Red Light Therapy for Athletic Performance and RecoveryLast Updated:
Red light therapy is also known as low-level laser therapy (LLLT) or photobiomodulation (PBM). Its healing properties and health benefits are increasingly recognized as beneficial for a wide range of applications including overall skin health, wrinkle reduction, injury treatment, pain relief, weight management, the treatment of eye conditions, physical fitness enhancement, bodily healing ability, and more.
Table of Contents
What is Red Light Therapy and How Does It Work?
Red light wavelengths are administered to your skin, penetrating to the cells below. Mitochondria (the energy production centers of cells) are stimulated, triggering the production of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is your body’s primary means of biochemical energy transfer.
ATP is delivered to all of your bodily tissues and organs, boosting the energy level within your cells. Greater cellular energy elicits higher oxygen levels, reduces inflammation, boosts your immune system, and improves your circulation.
Increased energy in your cells activates the production of fibroblasts (specific connective tissue cells that create collagen and elastin). Collagen and elastin are essential proteins that keep your skin supple and elevate your body’s innate power to heal itself.
Red light therapy is growing in use by professional athletes in a wide range of sports and is increasingly recommended by professional trainers. Its performance-enhancing and healing possibilities enable at-home fitness enthusiasts and professional athletes alike to achieve their peak performance abilities.
Red light therapy draws upon your body’s natural cellular processes to activate change and help you become your best athletic self.
What Does Red Light Therapy Do for Athletes?
Red light therapy can help anyone interested in fitness and exercise realize his or her own ultimate fitness goals and peak potential.
Increased energy at the cellular level means increased overall bodily energy. Greater energy within your cells translates to increased stamina and endurance, improvements in strength and speed, and a rise to your optimal performance level.
Because your cells are more active, cellular oxidation (the process by which your body rids itself of waste products) becomes more efficient. When your body disposes of waste more expediently, your stamina and endurance increase in a direct relationship.
Better circulation means that more capillaries (fine blood vessels) exist to deliver oxygen and essential nutrients to your cells. Increased oxygenation and cellular nutrition result in less muscle damage during workouts. This means that you can boost your workout level, sustain less tissue injury, and recover more quickly after exercise.
With heightened energy, cells perform their specialized functions more efficiently, leading to less muscle fatigue and your body’s ability to complete more intense workouts while experiencing less exhaustion. The onset of post-workout muscle soreness is delayed and pain is lessened.
The cellular changes triggered by red light therapy work hand-in-hand to upgrade you to your personal best athletic performance level.
Muscle growth is compounded through ATP production and the resulting cellular energy boost. Your body’s new ability to work out more intensely naturally invokes a higher level of muscle development. Improved cellular efficiency, increased oxygenation, and better circulation all lead to your highest muscle-building potential.
By pairing red light therapy with a personalized exercise program, you can build up to your greatest potential muscle mass.
Tissue Repair, Sports Injury Prevention, and Healing
The impact of regular workouts on bodily tissues is successfully treated with red light therapy, as are serious sports injuries.
Even routine daily exercise and repetitive motions present stress to your muscles and other bodily tissues. The anti-inflammatory properties of red light therapy along with increased hydration and oxygenation serve to relieve muscular pain and stiffness that occurs post-workout. Muscle spasms, knots, cramps, and pain are weakened or eliminated.
Collagen and elastin are primary components of muscle and connective tissue. The elevated collagen and elastin levels evoked by red light therapy stimulate healing, accelerate muscle and tissue recovery, and strengthen tendons and cartilage.
The potential of sustaining a sports injury is lessened when red light therapy is part of your fitness routine. If you do sustain an injury, however, your body’s ability to heal more quickly has already been triggered at the cellular level if you have been regularly utilizing red light therapy.
Enhanced blood flow, reduced inflammation, and higher oxygen levels in your cells help to heal muscle and tissue damage and internal bruising at the quickest possible rate.
Examples of exercise-related conditions and sports injuries that are effectively treated by red light therapy include:
- cartilage tears
- knee injuries
- tennis elbow
- tendonitis in any joint or muscle
- back pain, soreness, strains, or sprains
- muscle strains or sprains
- rotator cuff tears
- Achilles tendon strains or tears
- ”shin splints” (shin pain caused by overworking shin muscles and tendons), common in runners and dancers
- general joint, nerve, and muscle soreness
How Long Does Post-Workout Muscle Recovery Take With Red Light Therapy?
Because of the mild, warm sensation bestowed by red light therapy, some muscular pain relief might be experienced immediately upon after-workout treatment. Results will vary from person to person and by the severity of the pain or injury. Individual response to red light therapy is unique.
It is certain, though, that red light therapy will enhance athletic performance, speed up recovery time, and help prevent injury in anyone.
Are the Effects of Red Light Therapy Permanent?
No external treatment or procedure will keep up your muscle mass or fitness level on its own. The only way to build and maintain new muscle and increase fitness performance is to continue to exercise and practice a healthy lifestyle along with red light therapy. As long as you keep up your efforts, red light therapy will help you rise to new levels.
Is Red Light Therapy Most Effective Before, During, or After a Workout?
You will experience different benefits from using red light therapy before, during, or after a workout.
Stretching and performing a proper warm-up before exercise are essential for injury prevention. Red light therapy supplements your warm-up process. Through a process called vasodilation, blood vessels dilate and improve blood flow throughout your body. Increased oxygen levels, more cellular energy, and better circulation prepare your body to perform to its highest potential.
When used before a workout, red light therapy will:
- maximize muscle performance
- promote muscle growth
- improve muscle tone
- help prevent injury
- increase hydration
- increase oxygenation
- increase stamina and endurance
- boost energy level through heightened ATP levels
- reduce post-workout recovery time
- decrease stress on muscles, joints, and tissues
When used before a workout, red light therapy will amplify your overall performance and up your game to the next level.
It is not usually realistic to administer red light therapy during a workout; however, there are some instances in which this can potentially be done. A red light panel could be set up near a treadmill, for example, to provide treatment during exercise.
Some devices are worn on the body (discussed later in this article) and could be used during a workout or low-contact sport; however, most devices are generally meant to be worn while at rest. If worn during a workout or sporting event, a device could sustain damage.
It is also possible to administer red light therapy between intervals or during game breaks. These time periods, however, are not typically long enough to completely cool your body down, and you are still benefiting from the effects of pre-activity red light therapy.
While it is uncommon to undergo red light therapy while exercising, treatment applied during a workout will lessen exhaustion and fatigue, help prevent injury, and aid in muscle development. It will also augment any pre-workout red light therapy to heighten the benefits.
Recovery time after exercise is crucial. During recovery is when your body actually gains the full advantage of your workout. Your body gets stronger between workouts because this period of rest serves to replenish your store of energy. Recovery time is essential for building endurance, gaining muscle mass, and repairing tissue damage.
The recovery benefits of red light therapy after exercise include:
- acceleration of tissue repair and muscle recovery
- reduced exhaustion and fatigue
- decreased muscle and joint pain and soreness
- improved hydration
- better circulation
- increased injury-healing power
- elevated oxygenation
- reduced inflammation
Because some of the post-workout benefits are the same as pre-, red light therapy after a workout also promotes better performance in future workouts.
Red light therapy before a workout provides the greatest performance-enhancing benefits as well as the best measure of preventing tissue damage or injury during a workout.
Red light therapy after working out provides the greatest rehabilitation, joint pain relief, and injury-healing benefits.
Together, before- and after-exercise red light therapy generate a winning combination for your comprehensive performance and recovery abilities.
Which Type of Red Light Wavelengths Are Most Effective for Athletes?
Red light waves vary in length, type, intensity, and functionality.
Red LED Light
Red LED light (or short red light) wavelengths typically measure around 630 to 700 nanometers (nm). A nanometer equals one-billionth of a meter.
Visible to the human eye, short red light is on the “long end” of the visible spectrum of light. It is not thermal (meaning that it does not generate heat), although you might experience a mildly warm sensation on your skin during therapy.
Red LED light penetrates the body to a depth of about 8 to ten millimeters. It reaches tissue that is located closely beneath the skin (including some muscle and connective tissue) but does not reach deep tissue.
Near-infrared (NIR) light is just above red LED light on the spectrum. Since the spectrum is continuous, there is no “magic number” marking the end of red LED light and the beginning of NIR light. It is generally agreed upon that the range of NIR light is about 700 to 900nm in wavelength.
On the low end of its spectrum range (bordering on red LED), NIR light is visible. On its high end (bordering on infrared), it is invisible. On the high end, it begins to evolve into thermal energy, so it generates heat at that point.
NIR light penetrates your body more deeply than red LED light, to cells about one to 1.5 inches beneath your skin’s surface. It reaches large muscle groups and deep tissue that red LED light cannot.
Should You Use Red LED Light or Near-Infrared Light for Therapy Related to Athletic Performance, Muscle-Building, and Recovery?
Both. A combination of red LED and NIR light creates a formula for success.
Red LED light impacts muscle and connective tissue just beneath your skin, and NIR light extends to deeper tissue and large muscle groups that red LED cannot reach. Pairing red LED light and NIR light provides the most comprehensive and thorough treatment and yields the best results.
Devices producing one specific wavelength are available, as are customizable devices offering multiple wavelength options.
Each individual is unique in goals, objectives, and response to treatment, so the best combination for you will be a personalized one.
Which Red Light Therapy Devices Are Best for Athletes?
Red light therapy is easily administered in the comfort of your own home, or even at the gym or playing field, depending on the device. There is no need to attend repeated costly medical or spa appointments.
You need only purchase your device(s) once, so there are no recurring expenses.
- Hand-Held Devices, Wands, and Pens — These come in many shapes and sizes and work well to target specific areas. Hand-held devices are useful for treating specific injuries or pain concentrated in one area of your body. Examples include pulled, torn, knotted, or sore muscles, or a torn rotator cuff.
- Compression Neck Pillows — Horseshoe-shaped to wrap around the back and sides of your neck, these pillows serve to relieve neck soreness and heal any neck tissue injuries.
- Hand Mitts and Wrist Wraps — Good for hand and wrist pain and soreness due to injury or repetitive motions, mitts and wrist wraps can also relieve conditions like carpal tunnel and tendonitis.
- Slippers — Slip-on red light shoe devices are useful for anyone who spends a lot of time on their feet or sustains a foot injury. These are especially effective for long-distance runners. Sore feet are relieved, and pain from conditions like plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the ligament connecting the heel bone to the toes) is alleviated.
- Compression Wraps — Compression wraps are made specifically for use on joints and limbs, primarily elbows, knees, ankles, or overall arms or legs. They concentrate on a specific area to relieve muscle pain and heal muscle and tissue injury.
- Flexible Pads — These pads are supple and bendable so they contour to your body. They come in a variety of sizes and are especially useful for relieving back or shoulder pain, muscle knots, or back injury.
- Light Panels — Full-body panels and smaller hand-held or table-top panels are available in a variety of sizes. Light panels are for overall treatment and a broad-based option for general use. Unlike smaller devices that mainly treat pain and injury in a concentrated spot, red light panels provide the most cohesive and comprehensive red light therapy for athletes. The maximum combined performance, recovery, and healing benefits are achieved with panels.
Smaller devices are portable and can be brought to the gym, track, playing field, or wherever you are working out. Light panels are not as practical for this purpose.
Which devices you choose will depend upon your individual performance goals and recovery needs.
Is Red Light Therapy Safe? Are There Any Side Effects?
Red light therapy is 100% natural and FDA-approved. It is chemical- and drug-free and safe for all ages and skin types.
Red LED light produces no adverse side effects. It cannot burn your skin or damage any underlying tissues.
Because it represents thermal energy and has longer and invisible wavelengths, near-infrared light has the potential to burn your skin if overused. As long as near-infrared light is administered safely and according to instructions, the risk of experiencing any harmful side effects is extremely minimal.
Can I Take a Shower After Red Light Therapy?
Yes. The effects of red light therapy are triggered at the cellular level, so skin coming in contact with water after treatment will not diminish the benefits.
It is recommended that you shower and remove any makeup or lotions from your face and body before treatment. The cleaner and more readily available to the light wavelengths your skin is, the better the red light waves will penetrate your skin to the cells below.
Does Scientific Research Prove the Effectiveness of Red Light Therapy for Enhancing Athletic Performance, Reducing Fatigue, Recovery After Exercise, and Accelerating Tissue Healing?
Yes. Several clinical studies conclude that red light therapy is a powerful tool for athletes, assisting with performance, recovery, muscle development, healing, and overall bodily health.
- nih.gov - Phototherapy Improves Muscle Recovery (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - LLLT on Muscle Adaptation to Knee Extensor Eccentric Training (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Muscular Pre-Conditioning Using LEDT for High-Intensity Exercise (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Reduction of Fatigue With LLLT in Competitive Cyclists (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Photobiomodulation Accelerates Post-Exercise Recovery (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Photobiomodulation Therapy Improves Performance (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - When to Apply PBMT for Treadmill Endurance-Training (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - 904 nm Mitigates Effects Muscle Fatigue in Young Women (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Exercise Performance and Markers of Exercise Recovery (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Low-level Phototherapy to Improve Exercise Capacity (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - 810 nm Wavelength in Skeletal Muscle Performance (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - LLLT: Exploring the Role of Redox Mechanisms (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - LLLT for Skeletal Muscle Repair: A Systematic Review (opens in a new tab)
- harvard.edu - Effects of LED Therapy Muscle Soreness (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Muscle contractile function and postexercise recovery (opens in a new tab)
- nih.gov - Effects of Low-Power Light Therapy on Wound Healing (opens in a new tab)
No matter what your level of fitness or involvement in sports, whether you are a professional athlete, amateur gym-goer, or anyone in between, red light therapy is an exciting new way to boost your physical performance and healing ability.
Red light therapy will elicit your peak athletic potential and capacity to recover, all through the heightening of your body’s own natural processes.