The Ultimate Guide to Red Light Therapy for Athletes

Red Light Therapy for Athletes

Red light therapy has been around for quite some time as both a cosmetic and medical treatment for various applications. But with major sports figures and celebrities popularizing this form of therapy, what can we learn about how red light therapy affects athletic performance and workout recovery?

While it might seem far-fetched at first that something as simple as light exposure can significantly affect the body. We’ll break down what’s known in the scientific literature about how red light therapy works, where its limitations are, and how the benefits can translate into helping you reach your athletic goals. 

What Is Red Light Therapy?

Red Light Therapy (RLT), also known as photobiomodulation (PBM) or low-level light therapy (LLLT), is the process of exposing the skin and body to red and near-infrared wavelengths of light for controlled periods of time.

We’ve long known that exposure to different spectrums of light can profoundly affect our physiology in various ways. For example, exposure to sunlight when you wake up triggers the neural responses that control the timing of when hormones like cortisol and melatonin are released to maintain your circadian rhythms.

Knowing that different spectrums of light interact with the body in different ways, the red to near infra-red wavelengths stood out for their positive responses in energy production at a cellular level.

Before we can translate how this response to red light can affect athletic performance and recovery, it’s important that we first dive into what we know about the mechanisms behind how this technology works. 

The Science behind How Red Light Therapy Works

If there is one thing everyone remembers from their high-school biology class, it would be that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Its job is to generate most of the energy needed to fuel your cell’s biochemical reactions. Your mitochondria then store the energy it produces in small molecules called ATP, which you can think of as the currency your body uses for energy transactions. 

Interestingly, the mitochondrial electron transport chain is photosensitive to red and near-infrared wavelengths of light. Photosensitivity is how much an object reacts when it receives photons. When these wavelengths of light stimulate your mitochondria, it ramps up ATP production and inhibits oxidative stress.

Your body needs ATP for healthy cellular function. And for athletes, the more ATP you have, the better your body can keep up with the energy demands of exercise and repairing the body after training.

Red Light Therapy Benefits for Athletes

While traditional uses for red light therapy have revolved around many cosmetic effects of improving ATP production. It didn’t take long until photostimulation’s results found their way into finding ways to improve athletic performance and recovery.

To explore what these benefits are, let’s dive into the details on some of the prominent effects RLT and mitochondrial stimulation can provide for athletes and break down how each of them works.

Athletic Performance

While at first glance, it might seem obvious how increasing ATP production helps improve athletic performance, power output, and endurance. But how does it actually translate into real-world results through research?

Let’s break down a few studies conducted on red light therapy for different athletic performance measures.

Strength Training: In 2010, Lasers in Medical Science conducted a study to test near-infrared light’s effect on strength training. They split the participants into three groups, a light therapy group, a training-only group, and a control group. 

For 12 weeks, the three groups completed leg press training with a load equal to 80% of their one-rep max. 

After the 12 weeks of training, the light therapy group’s strength improvements were significantly greater than the test and control groups, with a strength increase of 55% compared to the test and control group’s 26% and 0.27%.

Endurance Training: In another study in 2017 by the same journal conducted a randomized, triple-blinded, placebo-controlled clinical trial (the gold standard of studies) on photobiomodulation’s effect on endurance training.

The study measured time until exhaustion, oxygen uptake, and the participants’ body fat throughout a 12-week treadmill endurance training.

The study results showed that read and near-red light therapy significantly increased time-to-exhaustion and oxygen uptake and decreased body fat in healthy volunteers compared to the placebo group. Astoundingly, the study also showed that the RLT group led to improvements in endurance THREE TIMES faster than the exercise-only group.

Sports Injury Recovery

For any competing athlete, one of the most important factors after an injury is the anticipated return-to-play timeframe while they heal and recover.

In 2016 the scientific journal Laser Therapy conducted a study to examine near-infrared LED therapy’s effect on reducing return-to-play recovery times for injured athletes.

The study included 395 injuries, including sprains, strains, ligament damage, and contusions. With a range of 2-6 treatments of near-infrared light, the study found that the average return-to-play in the subjects treated with LED therapy was reduced to 9.6 days compared to the anticipated 19.23 days for typical recovery.

While there are many factors a play, it is likely that red light therapy’s effect on improving blood circulation, decreasing muscle inflammation, and increasing mitochondrial photostimulation all play a role in accelerating the recovery process. 

Sleep Quality

Sleep quantity and quality are arguably among the most crucial factors in accelerating your progress as an athlete. Sleep is when your body enters into rest and repair mode, balancing your hormones, improving protein synthesis, and creating an environment primed for repairing muscle and tissue damaged during training.

Using the PSQI (Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index), the Journal of Athletic Training conducted a study to examine the effects of red light therapy on sleep quality in elite athletes.

The 14-day split the athletes into two groups: The RLT group, which would receive 30-minute red light treatments every night, and a placebo group that would not receive any light treatment.

The study found a significant improvement in the sleep quality as well as serum melatonin levels for the RLT group compared to the placebo group.

Not only is sleep critical to your recovery and performance as an athlete, but it can also easily become disrupted due to training. Evening training sessions can ramp your body up and make it challenging to wind back down when it’s time to crawl into bed.

Red light therapy can be a simple, non-invasive approach to include in your daily regimen of workout recovery habits. And for athletes who struggle to get quality sleep, it’s an easy protocol to try for yourself to determine if it works for you. 

Pain Reduction and Tissue Recovery

Stiffness, soreness, and minor pains from previous workouts can severely diminish the quality of upcoming training sessions.

While many athletes may reach for the bottle of anti-inflammatories before their workout, most athletes are always on the hunt for natural protocols to include in their daily regimens to attenuate pain. From cryotherapy to foam rolling to massage guns, red light therapy is another promising candidate for reducing DOMS and bringing back range of motion between training sessions.

Research like this study from the European Journal of Applied Physiology in 2010 has shown that red light therapy can mitigate the negative effects of exercise-induced muscle damage. However, much like any workout recovery protocol, muscle soreness is a complicated phenomenon that we still don’t have a complete explanation for. Which means different recovery protocols seem to work better for some athletes than others. 

Red light therapy is a recovery protocol that shows promise as a safe and effective intervention for attenuating the adverse effects of post-workout soreness in some athletes. Like myofascial release or cold therapy, the easiest way to find out how well it works for you is to dedicate a period of time to try it for yourself and examine the results.

Different Ways to Get Red Light Therapy:

Finding a Red Light Therapy Provider

Many providers offering workout recovery and general wellness services like cryotherapy, pneumatic compression, and hyperbaric therapy are also beginning to add red light therapy to their list of core services.

The benefit of using a reputable provider for your red light therapy is having access to professional staff to ensure a safe and effective treatment, as well as being able to use top-of-the-line equipment with the proper ranges of light. 

Even if you decide to take your red light therapy home by getting your own set of panels. Using a provider for your first few sessions will give you the knowledge you need for proper periodization and give you an idea of the results you’ll get from it before buying your own to maximize cost efficiency and convenience.

This link here will search for red light therapy providers near you.

Red Light Therapy at Home

Getting your own set of red light therapy panels to use at home is a simple way to maintain a regular session schedule and save money over time. 

Just like having a dedicated space for an ice bath improves your ability to stay consistent with your cold therapy, having a way to do red light therapy at home allows you to work it into your regimen so that it becomes a habit.

We’ll leave an Amazon grid below with our top picks for high-end red light therapy panels you can have shipped directly to your doorstep:

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Risks and Side Effects of Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy is considered safe and has a low risk of adverse side effects when used correctly.

However, just like any other workout recovery protocol, it’s important always first to consult your doctor or preferred healthcare provider before you consider a new treatment.

Side effects like burns, blisters, or irritation that have been reported commonly occur when users either fall asleep during a session or when improper or defective devices are used. 

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