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Ask The Experts: Can P90X Work For Runners?

Tony Horton's program wasn't originally meant for runners, but it certainly has its benefits!



You recently mentioned that strength training and focusing on plyometrics, stretching, and mobility work are important as you age. Curious as to your opinion of P90X if implemented into a running program?

Tim S.



An interesting and timely question. Who is the cover boy of the forthcoming November issue of Competitor? Tony Horton!

Apparently you’re not the only runner who is curious about Horton’s workout craze. In the cover story written by Jeff Banowetz, Horton says, “I can’t tell you how many marathoners I know who stopped their training—and started using us.” The article also includes the story of a once-overweight triathlete who gave P90X a try and set a PR in his next 5K. If you snoop around on internet running forums you’ll find lots of sunny testimonials from runners who have benefited from P90X.

The reasons it’s helpful to runners are pretty clear. First of all, the program is high-volume—you’re working out an hour a day, on average. Second, most of the workouts are high heart-rate. Even the strength workouts are uptempo and allow little rest, so you’re getting a good cardiovascular boost even as you gain strength. And third, P90X addresses some key weaknesses that many runners have: namely, strength, flexibility, mobility, power, and anaerobic endurance. So even though the typical runner who tries P90X runs less for 90 days, he gains more than he loses.

There’s obviously more than one way a runner can incorporate P90X into his training, and the best way depends on individual considerations. One good way to use it is as an off-season cross-training program. Stop or curtail your running and switch your focus to P90X over the winter, then ramp up your running in the spring and retain two or three mini P90X-style workouts in your weekly regimen to maintain the well-rounded fitness you’ve earned.

Completing the full P90X program as designed is not the most efficient way to improve your running through cross-training. The program was not specifically designed for runners, after all. You’ll probably get the greatest possible boost in your running performance if you maintain a fairly high running volume and cherry pick parts of the P90X program to add to your routine. Research shows that a modest amount of strength and power training gives runners as much performance benefit as they can possibly get from these types of training (provided they also run a lot). Any additional time spent in the gym would be better spent running. P90X definitely prescribes more strength, power, and flexibility and mobility training, too, for that matter, than any runner needs.

Put another way, suppose you cloned yourself twice. One you continued running and avoiding cross-training. Another you quit running and switched to P90X. A third you cut back modestly on his running and made up the difference with an equal volume of strength, power, flexibility and mobility training pulled out of P90X. After 90 days, this third you would show the biggest improvement in a running performance test.

The thing I like most about P90X is that it makes people work really hard, and the marketing is very up-front about that. Most runners really don’t work very hard. They are willing to spend a lot of time training, but they resist the pain of high intensities. That’s too bad, because high-intensity exercise has magical effects on fitness that no amount of moderate-intensity running can replicate. I believe that the high-intensity element of P90X is probably the primary factor behind the performance benefits that many runners seem to get from it—an even more important factor than strength and power improvements. You don’t need to do P90X to get the benefits of high-intensity training, and every runner—whether he uses P90X in whole, in part, or not at all—should do some high-intensity running, but for those runners who are not on intimate terms with the scorched-esophagus  feeling that comes at the end of a set of hard intervals on the track, P90X represents a good way to learn to love—or at least tolerate—that sort of training.


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Check out Matt’s latest book, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel.