Knowing when you should do red light therapy around your workout can be tricky, since you want to squeeze the most recovery effects out of it.
On top of that, you might be wanting to reap the sweet benefits of increased performance – so when is red light therapy actually BEST used?
Red light therapy has benefits whether you use it before, during, or after a workout, but each time-frame has a slightly different effect that may be better for different goals.
This means depending on what your priorities are in terms of improving recovery, strength, aerobic performance, or decreasing pain, you’ll get some extra benefits by using red light therapy during a specific time around your workout.
In this article, we’ll dive into the benefits of red light therapy before, during, and after a workout, give you a breakdown of how to get the most out of it, and show you a couple devices that we’ve seen the best results from.
What Does The Science Say?
Red light therapy has been blowing up with research the past couple of years, especially as it’s been moving from the cosmetic world into the sports and recovery world.
There have been some interesting findings for using red light therapy for each of before, during, and after – it turns out that you’ll get similar benefits from each time-frame, but there are some slight differences that may sway your choice…
Red Light Therapy Before A Workout
This is a great time to use red light therapy, as the effects of it are perfect to prepare your cold body for a tough workout.
Red light therapy increases the blood circulating in your muscles, almost acting as a warmup to help avoid injuries during your training.
But something even more interesting happened when a study split up a group of 22 high-level soccer players and gave half of them red light therapy on their quads and hamstrings before a running test, while the other half got a placebo treatment…
They found that the group that did red light therapy pre-exercise had an increase in their VO2max, more time before they hit physical exhaustion, and better blood-markers for things that affected recovery:
Moreover, pre-exercise PBMT (red light therapy) seems to play an important antioxidant effect, decreasing exercise-induced oxidative stress and consequently enhancing athletic performance and improving post-exercise recovery.1https://www.hindawi.com/journals/omcl/2019/6239058/
This a crazy finding, showing that you can actually set your body up to workout harder with less fatigue and to require less recovery after your workout!
That’s especially important for all you athletes, as you put your body through regular beatings.
Red Light Therapy Before A Workout For Strength Athletes
Powerlifters and bodybuilders rejoice!
There was another study that had a group of 28 high-level soccer players (researchers seem to like soccer a lot) participate in red light therapy before doing an eccentric strength workout.
They measured maximum voluntary contraction (MVC) in their muscles, then measured it again after going through red light therapy…
The results showed an increase of MVC after doing red light therapy, which improved the athletes’ actual performances in their workouts and dropped their recovery time!
Red Light Therapy During Workout
This is a bit of a trickier one, because doing red light therapy during a workout can be a little more complicated.
Interestingly enough, one study used red light therapy on people participating in a 12-week treadmill training program (3 training sessions per week), placing the diodes in several places on the legs and compared them to a group receiving a placebo treatment.
They found that the group receiving red light therapy during the training ended up with a higher fatigue threshold and a higher ceiling for oxygen consumption.3https://bmcsportsscimedrehabil.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13102-020-00171-2
This basically powered up the effects of aerobic training on the body, boosting the results in the people using red light therapy during training!
Red Light Therapy After Workout
After a workout is my favorite time to use red light therapy.
It’s a great alternative to icing and foam rolling, and actually is way more effective as a recovery tool than both of those:
We conclude that PBMT used as single treatment is the best modality for enhancement of post-exercise restitution, leading to complete recovery to baseline levels from 24 h after high-intensity eccentric contractions.4https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27624781/
And that’s where red light therapy really shines – using it for quick, effective recovery that gets you to your next workout ready to train hard!
But that’s not all!
Another study used a 12-week workout program focused on the leg press, testing to see if red light therapy has any effect on strength.
They split up 36 men into 3 groups, with one group using red light therapy on their quads immediately after their workout for 140 seconds, the other group doing just the strength training program, and one control group.
The red light group increase their 1-rep max for leg press by 55%, while the strength-training-only group increased it by 26%, concluding that:
That’s a crazy difference in strength, especially since it’s only 140 seconds of red light therapy per session!
When Is Red Light Therapy Best?
Overall, before and/or after is best because both of them are really convenient and effective…
Spending a couple minutes (we’ll talk a bit about protocols down below) doing red light therapy before or after a workout will give you the best bang for your buck and 99% of the benefits.
I don’t recommend doing red light therapy during a workout because it’s inconvenient, and would make focusing on the actual workout difficult – you get similar benefits doing it before or after anyways.
Red Light Therapy Protocol For Athletes
I recommend using red light therapy up to 2-3 times per day for 5-15 minute sessions if your main goal is injury healing, and once a day either before or after a workout for 10-15 minutes to maximize your recovery and improve your performance.
You’ll want to start red light therapy 5-15 minutes before a training session or your game, focusing on whatever muscle group you’ll be training.
However, prioritize any injuries or sore muscles/joints if you have those.
The same thing applies to after a workout/game – spend 5-15 minutes using red light on the muscles you just worked or any sore spots/injuries.
You can’t really overdo red light therapy, but it tends to do best when applied every time you workout – 3 times per week provides awesome benefits, but you can feel free to use it 7 times a week, 2-3 times per day!6https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29185134/
Also, don’t worry about getting the most powerful red light – a study found that more power doesn’t necessarily mean better benefits, but a medium-powered device works even better a lot of the time (check out below for some of the best red lights).7https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29099680/
Best Red Light Therapy Devices For Athletes
There’s tons of red light therapy devices to choose from, all of them with different pros and cons – let’s check out a couple categories to find one that fits your needs!
Wearable Red Light Therapy Devices
These are the best red light therapy devices for several reasons:
- Skin Contact – Red light waves can bounce off the skin if they’re not in direct contact with it, making the therapy less effective.
- Convenient – You’re not stuck sitting in one place for 20 minutes, but can go take care of other business.
- Accurate – You can directly point to where you want the red light to hit, which is especially good for injuries.
- Portable – Wearable devices tend to be a whole lot smaller than some of the other ones we’ll talk about!
My absolute favorite device is the Kineon MOVE+, which checks every single box for red light therapy devices…
It’s super portable, making it extremely convenient to bring along to practices, the gym, and games.
You also get 3 separate modules that wrap around whatever joint or muscle you want to use it on, giving you 360º of treatment for pin-point accuracy!
The MOVE+ is super versatile, meaning you can use it for your knee, ankle, elbow, shoulder, neck, and more!
It’s great for warming up or cooling down – the sessions take 5-15 minutes depending on your preference, and you can use it anywhere to align with wherever your injuries are or whatever body part you’re wanting to recover.
The practicality easily makes it my top red light therapy device, and I reach for this thing daily for all my recovery needs – it got me through the snowboarding season with a wrecked knee, and brought me all the way to pain-free movement!
You can also get it at a sweet discount by using our code A1ATHLETEMOVE+ at checkout!
Or check out my full review of the Kineon MOVE+ here!
Red Light Towers
These are a little more popular in clinics and have been around for longer than wearables.
Towers are fine, but they’re much less practical than wearables.
Treatment times tend to be closer to 20 minute sessions, and you have to stand/sit in front of them the entire time…
They also don’t contact your skin directly, meaning some of the red light will bounce off your skin, making it less effective.
One of the most popular red light towers is the Kala Red Light Pro Panel.
It’s a nice compact option, great for home use.
Obviously it won’t be as portable or practical as the Kineon MOVE+, as you can’t do anything else while using it and can’t easily target specific body parts.
It’s also quite a bit more expensive than the MOVE+, but is a solid option if you want a tower.
Hand-Held Red Light Devices
Hand-helds are probably the most inconvenient during treatments, but are more portable than towers.
They also don’t have direct contact with your skin, but you can be more intentional with where you’re trying to target the therapy.
Joovv’s The Go 2.0 is a decent option, coming in a fairly compact form.
I personally don’t like waving a device around for 10+ minutes, especially if I’m sore from training, but it’s a decent option if you prefer hand-helds, although it is $100 more than the MOVE+!
Red light therapy is basically a cheat code when it comes to recovery and increasing performance.
You can’t go wrong using it before, during, OR after your workout – they all give you some amazing benefits.
Before and/or after a workout are the best times however, as they’re way more convenient than during a workout and boost your recovery and performance.
Using it once a day before or after a workout is great for warming the body up or cooling it down, getting it ready for the next big workout and avoiding/treating injuries!
I recommend using wearable devices, as they’re super portable and allow you to do other things WHILE recovering, but it all depends on your preference.
Regardless, enjoy the amazing benefits of red light therapy!