Whether it’s Stephen Curry or Michael Phelps, red light therapy helps elite athletes across the sports spectrum perform at the highest level, day after day. But you may wonder, how does a daily dose of red light translate into better athletic performance?
To answer that, we need to first uncover what red light is and how it changes your body chemistry. Then, we can start to understand how it’s capable of “hacking” your system into producing the kind of results that active people are looking for.
In this article, we’ll cover…
- How red light therapy works
- Athletic benefits of red light therapy
- A (very) brief history
- How to use red light therapy
How does red light therapy work?
Meet ATP, or Adenosine Triphosphate.
ATP is energy. More specifically, it’s the fuel that drives every biological process in your body. Without getting too technical, just know that this molecule is essentially an on-demand energy shuttle service, taking that sweet energy around the body to wherever it’s needed.
Where does ATP come from?
It’s produced in your cells, specifically in your mitochondria, which you might remember from 10th-grade science class as the powerhouse of the cell. The source of the power, however, comes from three things: the food you eat, fatty acids, and the light absorbed by your body.
See, when you eat a sandwich, the energy in the food goes through the mitochondria and becomes fuel the body can use, otherwise known as ATP. The same thing happens with light. It enters the body and passes through the mitochondria, starting a complex chemical reaction that produces ATP.
The more ATP your body generates, the better it can do things like:
- Repair muscle tissue
- Increase blood flow
- Alleviate inflammation
- Boost muscle strength
- And even enhance endurance
Alright, but where does red light come into all of this?
Well, among the various wavelengths of light, red and near-infrared light can penetrate the deepest into the skin and cells. So when we talk about light reaching the mitochondria which then produce ATP, we’re actually talking about red and near-infrared light.
To demonstrate this, if you turn on your phone’s flashlight and put your finger over the light, you’ll notice the light shining through the other side is red. That’s not blood — it’s red light.
The idea behind red light therapy, which is backed up by hundreds of peer-reviewed clinical trials, is to concentrate high levels of optimal red light into your skin, thereby amplifying your body’s production of ATP and stimulating drastic enhancements to your natural healing and recovery processes.
Athletic benefits of red light therapy
1. Optimizes muscular performance
Optimal muscular performance boils down to your body executing its many jobs as quickly, efficiently, and with as much volume as possible. Getting your body to perform at a high level means supporting it in every way you can.
When you work out, play sports, or engage in any intense physical activity, your body consumes significantly more energy. You can (and should) support your body by cultivating the right habits, like keeping a healthy diet, getting good sleep, hydrating, meditating, and things like that.
However, to take your athletic performance to the next level — working out harder and faster with less pain — you need to give your body what it craves when you’re working: more energy to perform its job with gusto.
Some misguided athletes turn to drugs to get that edge. Not only does that road lead to disastrous health consequences like addiction and grave side effects, but it’s also illegal. Red light therapy, on the other hand, is a safe, natural, and proven way to get an edge and perform at your peak.
When testing to determine if using red light before exercise affected physical performance, a 2015 meta-analysis of multiple placebo-controlled trials found conclusively that “phototherapy (with lasers and LEDs) improves muscular performance and accelerates recovery when applied before exercise.”
2. Enhances endurance and speed
Speed and endurance are cornerstones of athleticism.
It should go without saying that anyone serious about upgrading their performance should look beyond simply getting strong. Because excellent endurance keeps you in the game longer and makes you fierce from beginning to end.
That’s what’s nice about red light therapy — it’s been shown to “increase the time-to-exhaustion and oxygen uptake and also decrease the body fat in healthy volunteers when compared to placebo,” according to a 2017 triple-blind, placebo-controlled study.
By enriching your body’s chemistry on a cellular level, you can reach new heights in your fitness journey. That’s why so many professional athletes apply red light every day.
3. Reduces inflammation
Inflammation is a normal part of the recovery process. However, it can quickly begin to negatively affect your performance if it becomes excessive. This usually happens after too many hard workouts or improper nutritional intake.
Athletes commonly fall victim to persistent inflammation, making it hard for them to continue pushing themselves. Ice therapy and stretching are great options to lessen inflammation, as is applying red light to the trouble area after a workout.
Red light therapy has a tremendous impact on inflammation. To keep it simple, it works to break down mast cells, which are critical components of inflammation. As the swelling goes down, your body starts to recover.
4. Increases blood flow
It might be easy to overlook the impact that healthy blood flow has on your body’s ability to heal and perform. Don’t be fooled — it is absolutely critical.
Here are a few general benefits of boosting blood circulation:
- Speeds up the process of healing injuries
- Decreases pain and increases feeling in areas of low sensation
- Dilates blood vessels so more blood can flow to a wounded site
When you don’t have good blood flow, your body has a hard time healing itself, drawing out your recovery time.
With red light therapy, you can support your circulation by boosting the amount of oxygen and nutrients your blood is getting, thus accelerating healing.
Additionally, you can incorporate a routine of regular exercise, eating quality food, and getting restful sleep into your life. Making these simple, healthy changes are natural steps you can take immediately to strengthen your circulation and experience faster recovery.
A (very) brief history of light therapy
For thousands of years, as far back as Ancient Egypt, humans have understood that light contains many healing properties. For instance, the Egyptians used sunlight exposure along with various medicinal extracts to treat vitiligo, a skin condition.
To treat the same condition, the ancient Chinese used different colors of paper to direct sunlight onto male patients and moonlight onto female patients.
But it wasn’t until Isaac Newton split a light beam through a prism into seven basic colors that humans knew conclusively that there are multiple wavelengths of light. The next most notable advancement was when Dr. Friedrich Herschel discovered the existence of the infrared spectrum and UV radiation.
Over the years, scientists learned how to isolate these frequencies and in the process discovered that each wavelength offered its own array of benefits.
Here are a few examples:
- Yellow light can improve energy levels.
- Blue light can help you relax and let go of stress.
- And red light, as we’ve discovered, produces a mountain of benefits, from boosting athletic performance and speeding recovery to offering effective skin treatment.
These days, scientists continue to enhance the technology that makes this therapeutic treatment possible. The best red light therapy devices, for instance, emit red light at the optimal wavelength — 600–700nm — to achieve the desired benefits.
Which begs the question…
How do you use red light therapy?
It’s fairly easy to get your hands on this form of therapy these days, and you have several options to choose from.
One of the common offerings out there is personal red light devices. Some are small and handheld and can be put into bags, taken on the go, and stored easily. Other selections are larger and best for home use.
Unfortunately, the personal nature of these devices makes user error a concern. While red light therapy is completely safe, it’s possible to disrupt and even negate the positive results if it’s used incorrectly.
The most reliable way, bar none, to experience all the benefits that this therapy has to offer is to book an appointment with a reputable business that has in-house, state-of-the-art red light configurations.
Beem Light Sauna, for instance, offers 40-minute deep-enrichment sessions that maintain the optimal wavelength and distance from the skin to achieve maximum effect.
Learn more here about how spending under an hour at their unique light studio can take your athletic performance to the next level.