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Red light therapy can help athletes recover better. That’s why it has been used for well over a decade in the world of elite sport.  However, it was once limited to medical professionals and relied on expensive lasers and technology.

In 2016, the US Track & Field Team thought it was important enough to bring a $200,000 machine to Rio for the Olympics.  Not something everyone can afford to do.

New, affordable LED technology has changed that. Red light therapy has left the training rooms of elite teams. It’s become much more accessible to anybody.

Additionally, extensive research has been done on the science of photobiomodulation. Real-world experience has also enhanced our knowledge of red light therapy. We know more about what it can help with, and how it works.

3 Ways Athletes Benefit from Red Light Therapy

It’s not hard to find athletes or sports medicine professionals who swear by using red light therapy. Just go into any professional training room or look on Instagram and you’ll see athletes in the glow of red light.

There is a litany of claims about what red light can do.  In this era of social media and marketing hype it’s natural to be skeptical of anything that seems too good to be true.

Let’s be honest, no single modality solves every problem in the world. 

However, we can follow the evidence.  This includes research and results in application.

Hundreds of peer-reviewed medical studies have shown the health benefits of red light therapy.  Red LED light therapy has positive effects on many different bodily systems and aspects of your health.

Three ways red light therapy can help athletes recover include;

So, let’s make sure you understand what red light therapy means.

What Is Red Light Therapy

Red light therapy is a simple procedure using LEDs (light-emitting diodes) or lasers to deliver red and near-infrared light to treat medical, orthopedic, and cosmetic conditions.

It is natural, noninvasive, painless, and does not use heat.

To be accurate, red light therapy is more than just “red” light and doesn’t require a laser.  That’s why the scientific term photobiomodulation is better (even if it’s a mouthful.)

Photobiomodulation uses wavelengths in the visible (red) as well as the invisible (near-infrared) spectrum to influence cellular processes in the body’s tissues.

How Does Red Light Therapy Work? 

The concept that light can deliver energy to cells to promote regeneration, growth, and function isn’t hard to grasp.

Just look at plants. The cells of plants take light and convert it into energy.

Human cells can also respond to the energy of light. 

Specific therapeutic wavelengths of light affect your cells biochemically by increasing mitochondrial function and cellular energy production.

Pillars of Recovery and Stress

Do You Know The Four Pillars of Stress and Recovery?

Why Red Light? 

Red light therapy uses light in the red or near-infrared (NIR) region. Based on years of study,  researchers have identified therapeutic windows that have significant biological benefits without any known side effects.

The most common effects of both red and NIR light include increased cellular energy, reduced inflammation, increased collagen production, and increased blood flow.

The main difference is the ability of NIR light to penetrate deeper into the body’s tissues than red light. Studies confirm that NIR increases mitochondria energy production and decreases inflammation.  

How Red Light Therapy Helps Optimize Cellular Health

A big part of your ability to perform and recover comes down to the cells of your body.

Your body does better, and recovers more effectively, when your cells are creating and using energy efficiently, with as little oxidative stress and inflammation as possible.

Each of your body’s trillions of cells requires energy to function.  Most of the energy produced by the mitochondria is in the form of a molecule called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).  This is part of the cellular respiration process.

Aging, illness, injury or lifestyle factors can make the mitochondria produce less ATP.

Red and NIR light improve the efficiency of the cellular respiration process and help your body make and use ATP energy more effectively.

Red light therapy both delivers energy to the cells, increase the number of mitochondria, and signals cells to increase protein synthesis and create a better oxidative environment. [Karu 2010, Ferraressi 2015]

A more efficient cell helps all of the processes of healing and recovery so you can live, work, play, and train harder.

Inflammation in athletes

Short-term, acute inflammation is a natural part of the body’s recovery and healing process. Small injuries can add more to this.

But if you don’t fully recover from previous injuries and workouts, inflammation can become chronic. Chronic inflammation degrades cellular function, tendon tissues, recovery, performance, and overall health. 

Photobiomodulation with Red and NIR light helps reduce the body’s inflammatory effects by boosting cellular energy and cutting down on oxidative stress [Hamblin 2017].

In fact, red light therapy was superior to common anti-inflammatory drugs in reducing inflammation and improving tissue structure [Naterstad 2018].  This means red light is a natural, and effective method to reduce local inflammation without drugs.

Red Light Therapy for Tendonitis

Achilles tendonitis, Jumper’s knee, and rotator cuff tendonitis are some of the most debilitating sports injuries.  Any athlete who has suffered from tendonitis knows the pain that can be associated with these injuries. 

Red light stimulates collagen production, speeds wound healing, and is anti-inflammatory.  This makes red light therapy helpful for people suffering from tendinopathy and tendonitis.  A significant body of research has demonstrated that red light is effective for treating tendonitis and tendinopathy. [Tumility, 2010]

Red light therapy for tendonitis helps through: 

  1. Stimulation of collagen production from tendon cells (tenocytes)
  2. Naturally managing excessive inflammation (see above section)
  3. Muscle tissue repair by stimulating muscle regenerating stem cells!

Many tendinopathies start with an acute strain or overuse. Pro-inflammatory cells are helpful to heal and stabilize the damaged tissue initially.

But if the inflammation lasts too long and becomes chronic it can impair long-term healing.

The body heals a tendon by laying down collagen fibers.  In the presence of pain or limited motion, it will lay down weaker type 3 fibers in a disorganized manner.

Photobiomodulation has been shown to stimulate tendon cells (tenocytes) to produce type 1 collagen (strong organized collagen fiber) vs type 3 (weak disorganized collagen fiber) in tendon degenerative states. This process accelerates recovery and provides stronger tissues.  

When To Use Red Light Therapy?

There are two ways to use light therapy treatments. Those ways are targeted to your workouts or as a general recovery session.  

You can do PBM either before you work out, or after. That choice depends on your wellness and fitness goals.

You can also do it as a general recovery session not connected to exercise or activity.  This can work at any point in the day or evening.

Red Light Therapy Before Exercise: You can use photobiomodulation before exercise to support better performance. Pre-exercise light therapy can help you limit muscle damage, and help recover strength levels faster. [de Olivera 2017, Feraressi 2017]

Red Light Therapy After Exercise: You can also use PBM after an exercise session as a part of your recovery routine. Post-exercise red light therapy speeds the recovery process by accelerating your muscle adaptation to exercise.  [de Olivera 2017, Feraressi 2017] It also helps the body process acute inflammation from working out. [Hamblin 2017]

Who can use red light therapy to recover faster?

Red light therapy can help athletes recover, but what about everyone else?

Recovery is Important for Everyone, Not Just Athletes.

Everyone who is active should pay attention to how their body rests and heals in order to give themselves time to recover from strain and inflammation.

What works for elite athletes can also help professionals, busy parents, or seniors trying to maintain their active lifestyle.

If you train or play sports, most people put big demands on their bodies and need to recover to keep performing well. Anybody can benefit from improved wellness and lifestyle and how it relates to their muscles, inflammation, and recovery. 

Red Light Therapy Can Help Athletes Recover Before or After Workout

Optimizing performance and recovery is about giving your body and cells what they need to succeed. Specifically, it’s about aligning the Four Pillars of Stress and Recovery. Photobiomodulation has a strong influence on two of those Pillars.

Recovery is a foundation of health and performance, whether you’re a pro athlete or a weekend warrior. Ignoring recovery can have major consequences, like chronic injuries and strain.

To improve your recovery, focusing on your overall lifestyle is the first step.

But when you need a boost, Red light therapy can support better physical performance and improved recovery & healing.

Red Light Therapy References

de Oliveira AR, et. al. Pre-Exercise Infrared Photobiomodulation Therapy (810 nm) in Skeletal Muscle Performance and Postexercise Recovery in Humans: What Is the Optimal Power Output? Photomed Laser Surg. 2017

Dutra, E, et. al. Use of photobiomodulation in the treatment of acute tendon injury. Research, Society and Development 2020

Ferraresi C, Kaippert B, et al. Low-level Laser (Light) Therapy Increases Mitochondrial Membrane Potential and ATP Synthesis in C2C12 Myotubes with a Peak Response at 3-6 h. Photochemistry and Photobiology. 2015

Ferraresi, Cleber et al. Low-level laser (light) therapy (LLLT) on muscle tissue: performance, fatigue and repair benefited by the power of light. Photonics & lasers in medicine vol. 1,4 : 267-286 2012

Ferraresi, Ying-Ying Huang, Michael R Hamblin. Photobiomodulation in human muscle tissue: an advantage in sports performance? J Biophotonics.9(11-12):1273-1299 2016

Michael R Hamblin. Mechanisms and applications of the anti-inflammatory effects of photobiomodulation. AIMS Biophys.;4(3):337-361. 2017

Karu T. Primary and Secondary Mechanisms of Action of Visible to Near-IR Radiation on Cells. Journal of Photochemistry Photobiology. 1999

Naterstad, et. al. Comparison of Photobiomodulation and Anti-Inflammatory Drugs on Tissue Repair on Collagenase-Induced Achilles Tendon Inflammation in Rats. Photomed Laser Surg, 36(3):137-145; 2018

Servetto N, Cremonezzi D, et al. Evaluation of inflammatory biomarkers associated with oxidative stress and histological assessment of low-level laser therapy in experimental myopathy. Lasers in Surgery and Medicine. 2010

Tumilty, S. Low level laser treatment of tendinopathy: a systematic review with meta-analysis. Photomedicine and Laser Surgery, 28(1):3-16. 2010

Zhao, J., Tian, Y., Nie, J., Xu, J., & Liu, D. Red light and the sleep quality and endurance performance of Chinese female basketball playersJournal of athletic training47(6), 673–678. 2012