There are quite a few novel training and recovery modalities for athletes. From ice baths to compression boots and vibration plates to electromyostimulation, athletes who want to stay on the cutting edge of exercise recovery and performance optimization have a bevy of tools at their disposal.
Another potential tool for muscle recovery after a workout is red light therapy. Although not necessarily new, red light therapy for muscle recovery has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years, mainly due to promising results from scientific studies and anecdotal usages.
But, is red light therapy for muscle recovery worth the hype? And, should you use red light therapy before or after a workout?
In this article, we will discuss how red light therapy works and the impact of red light therapy for muscle recovery and fitness improvements.
We will cover:
- What Is Red Light Therapy?
- Does Red Light Therapy Improve Muscle Recovery From Exercise?
- 7 Benefits of Red Light Therapy for Muscle Recovery and Exercise Performance
- Should You Use Red Light Therapy Before Or After a Workout?
- Red Light Therapy Product Recommendations
Let’s dive in!
What Is Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy may go by one of several names, including photobiomodulation (PBM) or photobiomodulation therapy, low-power laser therapy (LPLT), low-level laser light therapy (LLLT), photonic stimulation, cold laser therapy, or soft laser therapy.
Like other forms of photodynamic therapy, red light therapy is based upon the principle that when the body absorbs certain wavelengths of light—in this case, the red spectrum—it causes favorable physiological responses.
The red spectrum, or the near-infrared region, has been found to be particularly effective at penetrating the skin and being absorbed by the tissues.
With red light therapy, low-power red light is applied to the skin. As these wavelengths of light are absorbed, they activate the mitochondria in your cells, which are the organelles that produce energy (ATP) for the cell.As we age, or when we stress the body via exercise, illness, poor diet, inadequate sleep, or other various lifestyle favors, the ability of the mitochondria to produce ATP declines.
Therefore, red light therapy can be used to trigger a restoration of the energy-generating capacity of the cell.
Does Red Light Therapy Improve Muscle Recovery From Exercise?
Studies suggest that red light therapy can be an effective means of facilitating recovery from exercise.
A review of 46 studies investigating the effects of red light therapy (photobiomodulation) on exercise performance and recovery found that red light therapy can improve recovery from exercise by decreasing inflammation and oxidative stress in muscles while simultaneously increasing muscle mass gained after training.
7 Benefits of Red Light Therapy for Workout Recovery and Exercise Performance
Let’s examine some of the specific research-backed benefits of red light therapy for muscle recovery and athletic performance:
#1: Red Light Therapy Can Decrease Inflammation
Studies suggest that red or near infrared light stimulates cells to increase the production of antioxidants (which capture free radicals to prevent oxidative damage) and decrease the production of inflammatory compounds.
Because inflammation is at the root of muscle soreness, joint stiffness, and discomfort after exercise, red light therapy after a workout may help alleviate the severity of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) and post-exercise discomfort.
#2: Red Light Therapy Can Speed Healing from Injuries
Tendinous and muscular injuries are among the top types of injuries that sideline athletes, but evidence suggests that red light therapy can speed recovery from musculotendinous injuries.
Researchers note that this is due to the ability of the red light wavelengths to reduce inflammatory markers and oxidative stress, aiding recovery.
#3: Red Light Therapy Can Improve Aerobic Exercise Performance
Red light therapy before a workout has been shown to increase athletic performance.
For example, pre-workout red light therapy was found to increase both relative and absolute VO2 max, time until exhaustion, and anaerobic threshold during maximal-effort exercise testing.
Another study that compared the effects of red light therapy or a placebo five minutes before exercise found that red light therapy improved exercise performance in an endurance running test to exhaustion while also decreasing oxidative stress and muscle damage after the workout.
Finally, a study with competitive male endurance cyclists found that red light therapy helps increase time to exhaustion by decreasing the oxygen deficit or cost of the exercise.
#4: Red Light Therapy Decreases Muscular Fatigue
Studies have found that using red light therapy can increase time to exhaustion and the number of repetitions performed, especially when applied before exercise.
The more you can delay muscular fatigue, the more reps you’ll be able to perform in a workout, which can lead to better gains.
For example, another study involving professional male volleyball players found that red light therapy delayed the onset of muscular fatigue and exhaustion induced by repetitive strength training exercises.
Athletes who were in the red light therapy treatment group were able to perform an average of 8 reps more than the non-treatment group.
Another study that investigated the effects of red light therapy before exercise compared to a placebo found that athletes who received red light therapy had significantly less muscular fatigue and a greater preservation of strength after the workout than subjects who received the placebo treatment.
These results were corroborated in another study that also found that using red light therapy before exercise can reduce muscular fatigue and blood lactate levels during exhaustive muscular workouts.
#5: Red Light Therapy Can Boost Muscle Growth and Strength Gains
Compared to a placebo or red light therapy used after a workout, red light therapy before exercise has been shown to cause significant increases in strength and muscle growth.
The researchers postulated that these benefits would help increase tissue healing and functional strength recovery in athletes with muscle injuries.
Another study also found that muscle thickness in knee extensors (quads) and peak power increased significantly in athletes who received red light therapy before knee exercises over an 8-week program compared to the control group.
#6: Red Light Therapy Can Decrease Joint Pain
Moreover, even once the red light therapy treatment intervention ended, positive benefits continued up to an additional 12 weeks. This is thought to be due to the anti-inflammatory benefits of red light therapy.
#7: Red Light Therapy Can Increase Grip Strength
Inadequate grip strength is often the limiting factor for certain lifts. For example, pull-ups and deadlifts hinge upon having good grip strength.
Studies suggest that using red light therapy for exercise can increase grip strength over time.
Should You Use Red Light Therapy Before Or After a Workout?
Evidence suggests that red light therapy can be beneficial both before and after a workout, but in general, most studies have found that applying red light therapy before exercise yields more favorable results.
Not only does using red light therapy before your workout potentially enhance your athletic performance in the workout, but it also helps combat the free radicals that would be generated during exercise, reducing the resultant post-workout oxidative damage and inflammation.
With that said, there is some evidence to suggest that using red light therapy after a workout can also be beneficial. For example, a tiny twin study found that applying red light therapy immediately after exercise decreased muscle damage and pain and increased muscle mass and recovery.
Another study found that using red light therapy immediately before and after a workout was the most effective protocol to yield beneficial performance improvements and facilitate muscle recovery from a workout.
The treatment group that bookended their workout with red light therapy for 12 weeks experienced a significant increase in VO2 max and time to exhaustion and a decrease in body fat percentage.
The improvements were gained three times faster than they were in the control group.
Red Light Therapy Product Recommendations
There are various companies that have started manufacturing at-home red light therapy devices so that you don’t have to go to a specialty facility to receive treatments.
Our favorite at-home red light therapy devices for exercise recovery and performance include the following:
- DNA Vibe: The DNA Vibe is an FDA-approved red light therapy device that’s completely portable and designed with athletes in mind. It’s sleek, easy to use, and has a companion app to help you maximize how you use the device.
- Joovv The Go 2.0: This portable red light therapy device is great for on-the-go use and is a certified class II medical device. There are 12 LED lights that emit light with a wavelength of 660 nm (Red) and 850 nm (Near-Infrared).
- Reviiv Light uses a variety of lasers and light frequencies shown to specifically target joint pain and inflammation, making it a fantastic choice for runners.
If you’re looking to dial up your workout recovery and performance, consider red light therapy.
Looking for other ways to recuperate after a hard workout? What about jumping in a hot tub? Check out our article, Does Jumping In A Hot Tub After A Workout Boost Recovery, to see if it’s an option for you.