Not the Usual Advice on How to Improve Your Running Speed
If you want to know about how to improve running speed, you’ve probably read that you should do more intervals, listen to your body, put in the miles, rest, and other great advice. These methods all do work.
However, in this article, you won't find the typical advice on how to run faster and longer.
Instead, you’ll learn about an innovative therapeutic approach that can prime your body for a workout, speed up recovery time, build muscle faster, make your body work more efficiently, and prevent injury. What is this approach?
Red light therapy.
You’ll read about a runner suffering from chronic pain who shattered her average running times after using red light therapy, and you’ll learn how you can do the same. We’ll discuss how you can add red light therapy to other proven methods of increasing running speed, and then get ready for some shattered PRs!
But before we talk about red light therapy, let's talk about where you should start when trying to increase running speed, regardless of the method you use: setting goals.
Before you Start, Establish Goals
Before you start using any methods to improve your running speed, you first need to determine your goals.
Your PR goals could be faster or slower than this chart, which shows average times per mile. These times are based on 2010 race data from 10,000 recreational runners aged 20 to 49.
Once you set goals, red light therapy can potentially help you achieve them. Here’s an explanation of what red light therapy is and how it works.
How Red Light Therapy Works
Red light therapy is becoming increasingly popular among recreational runners as well as professional athletes who are looking to achieve peak performance. Hundreds of independent peer-reviewed studies demonstrate significant improvements in speed, strength, endurance, and fast muscle recovery.
Red light therapy is also known as low level light therapy (LLLT), photobiomodulation (PBM), and phototherapy. It uses a high-powered LED panel to shine red and/or near-infrared (NIR) light wavelengths ranging between 630 and 850 nanometers (nm) onto your skin. This concentrated light is absorbed into the skin, where it sparks a chain of beneficial biological processes in the parts of the body where the light is applied.
The term “red light therapy” includes both red (630nm to 660nm) and NIR (810nm to 850nm) wavelengths of light in what is called the “therapeutic window.” You’ll see in a moment how this works
Your Photosensitive Body
The process of phototherapy is nothing new. Healers have been treating patients with natural sunlight for millennia.
The human body is photosensitive, meaning it reacts to sunlight or other light sources. As light absorbs into the skin, light photons interact with photosensitive molecules called chromophores inside the cells’ mitochondria (cellular power generators). This triggers biological processes much like photosynthesis, in which plants convert sunlight to energy. Within mitochondria, the biological reaction creates adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the primary fuel for the body’s cells.
While sunlight contains the entire spectrum of visible and invisible light, it is now well-known that ultraviolet light is harmful, and exposure to sunlight should be done in moderation to avoid burns and skin damage from the sun.
Red light (630nm to 660nm) has a shallower absorption depth than NIR light (810nm to 850nm). Red light is best for smaller muscle groups and connective tissue close to the skin surface. NIR light penetrates more deeply, making it the ideal choice for large muscle groups, bones, and connective tissue deeper in the body.
Using both red and NIR light will result in the most benefits to help you increase your running. This is because you’ll target tissue at or near the skin, as well as deeper tissue.
How Runners Can Use Red Light Therapy
Now that you have some basic knowledge of what red light therapy is and how it works, you’ll be able to understand what this means for you as a runner who wants to improve your speed.
Genetics, training, aerobic capacity, flexibility, running style, mental toughness, injuries, diet, and hydration can all affect your speed. You can’t do anything about genetics, of course, but you can manage the factors that make training ineffective and prevent your body from recovering properly. And this starts when your muscles break down during a run.
If you’re not familiar, training — like running or lifting — essentially breaks muscles down and rebuilds them stronger. During exercise, muscles undergo a process called hypertrophy, in which muscle fibers develop microscopic tears. The body repairs these tears, which increases the muscles’ size and mass.
Many things can slow down this muscle-building process, however, including low cellular energy and poor recovery practices.
Low Cellular Energy
Here’s why cellular energy is important for your run:
When mitochondria are damaged, they’re unable to convert glucose into energy to generate fuel for cells. When cells lack enough energy, cellular performance suffers, just as your performance suffers if you don’t fuel your body by eating enough during a race or long training run.
Red light stimulates the mitochondria to produce more ATP. Energized cells are high-functioning cells; and when all of the cells in your legs are working at their peak, you will get faster.
In contrast, not addressing mitochondrial dysfunction means that depleted cells will continue to struggle—no matter how hard you push your muscles. Your cells will divert their resources to survival instead of performing their specialized functions at peak capacity.
Sure, to some extent cells can keep going—just as you can force yourself to keep going on a run—but performance suffers. Long-term mitochondrial dysfunction can lead to chronic inflammation, oxidative stress in the muscles, and slower healing from injury.
And treating mitochondrial dysfunction is at the heart of how red light therapy works.
The miles you put in… the intervals… the strength training… the stretching… those are just part of the training equation. Training needs to be balanced with adequate rest and recovery, which is where your body rebuilds itself stronger and faster.
Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness
As a runner, you’re undoubtedly familiar with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS), which is the soreness you feel 24 to 72 hours after intense exercise. DOMS often happens after eccentric exercises, such as running downhill, and it can be reduced using red light along with active recovery.
Red light therapy stimulates the formation of capillaries, which are the tiny blood and lymph vessels that deliver oxygen and nutrients to the muscles and remove waste. This helps accelerate recovery and restore normal muscle functioning.
In a clinical trial on DOMS, participants were exposed to red and NIR wavelengths after performing bicep exercises, and experienced significant decreases in pain.
In a study on eccentric knee extensor training, researchers found that applying red light before a workout improved muscular strength as well as the ability to tolerate increased training loads. This can benefit runners in hilly areas, as downhill running is a type of eccentric training that can lead to injury.
Another study on eccentric training tested 17 healthy males who performed bicep contractions followed by red light treatment. The results were reduced muscle soreness, decreased muscle strength loss (a common effect of DOMS), and improved range of motion.
Red Light and Running Injuries
Overtraining injuries are common, and it’s natural to want to get back to your training plan ASAP. Here’s how red light can help with some of the most common running-related injuries.
One is tendonitis, which can be painful and debilitating. Even a minor tendon strain can quickly escalate, preventing you from doing speed workouts, strength training, stretching, or tempo runs.
This 2006 study examined the effects of NIR light on seven patients with bilateral Achilles tendonitis. The patients experienced a significant decrease in inflammation and greater tolerance to applied pressure (pain) after red light treatment.
During a 2016 study of injured college athletes, researchers treated 395 injuries with 830nm NIR light therapy. These injuries, which were treated over a 15-month period, included sprains, strains, tendonitis, ligament damage, and contusions. Results included faster muscle recovery, less pain, and a faster return to play.
Red light therapy can potentially improve performance during a run, and support normal post-workout recovery and injury healing.
How Rachel Improved Her Running Speed
Rachel C. is a 38-year-old mom and a passionate runner. Three years ago, she suffered from chronic continuous back pain and neck pain from a 2015 car wreck, as well as hip flexor and knee pain during running.
In an effort to alleviate the pain, Rachel did regular physical therapy, took several anti-inflammatory doses and several heating pad breaks every day, and took muscle relaxers at night. Running hurt. Lying down hurt. Sleep was impossible.
For a year her physical therapist had been telling her that he thought she could benefit from red light therapy. Finally, she bought a book about it and after reading the book in one night, Rachel placed an order that same night for her own red light device: a Platinum LED BIO-600 Red Light.
After just three days of red light therapy, Rachel's back pain was completely gone, she was sleeping well, she felt energetic, and she was able to stop taking all painkillers. And, as she explains, “I never went back to my physical therapist—I had no need.” Two weeks later, she bought her second red light device.
Most remarkably, Rachel started running again—pain-free—and she increased her mileage from three miles to eight miles.
By the second week, her legs started feeling “bionic” during runs. No pain, just gazelle-like speed and agility. Now she could run uphill without stopping, and that’s when Rachel started increasing her speed.
Rachel’s previous running speed was 11- to 12-minute miles. Today, she is running faster, consistently and tantalizingly close to 9-minute miles. “I am running with zero pain,” she says, “AND at a pace that is 1 to 2 minutes a mile faster than I have been able to in over three years, and am falling asleep faster and sleeping comfortably.”
Rachel’s results did include more speed work—but speed workouts had previously been impossible because of chronic pain. Red light therapy eliminated the pain and supported optimal muscle functioning.
Today, Rachel’s speed is still improving, with no pain during or after her runs. She ran her fastest-ever 5K (27:37, an 8:55 pace). She also ran a 27.1 ultra trail marathon 1 hour 19 minutes faster than the same race a year before.
If Rachel is running faster despite being off painkillers and stopping physical therapy, red light therapy can also help improve your running.
In Case You’re Wondering What the Studies Say ...
Let’s explore the strategy of using red light to improve athletic performance. Consistency is most important, but you’ll also want to understand the rationale of applying red light before or after workouts.
In a 2015 meta-analysis of several studies, researchers from São Paulo, Brazil concluded that light therapy used before workouts could lessen muscle fatigue and protect muscles against injury. They determined that it has a priming effect on muscles, which supports superior training and race day performance.
Energized cells are one of the main contributing factors in reduced muscle fatigue, according to a clinical trial of 10 healthy male volunteers who were treated with red/NIR light. The researchers found that while both red and NIR light exposure reduced DOMS and increased muscle performance, NIR light was better at increasing strength than red light, most likely due to the deeper absorption of NIR wavelengths.
Twelve high-level rugby players participated in a 2016 clinical trial to determine the effects of red light on game-time performance and recovery. After a pre-exercise red light treatment, the athletes experienced faster sprint times and delays in the onset of perceived fatigue and measured muscle fatigue.
In a 2012 study, 22 untrained male athletes received a placebo or NIR therapy five minutes before a progressive-intensity running test that was performed to exhaustion. The red light group showed increased exercise performance and less muscle damage after the exercise.
A 2018 study by researchers from Santa Catarina, Brazil, focused on studying the effects of red light therapy on muscle fatigue. One group of male volunteers received red light treatment immediately before exercise involving knee extensions; another group received treatment six hours before exercise; a third group received treatment twice: six hours prior to exercise and again immediately before; and a control group received no pre-workout therapy. The study found that applying red light both six hours prior and immediately before exercise led to significantly reduced muscle fatigue.
In a 2016 study, 48 male volunteers who performed strength training received red light therapy before or after each workout for 12 weeks. The pre-workout group showed significant changes in strength and muscle growth compared with the post-workout and placebo groups.
Red Light for Recovery
When you use red light therapy after a workout, it’s a wonderful way to incorporate gentle stretching, as well as to soothe muscles and promote healing.
During a 2011 study, 36 men with beginner to intermediate fitness levels were randomly divided into three groups: strength training with red light therapy, strength training only, and a control group. The red light therapy group received LLLT immediately after leg-press exercises, and this increased muscle performance compared with the strength training only and control groups.
A small 2016 study of one set of twins found that stimulating the quadriceps muscles with light therapy immediately after a workout improved athletic performance, reduced muscle damage and pain, increased muscle mass, and accelerated recovery.
Chances are, some or all of these studies have piqued your interest in how red light therapy can benefit you as a runner. Now let’s examine what you’ll need for the best results.
Using Red Light Therapy at Home
LED technology led to the production of high light-power output red light panels suitable for both clinical and home use—but not all red light devices are created equal.
Do not waste your money on cheap wands and showerhead-style lights that you’ll find through online sellers. These devices are underpowered and deliver only a fraction of the light power output needed for optimal absorption into your muscles.
Only PlatinumLED offers the BIOMAX Series which delivers all the most effective red- and NIR wavelengths at the same time: 630nm, 660nm, 810nm, 830nm, and 850nm.
What You’ll Need
You will need a high-quality, high-output LED device that is capable of delivering the most beneficial wavelengths: red light (630 and 660nm) and NIR light (810, 830, and 850nm).
For runners, a larger panel will yield the most benefits because of the large treatment area. The Platinum LED BIO or BIOMAX series in the 600 or 900 sizes would be ideal for treating the largest possible area at once.
What to Do
Sit or stand 4” to 6” from the panel, and expose bare skin to the light. Don’t look directly at the light, as it could cause eye strain due to the duration of the sessions. Then, simply relax for 10 to 20 minutes.
What to Expect
You may experience improvement in athletic performance including strength, speed, and endurance. But remember, since red light therapy works at the cellular level, most benefits will be longer-term. You can use red light indefinitely to help maintain peak physical performance.
Even if you can only use red light long after your workout (such as immediately before bed), you will still benefit. The benefits will be the same, with the exception of the mitochondrial energy boost you could receive by treating your muscles four to six hours before a run.
The best strategy could be something like this:
Before a run
- Stimulate ATP production in muscle cells with a 10- to 20-minute session three to six hours before a run.
- If that isn’t practical because you like to run during the early morning, you could do a 10- to 20-minute session 40 to 60 minutes before your run.
After a run
If it’s feasible for you, apply red light therapy immediately after a run to increase performance gains and aid in recovery. A 10- to 20-minute session is ideal for also enjoying gentle stretching.
Red Light for Competitive Runners: An Unfair Advantage?
If you want to increase your running speed because you want to race, you may be wondering if red light will give you an unfair advantage.
A 2016 review of 46 studies, which collectively involved more than 1,000 participants, showed that preconditioning with red light as well as post-workout red light treatments can increase athletic performance. The point of the review was to determine whether red light therapy gives athletes an unfair advantage and whether it should even be permitted in athletic competition.
The studies involved the use of red, NIR, and combinations of red/NIR light to increase muscle mass and decrease inflammation and oxidative stress.
The studies focused on preventing muscle damage (including DOMS), increasing muscle capacity, improving resistance to fatigue, and accelerating recovery.
At the close of the review, the researchers concluded that red light therapy:
- Increases energy metabolism in cells (ATP production)
- Reduces oxidative stress
- Prevents and helps repair muscle damage
Faster recovery and optimal muscle performance lead to faster running.
So does red light give you an unfair advantage? Experts say no. Since red/NIR wavelengths are present in natural sunlight, then runners who train outdoors would get the benefits of these wavelengths as well as people who use LED panels. In other words, the wavelengths are available to everyone.
If you want to abstain from red light therapy during your competitive season and you live where there are cold winters, you could still use the therapy to support your training during the winter months when you can’t expose your legs to sunshine (just like people living in warmer climates can enjoy year-round).
Using Traditional Methods with Red Light Therapy to Increase Running Speed
Based on what you’ve read so far, you know that your body is supported from within by red light. This can help you make major strides (pardon the pun) in your training—but you need to have realistic expectations. Although red light supports peak performance, it's not magic. You still have to put in the work.
Evaluate What You’re Doing Now … and Make Some Changes
Whether you’re new to running or have been running for years without getting faster, ask yourself ...
Do you have a base? Don't try to start by increasing speed and mileage, which inevitably leads to injury.
First, build a base of steady, easy miles for at least four to six weeks before easing into structured speed work and worrying about your speed per mile. Support your base-building with red light therapy, which will help prevent injury.
Do you run only comfortable, steady-pace miles? If so, add high-intensity interval training—the most effective way to increase your speed. Use red light therapy to support your cells in producing the energy needed for high-intensity efforts.
Are your speed workouts the same distance and pace? Mix them up! The body thrives on novelty, and a good training plan will keep it guessing. Plus, your workouts will never get boring. Whatever your workouts throw at your legs, support your body with frequent red light treatments.
How hard do you push yourself? Try running with faster running buddies, set realistic goals you can achieve with just a little more effort, and track your progress. Setting micro-goals like improving your time on a certain course by small increments is a good way to stay motivated and keep the progress coming.
The mental game is huge. Red light sessions are the perfect time to do a mental rehearsal of running faster and faster.
Do you get enough recovery, including quality sleep? Recovery is where you build muscle, so get more. Rest makes you faster. Red light promotes healthy sleep, and will do double duty of supporting your recovery efforts while you’re at rest.
Do you eat well and hydrate adequately? A diet rich in leafy greens, quality protein, complex carbs, and plenty of water will fuel a consistently faster pace. Red light will help your mitochondria convert food into energy.
Are you consistent or sporadic with training? Shorter but consistent workouts are better than being a weekend warrior. You’ll still build strength faster if you do shorter runs coupled with red light therapy.
The fastest way to improve your running times is to be consistent with workouts and red light therapy … but inconsistent with the type of run (or cross-training) you're doing.
In other words, mix it up! Don’t just do the same thing day after day, week after week… you’ll get into a rut and sabotage any chance of improving your times.
Alternate long, slow distance (LSD) training with high-intensity interval training (HIIT), active recovery, fast tempo runs with people who push you, "slow intervals" that give you a chance to do form work, strength training, speed play, flexibility training, breath work, and lazy days on the couch where you mentally rehearse running faster, or getting a PR on race day. An inconsistent workout schedule could be just the thing to help you run faster.
Make sure to be consistent with your red light sessions: three to five times per week will support your muscles and connective tissue.
Dealing with Monkey Wrenches
Sometimes life gets in the way of training, so don’t stress. Come back to running when you can, and make sure to return to your previous level slowly and deliberately, supporting yourself every step of the way with red light.
If you’re injured, make sure to do what your doctor and physical therapist tell you. If you try to do too much too fast, you will slow healing. Instead, support healing with slow, gentle movement and most importantly, rest. It’s the perfect time to mentally rehearse crushing your PRs.
Work on your mind game as often as you can. Mentally rehearse pushing through your running barriers, whether they’re speed or distance. Elite athletes use mental rehearsal to excel at their sport and you can too—and there’s no better time than during your red light sessions.
Let It Go
Many runners obsess about running faster until it becomes all about number crunching. Sure, the numbers can be helpful … but running stressed because your times aren’t going down can lead to you holding stress in your body, which leads to poor running form.
If you let go of your goals for a while and run for the joy of running, something wonderful happens: The pressure to perform goes away. Without this pressure your mind is free ... your body becomes looser, more relaxed, more fluid, and you get faster.
A Potential Revolution in Athletic Performance
Red light therapy is leading a revolution in peak athletic performance. Clinical trials show that using red light along with exercise can lead to the fastest gains in strength, speed, and endurance.
Now that you know the benefits of red light therapy to boost your running speed, you can safely use the most powerful light therapy devices from PlatinumLED to help you blast through your old PRs and enjoy a fleet, new you.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q. Do athletes use red light therapy?
Ans: Many athletes are learning about the advantages of red and infrared light therapy. This non-invasive technique will help relieve aching muscles, speed recovery from sports injuries, and boost overall health.
Q. Does red light therapy help sore muscles?
Ans: Muscle soreness and fatigue can be reduced with red light therapy. It can also help you heal faster from injuries. Injury prevention is crucial, and RLT helps to do just that by reducing pain and inflammation while also speeding up recovery times.