Can P90X Work for Runners?

Tony Horton, the creator of P90X, isn’t much of a runner himself. But the success of his whole-body exercise program is helping to remind runners that they can find success 

by focusing on strength and flexibility.

By Jeff Banowetz

The ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., was filled with its usual lunchtime crowd. Wander in around this time most days and you’ll be able to hear the musings of a cabinet secretary, CEO, foreign dignitary or other newsmaker. But unlike most of the speakers who use the press club’s stage to make news, Tony Horton isn’t in the gray power suit of a typical D.C. pol. In fact, he’s sleeveless.

In fairness, Horton will follow his speech by leading a group workout sampling P90X, the hugely successful exercise program that’s probably being advertised right now if you turn on the TV. The packed ballroom is filled with journalists, exercise enthusiasts and P90X fans who’ve also ditched the work clothes to sweat with Horton. Then again, Horton rarely wears sleeves no matter where he is.

And why would he? The 52-year-old Horton easily serves as the best billboard P90X could ask for.

Horton is at the press club to talk about his latest work with the military to help create “functional fitness” programs for soldiers, and to promote fitness strategies to deal with the growing nationwide obesity problem. In his speech, he mentions a study that forecasts fewer than 25 percent of young adults will be eligible for military service, largely because of medical issues related to obesity.

He’s preaching to the choir. Much of the crowd has come to work out with Horton because they’ve already bought what he’s selling—and they’re not alone. More than two million people have purchased P90X, making it one of the most successful exercise programs of all time.

But this event is a bit different for Horton. He’s here in D.C. as the honorary chairman of the National Press Club 5K, which will be held the next morning. And while Horton isn’t much of a runner himself (“My running is pretty lame,” he admits), he’s discovering that endurance athletes make up many of the latest converts to his whole-body fitness regimen.

“I can’t tell you how many marathoners I know who stopped their training—their one-dimensional training—and started using us,” Horton says. “And using multidimensional training, they had their best times ever.”

Of course, that’s what you’d expect him to say. But at least anecdotal evidence is backing him up, as more runners are discovering that running fewer miles may indeed be more effective when paired with more strength, flexibility and core work.


The P90X Phenomenon

Born in Rhode Island, Horton made his way to California in the early ‘80s, like many, to get into the entertainment business—and ended up doing stand-up comedy. “I did some impressions and did a lot of physical comedy. But comedy’s a rough business,” he says.

He found more success in the fitness world, where he eventually became a personal trainer in Santa Monica, Calif., and developed a client list of rock stars, including Tom Petty, Billy Idol, Annie Lennox and Steven Stills. He eventually met Carl Daikeler, who founded the Beachbody fitness company in 1998, and they began to work together on products for home fitness. His first success came in 2001 with “Power 90,” a video that combined cardiovascular fitness with weight training in a 90-day program. His follow up to that came in 2004 with P90X, the extreme version of the original Power 90 workout.

P90X takes a much more comprehensive approach to overall fitness, featuring 12 DVDs and a nutritional program in which he collaborates with former Ironman triathlete Mark Sisson.

P90X takes the opposite route of most fitness products advertised on television. “We know everyone wants the quick fix, and you’ll see all those products that will promise you great abs in 27 seconds,” Horton says. “But we didn’t sugar-coat it. Getting to look like this takes a lot of work. You have to really be committed to get the results. But if you commit, then the results really do happen.”

Perhaps they shouldn’t have been surprised that the first infomercials touting P90X didn’t perform well.

“But I credit Carl Daikeler, who said, you know, this is too good to give up on,” Horton says.

“But while this was happening, the few people who did buy it were submitting their pictures,” Horton continues. “And they were shooting home video. We never had such good results. So we said, let’s just take this footage and use the before-and-after pictures and piece it all together into a new infomercial. And that’s when the product really took off.”

According the Infomercial Monitoring Services Corporation, Beachbody is spending $600,000 to $1 million a week to run the infomercial this fall. And according to CNBC, the product has reached more than $300 million in sales.


Delivering on the Promise

So why all the fuss? After all, Horton is the latest in a long line of TV fitness-pitchmen like Richard Simmons, Susanne Somers and Susan Powter to make it big in largely late-night infomercials that promise to get you in the best shape of your life (starting tomorrow).

“I think a lot of those programs were great for getting people off the couch,” Horton says. “But in some ways, they were one- or two-dimensional. A lot of them were only cardio-based programs. And then you unfortunately get a lot of those abracadabra chairs that promise the world.”

P90X promises no magic bullets. In fact some critics rightly point out that if you do any exercise consistently for 60-90 minutes, six days a week, you’re going to get results.

“It’s not one thing that makes us different,” Horton says. “It’s plyometrics, it’s cardio, it’s resistance, it’s using dumbbells, it’s mixed martial arts. So you avoid hitting that plateau that comes with doing the same thing over and over. And you avoid injuries.”

The marking materials of P90X call it “muscle confusion,” but it’s basically a program of periodization—a fancy way of saying that workouts need to build in intensity and then allow time for recovery.

The 12 DVDs each feature a different program, varying from about 45 to 90 minutes, and alternating among strength, cardio and stretching workouts. You’ll need either exercise bands or dumbbells for resistance—and a chin-up bar is really nice—but most of the routines focus on gravity-based exercises that can be done at home in a relatively small space.

If P90X truly breaks any new ground, it’s bringing an emphasis on yoga to a new segment of the population.

“I started yoga 12-15 years ago,” Horton says. “I was probably like everyone else, thinking what do I need this for? And then I got my butt handed to me with 90 minutes of things I couldn’t do… Now I realize just how much strength and flexibility you can get through yoga—it’s integral to what we’re doing.”

P90X for Runners

Ryan Chapman has the story infomercials love to tell.

In 2004 he weighed 275 pounds and decided that he’d had enough. He and some friends at work organized a weight-loss contest, which culminated in a sprint triathlon. He won the contest—without P90X—and completed his first triathlon at 195 pounds.

When triathlon season ended, Chapman, who lives near Seattle, Wash., wanted something else to keep the momentum going.

“Coming from a background of being overweight, I didn’t have a lot of strength,” he admits. “I wasn’t good at pushups and things like that. But I thought, I need to do something in the off-season, and I can do this at home.”

Chapman replaced one cardio workout with a run, but otherwise followed the program to the letter from October to January. “I hadn’t really lost a lot of weight, but I felt great,” he says. “I’d signed up for a 5K just to gauge my fitness for the upcoming season, and I ran a PR.”

Inspired by the success, Chapman incorporated P90X into his regular triathlon training. He now coaches other runners and triathletes using P90X, focusing on core workouts and strength training.

“I’ve been impressed how a strong core helps with running stamina,” he says, with the passion of a convert. “And I didn’t know anything about plyometrics, but I’ve found that’s one of the biggest things that increased my running performance.”

Brad Rourke, who lives in Rockville, Md., was very disappointed in his 2009 Marine Corps Marathon, where he had hoped to break four hours. “It was atrocious,” he says. “I really wondered if I passed some kind of an age corner, and I wasn’t ever going to get any faster.”

After a friend turned him onto P90X, he realized that he hadn’t really been training correctly for the marathon.

“I was not an upper-body fitness person at all,” he says. “For me a tough workout was a 13-mile run. But it made me realize that I wasn’t in as good shape as I thought.”

Even if P90X isn’t for you—after all, lots of people prefer to work out in a gym or with a coach—the tenets of the program can certainly be adopted to any routine.

“Running is great, but it’s not everything,” Horton says. “If you realize that these other elements of training—yoga, plyometrics, etc.—can make you a better runner, why wouldn’t you include them?”