzyme that your body releases when there’s muscle damage. As a result, there is often an expected increase in creatine kinase levels post-workout. Similarly, your body produces lactic acid (or lactate) as a result of strenuous exercise. Both are natural post-workout responses, but your body needs to deal with them before it can function normally.

Increased ATP Production

Cellular energy is at the core of every process our bodies complete. The more energy our cells have, the better they are at fulfilling their jobs and reaching the highest level of performance. Red light therapy increases ATP production, which is the “energy currency” of our bodies.

With more cellular energy to go around, our bodies experience less muscle fatigue, and our muscles can grow more quickly. In this manner, red light therapy also helps the body adapt to new physical challenges more effectively.

So, not only can red light therapy help you heal and recover more quickly, but it also allows you to adapt to and conquer new challenges.

Enhance Physical Performance

Elite athletes are always looking for ways to enhance their performance and take their game to the next level. Many weekend warriors, gym rats, and amateur athletes also feel that same drive to perform.

Four men using rowing machines during a group exercise class

Forces within our bodies are constantly working against those goals, and fatigue plays a significant role in whether or not an athlete can push through and achieve their personal best. Beyond its application as a post-workout recovery tool, red light therapy shows promise as a tool to boost physical and athletic performance, too.

Improved Muscle Strength and Reduced Muscle Fatigue

A 2012 study found that red LED light significantly increased peak force by 12.14% and mean average force by 13.09%, both of which measure strength. Researchers also found that red light therapy delayed the onset of muscle fatigue.

They then explain that red light therapy may reduce oxidative stress and reactive oxygen species (ROS) production. Oxidative stress is known to impair contractile muscle function, which results in muscle fatigue [4].

Oxidative stress builds up when there isn’t enough of an antioxidant response from enzymes like superoxide dismutase (SOD) in the body to manage the buildup of free radical oxygen molecules. When left to proliferate, free radicals rob our bodies of physical performance. As a result, fatigue increases while performance and power decrease.

Because red light therapy increases ATP production, cells can replicate more quickly, improving oxygenation in the process. These processes help fight oxidative stress, which translates to less muscle fatigue during sports or workouts. With red light therapy, you’ll be able to get out there effectively instead of sucking wind with your hands on your knees.

A 2016 study on professional rugby players demonstrates similar results concerning how red light therapy helps improve performance by reducing oxidative stress and fatigue. In this study, the test group received red light therapy before a fitness test. Compared to the control, the test group posted significantly faster sprint times.

Athletes in the test group also noted that they felt less fatigue during their workouts, which helps explain why they saw improvements in their sprint times [5].

If you feel like muscle fatigue is keeping you from performing at the highest level, red light therapy could mean the difference between your personal best and mediocre performance.

Further reinforcing red light therapy as a performance-boosting therapy, a closely controlled double-blind trial with placebo studied how healthy men responded to red light therapy before engaging in strenuous exercise.

The study focused on the quadriceps femoris muscles of trial participants, measuring their output and fatigue level. The participants who received red light therapy were able to perform, on average, 52% more reps while experiencing less fatigue than the participants in the control group [6].

Man doing a leg extension exercise at the gym

Increased Blood Flow

Red light therapy also increases blood flow, which is critical for high-level performance [7]. As blood flow increases, more oxygen and nutrients are delivered to your cells to fuel them. More blood flow also means less room for free radicals to affect your performance.

In essence, the extra blood flow provides your muscles with the fuel they need while keeping oxidative stress at bay. For athletes, this means you’ll have the strength and endurance you need to push through.

As a result, we can see how beneficial red light therapy can be for muscle strength and muscle hypertrophy.

Accelerate Healing from Sports Injuries

The last area in which red light therapy delivers promising results, and perhaps the most important, is injury recovery. Few things are more frustrating or upsetting for an athlete than an injury that forces them to take a step back from training. Even if it’s for a day or two, no athlete likes being forced to the sidelines – especially for a common sports injury.

Fortunately, red light therapy shows impressive promise as a tool to help accelerate the healing process and decrease the time necessary before returning to the gym or the field.

One study shows incredible promise from a recovery perspective. Researchers provided injured university athletes with near infrared light therapy as part of their injury recovery routines. Students who received the 830 nm red light had a dramatically reduced RTP (return to play) time than those who received no red light therapy treatment.

Doctor treating an athlete's knee injury

This study didn’t have a control group, so it’s difficult to conclude true effectiveness from the evidence it presents. Still, the study suggests that near infrared light therapy was able to cut recovery time in half, from 19.23 days down to just 9.6 days [8].

These results suggest that red light therapy can effectively kickstart muscle healing while reducing the acute inflammatory response. This combination allows athletes to return to the field in significantly less time than those who don’t use red light therapy.

Increased Collagen Production

When we think of collagen, we typically think of skin, but it’s also critical for muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Collagen makes tendons and cartilage stronger while also aiding in muscle repair. As a result, collagen plays a crucial role in healing muscle-related injuries.

Fortunately, red light therapy can help stimulate collagen production [9] – which, in turn, means you can get back in the game (or gym!) sooner.

Reduced Muscle Pain

Near-infrared light (NIR) appears to reduce muscle pain from injury or overwork. More specifically, 830 nm NIR light has been shown to relieve pain and reduce inflammation while relaxing muscle spasms and enhancing blood circulation. All these benefits translate to quicker recovery and a faster return-to-play time for athletes.

Male athlete using sports tape

In addition to muscle recovery benefits, red light therapy can also heal more severe muscle injuries. Red light therapy helps to restore and regenerate muscle tissue to heal the injured area more quickly. Certain wavelengths can penetrate more deeply, which helps for common athletic ailments like chronic inflammation [10].

Red light therapy also shows promising results for deep tissue bruising. One small study of ten participants found that those who received red light therapy after surgical procedures healed between 33-50% more quickly than the control group [11].

When to Use Red Light Therapy For Sports

The more we understand red light therapy, the more we see that it can be used to great effect in many different ways. Clinical studies suggest that there are tangible benefits to red light therapy before, during, or after workouts. Red light therapy is also looking like an effective treatment for sports injuries. Read on as we cover the best times to use this therapy to achieve maximum benefit.

Before Workouts

Research suggests that using red light therapy before workouts or sports allows the athlete to achieve the most significant benefit. In a meta-analysis of over 30 studies, researchers in Brazil concluded that red light therapy before workouts displayed the best results across several measures like time-to-exhaustion and number of repetitions [12].

When performing the Bangsbo Sprint Test, rugby players who received red light therapy before the test had faster average sprint times, a lower percentage of blood lactate, and a lower fatigue index compared to the control group [5]. The lower blood lactate is especially significant, as it suggests the runners experienced less fatigue while sprinting.

Reinforcing those results, a study in the Journal of Athletic Training observed test subjects’ performance when running on a treadmill. The group that received red light therapy before their session fatigued more slowly, ran longer, and experienced less labored breathing. These results suggest that red light therapy provides tangible pre-workout benefits [13].

Man running on a treadmill while being monitored by researchers

Research suggests that engaging in red light therapy three to six hours before a workout is when you’ll achieve maximum benefit. Further study is necessary, considering that this particular study was conducted on mice. Interestingly, mice who received red light therapy just before exercise showed no changes compared to the control group [14].

During a Workout

Since most exercise isn’t conducive to stopping for phototherapy treatment, there’s limited research to suggest the benefits of red light therapy during a workout. However, we did find a few interesting studies, so we’ll discuss these shortly.

A study of recreational runners in Brazil measured their exhaustion rate, speed, time-to-exhaustion, and efficiency. The runners who received red light therapy during their workout scored higher by every measure compared to the control group [12].

Eight runners competing on a running track

Post-menopausal women also seem to experience benefits from using red light therapy during a workout. A small study of post-menopausal women between ages 50-60 found that those who received red light therapy before a treadmill workout showed more quadriceps muscle power and less fatigue [15].

You’ll want to take these findings with a grain of salt, as similar studies focused on red light therapy during training found no link between treatment and muscle fatigue resistance.

After Workouts

Many athletes rely on red light therapy for post-workout recovery and to increase the effectiveness of their workouts. Recent peer-reviewed studies seem to suggest that red light therapy is an effective and intriguing treatment after workouts.

One study, designed to measure red light therapy’s impact on workout performance when administered post-workout, delivered especially promising results. The study measured performance on a leg-press exercise over twelve weeks of workouts. After the study, those who received low level laser therapy enjoyed a 55% increase in their one-rep max. In comparison, those in the control group only increased theirs by 26% [16].

Woman performing a leg press at the gym

A 2016 study suggests that red light therapy is an effective way to reduce post-workout fatigue and recovery. Compared to the control group, the group that received light-emitting diode therapy after workouts experienced less muscle fatigue and muscle damage while experiencing faster recovery and greater muscle mass. What’s more, researchers conducted gene expression analyses and found fewer markers of inflammation and muscle atrophy [17].

Before and After Workouts

With compelling research for using red light therapy before or after workouts, it stands to reason that using red LED light therapy both pre and post-workout should also be effective. According to the research, that may not always be the case.

In one study that administered red light therapy to the experimental group before and after workouts, researchers noted significant improvements only when red light therapy was administered pre-workout. They didn’t report any improvements in post-workout recovery or performance when using red LED light as a post-workout therapy. [18]

Another study found that body fat percentage, oxygen uptake, and time-to-exhaustion were significantly improved when participants received red light therapy before and after training sessions. These findings suggest that, for endurance athletes like distance runners, red light therapy might be a helpful practice for both before and after workouts [19].

A group of professional runners competing

Our Recommendation

Based on a meta-analysis of available research and our anecdotal findings, there appear to be two schools of thought for how to leverage red light therapy in your training routine.

If your primary goal is to improve your athletic performance or to enhance muscle growth, it seems best to employ red light therapy before your workout. Limited research suggests that photobiomodulation therapy provides the maximum benefit when applied between three to six hours before exercise.

Man doing a bicep curl at the gym

If you’re looking for a tool to aid in post-workout recovery, the best time to use red light therapy seems to be after a workout.

While the research to substantiate the use of red light therapy both before and after workouts is limited at best, athletes won’t do any harm by using it before and after workouts – especially for those looking to boost muscle endurance.

If you’re looking to improve athletic performance while also speeding up muscle recovery, you can certainly use red light therapy both before and after workouts.

The Science Behind How it Works

Scientists have known that the sun plays a significant role in how the human body achieves homeostasis. With that in mind, it makes sense that researchers would conduct considerable research on how different forms of light energy affect the body. As a result, we now know that the effects of red light treatment on the body are nothing short of fascinating.

Diagram showing how deep each light wavelength penetrates into the skin

Red light therapy involves using LED lights that direct red and near-infrared light to the skin. This therapy most commonly uses light wavelengths between 630nm and 850 nm, known as the Therapeutic Window. Decades of research have suggested that light waves at these amplitudes deliver a wide range of benefits for the body.

Red light therapy works on a cellular level to stimulate biochemical reactions in the area where it’s being administered. The light interacts with the photoreceptors inside the mitochondria of our cells to boost energy production. This biochemical reaction then leads to the well-known benefits of increased collagen production, improved blood circulation, and reduced inflammation.

Red light therapy accomplishes these incredible acts by enhancing mitochondrial function, which in turn increases ATP production. ATP is the “energy currency” used by every one of our cells and is at the heart of how our bodies operate. More ATP makes it easier for cells to function efficiently and repair damage more quickly.

By also increasing blood flow, cells receive more oxygen and nutrients. This action helps to reduce inflammation. Since there’s less inflammation for your body to address, leukocytes (or white blood cells) can be sent to more efficiently repair the cells damaged during your strenuous workout.

How Does Red Light Therapy Compare To Other Popular Treatments?

Beyond red light therapy, several other treatments have shown promising results in peak athletic performance and muscle recovery. Cold water immersion therapy (CWIT) and cryotherapy are two popular alternatives used by many athletes.

But, how do these therapies compare to red light therapy?

Red Light Therapy vs. Cold Water Immersion Therapy

Cold water immersion therapy (CWIT) is one of the most popular recuperative therapies for athletes, and many rely on CWIT to help restore them after games or strenuous activity.

CWIT helps stimulate blood flow and reduce inflammation. The freezing water helps to repair damaged muscle tissue while protecting against further damage.

While CWIT is an effective therapy for recovery, it doesn’t offer as many benefits as red light therapy. While both are effective for post-workout recovery, only red light therapy is effective for improving muscle performance.

Man stretching his leg after a workout while using red light therapy

Red light therapy also provides additional recovery benefits that you can’t get from CWIT. Unlike cold water immersion, red light therapy also reduces blood lactate levels and creatine kinase activity, which are critical to recovery [20].

Red Light Therapy vs. Cryotherapy

Cryotherapy is similar to cold water immersion therapy. Instead of exposing the body to freezing water, cryotherapy exposes the body to freezing air. Cryotherapy can be applied locally to an affected area or across the whole body – the latter of which seems to provide the most benefit.

Cryotherapy sessions typically last two to four minutes and expose you to negative 200-300°F air. This therapy helps to reduce inflammation and numb nerve pain, which makes it useful for both workout and injury recovery. There are also some additional benefits: cryotherapy may be able to help you lose weight and cope with migraine headaches.

Cryotherapy chamber at negative 137 degrees Celsius

While cryotherapy is effective for injuries and regular recovery, it appears red light therapy provides more far-reaching benefits. Red light therapy is not only better at reducing creatine kinase and blood lactate but also more effective at reducing inflammation than cryotherapy. Red light therapy also enhances post-workout muscle function and performance more than cryotherapy [21].

Final Thoughts

Red light therapy is one of the most compelling new treatments to help keep you performing at the highest level. While many treatments and therapies help athletes achieve peak performance and recover faster, few seem to be as promising or effective as red light therapy.

The beneficial effects of red light therapy are three-pronged: it helps to boost athletic performance, aid in muscle recovery, and accelerate healing from sports injuries. While other therapies are helpful in their own way, red light therapy is the most promising option for athletes looking to boost performance or recover faster, a stance backed by the many peer-reviewed clinical trials mentioned above.

References

  1. https://journals.lww.com/acsm-csmr/Fulltext/2015/05000/Overtraining_Syndrome.7.aspx
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16875447/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19057981/
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21814736/
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27050245/
  6. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25496083/
  7. https://clinicaltrials.gov/ct2/show/NCT01882725
  8. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4846838/
  9. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4148276/
  10. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16799998/
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16581685/
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24249354/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4852318/
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25700769/
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23895414/
  16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21086010/
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27088469/
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27371449/
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29185134/
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21088862/
  21. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29952693/
Anne, Founder of Therapeutic Beams

Anne Linde

Since using it to clear up her acne in college, Anne has been an avid user and fan of all things light therapy. She now primarily uses red light therapy for its anti-aging benefits. Anne's mission is to make the science behind red light therapy easy to understand and accessible, so anyone can use it to take control of their health and wellbeing.

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