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Athletes are always looking for anything that can give them an edge in their training and competition. Quite often, this leads to new ideas and practices being formed, such as the use of ice baths after training, or high protein diets, which become part of everyday training practices for elite and recreational athletes alike. Every now and again, a certain technique or supplement is developed which doesn’t quite have the same take-up, perhaps because it is difficult to do, or because the research isn’t well publicised.

I like to keep myself up-to-date in the latest sports science research for a number of reasons; firstly, because I find it interesting (and it’s my job to do so), and secondly to be able to answer questions from our customers when it comes to sports science related topics. Recently, one of our content team asked me for my thoughts on laser therapy for training, which, I have to admit, I knew nothing about! So I dug into the research a little bit, and came across a review article from a few years ago, along with a few other bits and pieces.


When it comes to the use of lasers and red light for exercise, there are two main types; low-level laser therapy (LLLT) and light-emitting diode therapy (LEDT). Both of these essentially involve the shining of light onto the skin, which can permeate down into the muscle. This can cause a number of different effects at the muscular level, which is what we are interested in. In a review of 13 different studies, ten showed that the use of these techniques led to positive effects on either exercise performance or recovery.


In terms of physical performance, the use of light therapy improved time to exhaustion by just over 4 seconds when compared to placebo, which was found to be statistically significant. One issue here is that people tend not to compete in time to exhaustion events; there are no Olympic medals for those that can exercise for the longest, just for those who can cover a set distance in the shortest amount of time. The same is true for recreational athletes, who tend to compete over the similar distances to elite athletes; you’re probably more interested in being able to take 4-seconds off your 5km personal best as opposed to being able to exercise for 4 seconds longer (the two aren’t the same). In addition to this, we have to consider individual variation; if you ran two different 5km races spaced 7-days apart, just natural variation in things like sleep, hydration, and energy levels would likely cause more than 4-seconds difference between your performances. We can see, then, that the effects of light therapy directly on race performance are perhaps a bit unclear.


The researchers also looked at a number of different markers of muscle damage after exercise, including CRP and CK. Overall, there was a large amount of variation in the results, but generally subjects in the light therapy group had lower levels of these markers after exercise, suggesting that they were suffering from less muscle damage during the exercise. Again, this sounds good, but whether it actually is or not is less clear. It’s certainly a good thing if you’re at a competition and have to do two exercise bouts in quick succession (such as at the Olympics, where I had to run 100m heats in the morning, and 100m quarter finals in the evening). It might not be good during normal training sessions, where muscle damage is something that potentially causes the improvements from exercise; in this case, reducing the damage might reduce the improvements you get. Whether this is the case or not is currently unclear, and in the context of light therapy hasn’t been studied.


Overall, then, it seems promising, although a lot more research is likely to be needed before we can say for sure. We also need research that examines how useful this is for athletes, both elite and recreational, before we can recommend it’s use. Is it best to use pre-competition, for example, as opposed to every day during a training block? One area where it might hold the greatest promise is in the use of exercise rehabilitation from injury; some research indicates that light therapy potentially reduces pain, something which often prevents injured people from undertaking exercise. If the pain can be controlled so that exercise can be carried out, this could have a really positive knock-on effect by allowing the injured area to become stronger and less painful in the future.


An additional factor to consider is the ease of undertaking this therapy; having trawled google it seems pretty much impossible for me to buy a device for myself. Instead, I have to travel to a clinic, which charges me £50 a go. This means that, at present, the use of light therapy is perhaps impractical and expensive. If I go to a clinic, I don’t know how long the effects might last, for example – probably not long enough to be worth doing immediately before a race.


In summing up, light therapy appears to be a promising, if currently impractical, exercise enhancement technique. However, a lot more research needs to be done before we know just how useful. Before athletes start to use this, we will need evidence on how often it should be used (just in training or competition?), and what the longer-term effects of its use are – does it dampen adaptation to exercise, for example? Finally, the technology itself will need to become much more readily available and much cheaper before we can expect this to become more widely used.


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