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Faster Muscle Recovery & Less Muscle Soreness with Red/NIR Light Therapy

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

There’s a large base of clinical evidence showing red light therapy improves physical performance. That’s one major reason so many pro athletes and world-class trainers and fitness experts have incorporated RLT into their workout routine.

But whether you’re an elite pro athlete or a weekend warrior, longer and stronger workouts can translate to more muscle soreness, fatigue, and potential pain & inflammation once you leave the gym. Muscle soreness and joint pain can prevent you from working out, or lead to injuries if you try to push too hard.

Fortunately, natural red light doesn’t just improve physical performance. It also prevents the onset of muscle soreness and fatigue after workouts. Plus, red light therapy is clinically-proven to speed and enhance muscle recovery and growth.

This is why so many athletes and trainers love red light therapy: better performance, less soreness afterwards, and faster recovery so you can get back at it sooner, with less pain and fewer injuries.

This article looks at the huge base of research showing red light therapy prevents muscle soreness and speeds muscle recovery. We’ll also highlight some world-class athletes and fitness leaders using red light therapy.

How Red Light Therapy Fuels Your Muscles

If you’re not familiar with light therapy, this article gives a good overview of what it is and how it works. The short version is this: light therapy delivers safe, concentrated wavelengths of natural light to your skin. These red and near infrared wavelengths stimulate your cells and reduce oxidative stress, so your body is able to make more usable energy to power itself. This increases function, speeds healing, and lowers inflammation & pain, as demonstrated in numerous peer-reviewed studies.

Natural red and near infrared light helps promote antioxidants, which play a central role in reducing the oxidative stress associated with muscle fatigue. Antioxidants also increase the production of heat proteins—special proteins that help protect cells from stress and early cell death. [1,2]

Studies have also identified an increase in circulation following light therapy, indicating tissues are receiving more oxygen and other nutrients important for healing—while also ridding themselves of toxic byproducts. [3]

Research Shows Red Light Therapy Prevents Muscle Soreness and Fatigue

This is an overview of the clinical research on light therapy and the prevention of muscle soreness, with samples from representative studies and trials published in peer-reviewed journals.

Less delayed onset muscle soreness: Delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) is pain and stiffness you feel 24 to 72 hours after a workout or strenuous activity. A double-blind, randomized trial assessed light therapy, exercise, and DOMS, and concluded:

“The light therapy group exhibited a significant decrease in pain associated with DOMS.”

“The McGill Pain Questionnaire showed a significant difference in pain scores at the 48-hour period.”

Conclusion: Light therapy “provides a beneficial effect to patients who may experience DOMS after an exercise session.” [4]

A 2014 trial assessed the skeletal muscular performance and recovery after exercise for healthy men. The researchers found that pre-exercise light therapy “significantly increases performance, decreases DOMS, and improves biochemical markers related to skeletal muscle damage.” [5] This aligns with previous research showing red light therapy treatments before exercise delay the onset of muscle fatigue. [6]

Less soreness & damage after intense workouts: A 2014 trial tested red light therapy for the muscle recovery of healthy young men after undergoing a “damaging eccentric exercise.” The light therapy group showed significantly reduced muscle strength loss, less muscle soreness, and fewer range of motion impairments, and that was demonstrated up to 4 days after a damaging exercise. [7]

Postmenopausal women feel less soreness from exercise: Light therapy has proven clinically effective at reducing muscle soreness for a wide range of populations, with especially encouraging results for postmenopausal women combining red light therapy with exercise.

In addition to improving quadricep performance, a 2014 trial also found that red light therapy “reduces peripheral fatigue in postmenopausal women.” [8] Infrared-LED therapy associated with treadmill training has also been shown to improve muscle power and delay leg fatigue in postmenopausal women. [9]

Less running damage: A 2012 trial concluded that runners in the light therapy group experienced decreased “exercise-induced oxidative stress and muscle damage.” Researchers stated that the modulation of the redox system (reducing oxidative stress) by light therapy likely led to a delay and reduction in skeletal muscle fatigue after running. [10]

Less knee muscle fatigue: A recent 2018 study found that red light therapy applied before and after exercise reduced knee muscle fatigue. [11] Similar results of a trial on knee muscle fatigue in 2010 found that light therapy before exercise was an effective way to prevent the increase of muscle proteins in the blood serum.” [12]

Fighting inflammation: Research shows red light therapy also helps reduce inflammation that can lead to cell damage. [13,14,15]

That research is backed up by the experiences of RLT users every day, like Jorge Cruise, one of Hollywood’s top personal trainers, who recommends RLT to his celebrity clients because inflammation pain is the #1 reason people miss their workouts. He says it minimizes pain and keeps his clients in the gym.

Lower creatine kinase levels point to less muscle damage with light therapy: Creatine kinase (CK) is a vital enzyme in your body that you make in greater numbers in response to muscle damage and tissue injury. As a result, it’s commonly used in blood tests to assess muscle damage. [16]

Many studies have shown a stark decrease in CK levels for light therapy groups versus placebo and control groups.

A recent 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis was conducted in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, to assess the muscular effects of light therapy, especially concerning creatine kinase levels after exercise. After reviewing 14 studies, the authors concluded that light therapy has a positive effect on the control of creatine kinase activity. [17]

Large Base of Clinical Research Shows Red Light Therapy Enhances Muscle Recovery

Red light therapy’s healing and regenerating effects on muscle recovery have been shown across numerous trials, and it’s backed up by all the pro athletes and world-class trainers who swear by RLT for muscle recovery every day at the highest levels of competition.

In 2015, researchers performed a systematic review and meta-analysis of numerous randomized, placebo-controlled trials on red light therapy and muscular recovery and performance. Based on the body of research, the authors concluded that red light therapy “improves muscular performance and accelerates recovery.” [18]

Pro Athletes Use Red Light Therapy for Muscle Recovery

The clinical results match the muscle recovery benefits RLT users see every day, including many pro athletes.

Pro volleyball players recover faster with red light: Beach volleyball is incredibly taxing on leg and stomach muscles, but top players have responded extremely well to red light therapy.

A double-blind, placebo-controlled trial tested pro volleyball players and found this about the light therapy group:

“Post-exercise levels of biochemical markers decreased significantly: Blood Lactate, Creatine Kinase, and C-Reactive Protein levels.” [19]

That wouldn’t surprise Olympic volleyball star Lauren Fendrick. Lauren is one of the best beach volleyball players in the world and she’s using RLT too. Lauren competed for Team USA at the Rio Olympics in 2016, and has her eyes set on 2020 in Tokyo. Now RLT is helping her come back from workouts faster with less injury risk.

Research shows pro soccer & rugby players recover faster with red light therapy: Recent clinical studies on professional rugby and soccer players assessed male athletes’ endurance, speed, and ability to recover from demanding games and workouts. Researchers found that red light therapy accelerated the players’ recovery times, leading the authors of both studies to recommend red light therapy for athletic recovery.

The results on the rugby field matched the lab results: rugby players receiving light therapy treatments saw a “significantly decreased percentage of change in blood lactate levels (p ≤ 0.05) and perceived fatigue (p ≤ 0.05).” [20,21]

Endurance Athletes Trust Red Light Therapy

Amelia Boone is one of the most decorated obstacle racers of all-time (part time, while working full time as an attorney). She tried red light therapy for rehab after spraining ligaments in her forefoot. Amelia says RLT made a huge difference and is absolutely clutch for muscle recovery and rehab.

Triathlete and world-class trainer Ben Greenfield swears by RLT for muscle recovery, sleep, and sex drive. The same is true of NFL stars like Patrick Peterson, Keenan Allen, & DeMarcus Lawrence.

Recovering from demanding workouts: Researchers in the 2014 trial cited above found light therapy lessens muscle soreness after strenuous exercise, and also that a single red light therapy treatment immediately after a damaging exercise was effective at reducing muscle soreness and strength loss. [7]

Quicker recovery for postmenopausal women: As with the research on preventing muscle fatigue, postmenopausal women showed impressive muscle recovery results with red light therapy. In 2013, a team of researchers analyzed the exercise tolerance and muscle recovery of 30 postmenopausal women over 6 months. One group received near infrared light therapy and did treadmill training, the other just the treadmill.

Researchers found that “time of recovery showed a significant decrease only in the LED group.” They concluded that light therapy and training “can improve maximal performance and post-exercise recovery in postmenopausal women.” [22]

Red light therapy beats cryotherapy for muscle recovery in clinical tests: A 2016 study evaluated both cryotherapy and red light therapy for muscle recovery. Researchers found that light therapy alone was “optimal for post-exercise recovery,” with decreased DOMS and creatine kinase activity versus placebo or cryotherapy. They concluded that light therapy by itself led to “complete recovery to baseline levels from 24 hours after high-intensity eccentric contractions.” [23]

These positive results build on a base of earlier research. For example, a 1990 study assessed numerous soft-tissue injuries and concluded light therapy was an effective recovery method, with significantly increased healing times. [24]

Bottom Line: Red and Infrared Light Therapy Speeds Muscle Recovery and Prevents Muscle Soreness

Study after study has shown red light therapy both prevents muscle soreness, and speeds muscle recovery after exercise. Those clinical results are backed up by pro athletes and world-class trainers who use red light therapy every day for major muscle benefits.

You don’t have to be an Olympian to see the benefits of RLT though. Clinical research has demonstrated red light therapy’s effectiveness with men and women, from young adults to seniors, and across the fitness spectrum, from professional athletes to everyday "Joes and Janes".

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