The Complete Guide to Red Light Therapy for Athletes
Here’s how red light and near-infrared wavelengths can boost your muscle recovery.
No matter your sport or skill level, if you’re an athlete that gives 100% and is always pushing toward your goals then you know sore muscles and stiff joints well.
And while there’s no escaping this painful reality of human physiology, there are ways to speed up muscle recovery that will get you back in action faster and performing at a higher level.
New advancements in science and technology have led to worthwhile muscle recovery tools that are accessible for athletes of every stripe.
And of these new muscle recovery tools, red light therapy is growing more and more popular by the day.
Red light therapy uses low levels of red and near-infrared light to increase the function of mitochondria in your cells, which results in a boost to your muscle recovery process.
Here, we’ve put together the complete guide on red light therapy for athletes with everything you need to know about incorporating it into your training routine and daily life.
Note: Featured products are independently selected and reviewed by Compression Athlete. If you purchase through our links, we may earn commission.
What Is Red Light Therapy for Athletes?
So, let’s get started with the basics.
What exactly are we talking about when we use the term red light therapy?
While there are a handful of different light therapies available today that address a variety of different conditions, red light therapy is used to stimulate your body’s natural healing process.
Red light therapy works by using low levels of red and near-infrared wavelengths of light to stimulate mitochondria in your cells.
This biochemical effect strengthens the mitochondria (where cell energy is created), allowing it to produce more energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
ATP is the organic compound that drives and supports cells as they carry out their many processes, including damage repair and tissue regeneration.
In other words, red light therapy increases the function of mitochondria to make more ATP, which provides cells with more energy to function more efficiently.
As you can imagine, this positive effect has proven beneficial in treating an array of conditions, such as body pain, inflammation, skin disorders, hair loss, insomnia, depression, anxiety and more.
When it comes to red light therapy and its use among athletes, however, the benefit that draws the most interest is muscle recovery.
How Does Red Light Therapy Work for Athletes?
There’s a good chance you’ve seen a burst of red light therapy across social media lately, as interest in these devices continues to grow across many industries.
This includes the world of sports, where you might have seen one of your favorite athletes bathing in red light while touting the importance of muscle recovery.
Incorporating red light therapy into your muscle recovery routine is as simple as flipping the switch on your red light device and letting the red light bathe over your target area.
Red light therapy devices produce both red and near-infrared light. The red light you can see but don’t feel, while the infrared light is energy you can’t see but feel as a gentle heat.
Red light therapy is typically done post-activity, whether a workout, competition, or other physical activity, though it can also be incorporated before your workout as a warmup.
Using red light therapy both before and after physical activity has shown beneficial results.
It’s generally considered that 10 to 20 minutes of red light therapy is a suitable treatment duration.
And consistent use, such as utilizing red light therapy a few times a week, will help you reap full and noticeable benefits.
Many athletes that incorporate red light therapy into their routines report experiencing faster recovery times, less muscle soreness, better sleep, enhanced muscle tone, and an improved general well-being.
Where Can Red Light Therapy Be Applied on Your Body?
For those of you that are new to red light therapy, it’s important to know that red light therapy is intended to be applied directly to your skin, unfiltered and unlayered.
For example, if you wanted to utilize red light therapy to aid the muscle recovery of your legs, you would shine the red light at your legs, allowing your bare skin to bathe in the light.
Red light therapy can be applied virtually anywhere on your body, as the devices produce very low levels of heat that won’t burn, cause discomfort, or damage your skin in any way.
A small percentage of users have reported eye sensitivity to the light. However, it’s important to note that the LED lights these red light therapy devices use are safe for your eyes.
Red light therapy is commonly used all over the body to address a wide array of conditions, injuries, and general wear and tear.
This includes muscle recovery, sprains, strains, localized pain, tendonitis, and much more.
What Are the Benefits of Red Light Therapy for Athletes?
Part of the reason why red light therapy has become so popular is thanks to its wide application and ease of use.
The key selling point, however, has to do with the many benefits that users have noticed after continued use.
For athletes, the key benefit of red light therapy is enhanced cellular function and energy production (ATP).
Muscle tissue has an abundance of mitochondria, as it’s needed to power all of your movements, and this abundance of mitochondria is what makes muscle tissue especially responsive to red light therapy.
In other words, red light and near-infrared light stimulates the mitochondria in your cells, which in turn helps your cells perform more efficiently and leads to a wide range of benefits, including muscle recovery, reduced inflammation, and increased athletic performance.
Additionally, red light therapy increases blood circulation, which helps your muscles flush out waste and fluid build-up while receiving nutrient rich blood.
This is key to faster muscle recovery post-activity but can also increase your athletic performance when used prior to activity.
Is There Science to Back Up Red Light Therapy?
For starters, it’s important to note that there isn’t a silver bullet currently available today that solves the problem of muscle pain, soreness, and stiffness.
When you physically exert your body, whether training hard, practicing hard, or competing hard, it’s going to take a toll.
So, of course, utilizing red light therapy won’t magically melt away your muscle soreness.
But the red light therapy devices available today from high-quality brands are designed, tested, and scientifically backed to provide restorative healing and improved muscular performance.
While your body naturally maintains a complex system of recovery that includes rest, rehydration, nutrition, repair, and resynthesis, red light therapy offers a boost to cellular function, which is key to carrying out these important elements.
In other words, red light therapy is not introducing some farfetched, unproven recovery method to your body, but merely giving a boost to your natural recovery process.
Because this recovery process in the body is well-established and because high-quality red light devices are widely accepted to improve the conditions under which it occurs, red light therapy is considered a science-backed method for muscle recovery.
Do Athletes Actually Notice a Difference From Red Light Therapy?
So, the devices look impressive and the science behind red and near-infrared light is sound, but you may still be wondering on a more basic level: Do athletes actually notice a difference from using red light therapy?
While it’s true that results can always vary from one individual to the next, athletes overwhelming report noticing a substantial difference in muscle recovery from using red light therapy.
It’s possible that you feel slightly fresher limbs and a reduction in muscle soreness as soon as your first red light treatment.
However, the more noticeable benefits will come as a result of consistency, treating your target areas several times a week for several weeks.
The majority of athletes that incorporate red light therapy into their muscle recovery routines feel fresher from one workout or competition to the next, while also noticing a bump in overall endurance and performance.
If you’re an athlete looking to incorporate red light therapy into your routine, remember that red light therapy should not be used as a replacement for any muscle recovery basics: rest, sleep, hydration, nutrition, etc.
Think of red light therapy as an effective tool you can add to your muscle recovery toolkit.
How Often Should Athletes Use Red Light Therapy?
Red light therapy has proven itself as a useful muscle recovery tool for athletes that’s easy to incorporate into your routine.
So easy, in fact, that you might find yourself wondering how often you can use red light therapy.
For starters, it’s important to note that there’s no way to accelerate your results using red light therapy.
In other words, more use does not equal more results.
The best course of action with red light therapy that will yield the most positive results is sticking to a consistent routine.
It’s generally recommended that athletes use red light therapy before and after activity to maximize effectiveness.
Using red light therapy for 3 to 5 minutes prior to physical activity will help to warm up your muscles, prevent injury, and boost overall athletic performance.
After physical activity, use red light therapy for 10 to 20 minutes to boost your muscle recovery.
Red light therapy works best when used several times per week for several weeks in a row.
If you’d like, you can extend your red light therapy treatment beyond the use of before and after physical activity, as it’s safe to use every day.
As we mentioned above, you won’t notice any extra benefits from exceeding the recommended treatment duration, but you will achieve greater results through consistent use.
Does Red Light Therapy Help Treat Joint Pain?
One of the most common health conditions among adults, joint pain holds you back physically and can even keep you sidelined from activity.
Whether it’s discomfort in your knees, hips, ankles, shoulders, elbows, or wrists, joint pain in any part of your body will affect your range of motion and make your movements difficult.
For this reason, red light therapy has drawn considerable interest from many athletes as a potential non-invasive treatment option for joint pain.
Red light therapy uses red and near-infrared wavelengths of light to stimulate cellular energy production.
The red light (660 nm wavelength) is absorbed by your skin’s surface tissue and cells to promote healing, rejuvenation, and blood flow.
And the near-infrared light (850 nm wavelength), which is invisible to the naked eye, penetrates deeper tissues to promote muscle recovery and inflammation support.
Using red light therapy to help treat joint pain has become a popular choice among athletic trainers and sports medicine physicians thanks to a multitude of peer-reviewed clinical research studies that demonstrate its effectiveness in improving joint pain.
Does Red Light Therapy Help Treat Inflammation?
In the same way that exercise, nutrition, and sleep play a big role in your overall health and ability to manage inflammation, red light treatment is another element you can add to help reduce inflammation.
When red light is applied to the body, it penetrates into your cells and stimulates mitochondria to produce energy more efficiently.
This, in turn, increases your body’s production of healing antioxidants and anti-inflammatories leading to a reduction in inflammation.
In general, supplementing the natural light your body receives with red light treatment is a great way to boost cellular function and support healthy balance in your body.
For a look at other great muscle recovery tools you can add to your recovery toolkit, check out our top picks for 2023.