Red Light Therapy Can Decrease Recovery Time

Red Light Therapy Can Decrease Recovery Time

As tempting as skipping leg day can be

skipping rest days is even more appealing. For everyone who is highly motivated to excel in their sport or their fitness goals, allowing adequate time for recovery between training can feel impossible. And for those of us who are just getting acquainted with the gym, multiple days marked by muscle pain and weakness can make building good exercise habits extremely difficult. The harsh truth is that regardless of whether you’re a power-lifter, yogi, or avid stationary cyclist, a hard workout requires recovery time. Anything we do that pushes the limits of our strength and endurance causes at least some temporary strain and damage to our muscles, otherwise known as muscle fatigue. If we deny ourselves adequate time to recover between workouts, we can’t perform at our best, and if we skip too many rest days, fatigue can accumulate and put us at heightened risk for injury or overtraining.

In some cases, overtraining can take months or even years to recover from (1). Maximizing recovery efficiency is therefore critical for maximizing training efficiency. That is, if it takes less time for our muscles to recover after exercise, we can reach our goals faster. Red light therapy is an exciting approach to improving recovery time that has become popular among elite athletes and sports professionals and has rapidly gained extensive scientific support over the last decade (1). Studies conducted in both animals and humans have demonstrated red-light’s ability to influence the structural and metabolic changes associated with muscle fatigue (2). For example, red light therapy has been shown to reduce post-exercise blood lactate concentration 

red light therapy has been shown to reduce post-exercise blood lactate concentration

Lactate is a biproduct of the cellular metabolic changes associated with development of fatigue. As energy demands on the muscle exceed energy production, changes in metabolic processes cause lactate to accumulate around the active muscle.

It can limit our ability to focus, reduce the quality of our sleep, and diminish our ability to enjoy our favorite activities or time with our loved ones. Unfortunately, this kind of lasting, disruptive pain is a really common problem. One in three Americans are affected by chronic pain every year and it’s one of the main reasons people seek medical treatment (B Cotler, 2015).

The build-up of lactate is thought to inhibit the ability of the muscle to contract, resulting in a decline in performance

A 2011 study that evaluated lactate levels in 6 athletes after a challenging physical test found lower concentrations of blood lactate in athletes who received red-light therapy after the physical test compared to those who didn’t.

Similar results have been observed in animal models of muscle fatigue. For example, in a study conducted on the effects of low-level irradiation after exercise, Liu and colleagues (2009)  found reduced levels of inflammation after a downhill running task in y response that can impair functional recovery and muscle remodeling and, ultimately, can increase the number of rest days you need

There is now a wealth of studies demonstrating its efficacy for treating chronic neck pain, tendonitis, rheumatoid arthritis, plantar fasciitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, tooth sensitivity, and much more (B Cotler, 2015). 

Red light therapy has also been shown to reduce oxidative stress, another important biological feature of muscle fatigue (2). As you use your muscles to their maximum capacity, the cellular respiration process begins to produce harmful molecules known as free radicals. The effect free radicals have on your cells is what’s called oxidative stress. 

Exercise-related oxidative stress can reduce blood flow and can damage the cell’s mitochondria, both of which are critical for muscle recovery

For us to feel any kind of physical sensation, sensory information has to travel from the part of our body where the sensation occurs to our brain where that information is translated into our perception of the physical sensation. For example, when someone taps you on the shoulder, pressure sensors in your skin transmit that sensory information from your shoulder, up through your spinal cord, and to your brain. Once the information reaches your brain, you become aware that someone has just tapped you. Pain works in exactly the same way. Information about a painful sensation is transmitted from your body to your brain along specific types of nerve fibers, called C-fibers. Activation of C-fibers is one of the primary sources of pain. These fibers can be activated by many different types of stimuli, most notably the molecules that cause inflammation. This is partly why swelling hurts so bad. Inflammatory molecules activate C-fibers, which then essentially tell your brain “ouch!”. However, if those painful signals never reach your brain, you don’t feel the pain. This is where red light works its magic. Red light is well-known to reduce inflammation. Reduction of inflammatory molecules leads to reduced activation of C-fibers and ultimately to lessening of pain perception. This function of red light has been validated through science. For example, a study investigating the effects of red light therapy on arthritis of the knee, a disorder associated with pain and inflammation of the joint, found that treatment with red light significantly reduced markers of inflammation as well as perception of pain (Pallotta et al., 2012). Other studies have found that activity in the C-fibers is significantly slowed following treatment with red light, supporting the hypothesis that red light reduces pain by inhibiting C-fiber activity (Chow & Armati, 2016).

Research into red light’s influence on muscular recovery processes spans different members of the animal kingdom, forms of exercise, and training intensity levels. Across all this variety, post-exercise treatment with red light reliably impacts structural and metabolic processes associated with muscle fatigue (6). By reducing the harmful cellular by-products of exercise, red light therapy can accelerate recovery time. Though precise mechanisms for how red light reduces biomarkers of fatigue are still disputed, one common theory centers around the photosensitive nature of mitochondria. Because red light’s long wavelengths are able to penetrate through the skin and into the muscle tissue with minimal diffusion, it can interact directly with a cell’s light-reactive mitochondria

Because red light’s long wavelengths are able to penetrate through the skin and into the muscle tissue with minimal diffusion, it can interact directly with a cell’s light-reactive mitochondria

As you likely know, mitochondria are the “powerhouses” of the cell, meaning one of their main functions is to produce the energy that cells require to operate efficiently. Red light is thought to improve cellular respiration and energy-synthesis in mitochondria, which allows them to boost overall cellular function (2). By accelerating the cellular processes required for recovery, red light can facilitate full muscle recovery in less time.

By accelerating the cellular processes required for recovery, red light can facilitate full muscle recovery in less time.

There are likely many ways that red light helps to relieve pain, but one way is simply by limiting the transmission of painful sensations to your brain. Basically, if your brain never gets any pain signals, there isn’t any pain. One of the many amazing benefits of red light therapy. 

For professional athletes and home-workout enthusiasts alike, optimal performance necessitates a balance between hard work and recovery time. The process of building strength and endurance is taxing all the way down to a cellular level, which is why our bodies require adequate rest. The amount of time required for recovery is thus a major limiting factor in how quickly we can arrive at our fitness and  athletic goals. Red light therapy is a safe and scientifically supported approach to achieving maximum recovery in minimal time. Whether you’re just starting to build fitness habits or you’re training to dominate in competitions, red light therapy might be a great choice for you.


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