Orange Theory: Who and what it’s good for


Got a few friends, both runners and non-runners, who are really into working out at Orange Theory, a chain of gyms built around a somewhat interactive, competitive series of high intensity aerobic circuit training workout classes.

Long story short, participants aerobically work out hard for about an hour between numerous stations, and the establishment keeps score of your vitals on a big monitor, along with esoteric stats like “splats” (a metric measuring how long you hit their key orange heart-rate level).

As with such gyms, pricing is a bit of an investment for most working class individuals. While OT gyms offer free introductory classes, taking any more after that at a given location requires a membership. They want you to make a commitment up-front, though if you buy a membership you are free to use it at any OT gym available.

Tiered memberships cost from around $60 for 4 classes a month to $150-175 for unlimited classes. The heart rate monitors require an additional $5-10 to rent (and you can outright buy them for around $75-100). Additional classes on limited plans can be purchased for around $20-30 each.

This pricing isn’t relatively outrageous considering yoga, Pilates and other workout studios ask generally the same amount. However, someone looking into a new gym habit probably will be somewhat averse to forking out $60-200 a month just to work out. Of course, while they can either join a gym for $15-50 a month, or go run and do bodyweight exercises on their own for free… the direction of a coach or teacher is a key reason people look to fitness classes in the first place.

… I guess that was a little long to be a long story short. Whoops!

I’m a supporter of group fitness classes. A lot of people could use better fitness, could use some coaching, and these classes provide valuable direction in both. Whether people prefer this, yoga, Pilates, dance technique classes, chic dance variants like Pure Barre, etc…. if you enjoy these group classes, can consistently do it safely, and it gets you to actually work out when you otherwise wouldn’t, then yes: DO IT.

There are certain people who benefit more from it than others, of course. And in the case of runners, it can absolutely benefit some of them. I’ve seen it benefit several I personally know. Likewise, I wouldn’t outright say to certain runners that they should stay away, but there are also some cases where it doesn’t work as well.

First of all, obviously, the cost has to be feasible and worth the investment for whoever does it. Many of those I know who do Orange Theory aren’t exactly rich. They’re working class individuals like myself, and like other monthly bills they consider their OT membership a cost of living.

That said, if ~$70ish a month (after equipment and service fees) or more is a little much to spend, then probably stick to something cheaper, whether that’s a lower cost fitness class or just working out on your own.

But, if you can handle the cost, and you run, is it a worthwhile supplement to your training?

First, any serious workout has to be factored into your overall training volume.

Unless you are a total ironman/woman, you probably aren’t going to be able to do full runs every day AND work out at OT several days a week. Someone who runs a high volume might do best with the minimum membership, and going probably once a week at most.

If you run more like 3-5 days a week, it can be worthwhile to visit OT more often, certainly on your non-running days, or the day before a scheduled day off from running.

Given the demands of each session I’d recommend considering an Orange Theory visit a quality training session, as you would a speedwork session, tempo run, or a long run. I definitely wouldn’t do any of the quality running workouts I mentioned on the day before, day of, or day after an OT workout. Orange Theory will give you a hard workout, so space out your other hard workouts from that OT workout. Your body needs time to recover from quality training.

Orange Theory provides a full body aerobic/strength workout, and this trains parts of your upper body that aren’t relevant to running. Of course, this can have some subsidiary benefits to your running, especially within your core muscles.

The key, though: While this means your running may not inhibit subsequent recovery in the upper body, it also means any nutrition and other internal recovery processes will need to invest in healing muscles not relevant to your running. This can slow recovery in your lower body’s relevant running muscles due to limited internal resources. And no, eating twice the protein won’t address it. Your body may ultimately utilize all the protein, but it can’t repair all the damage at once, and you’ve still got other workouts to do in the following days.

Still, the benefits of the extra cross training can exceed any detriment to your running training, depending on your goals. The shorter the races you run, the less detriment adding OT training can do to your overall running training. Someone running 5Ks and 10Ks probably isn’t running more than 30-40 miles a week anyway, so cutting into that volume with some splatz won’t hurt their aerobic fitness… if they even have to cut volume at all.

However, someone training for ultras and marathons, who builds their training around consistent high volume and may not be fully stretched out for their goal race… might be best off skipping OT for now. With the time and physical effort = recovery required to put in the needed volume to aerobically prepare for such a race, you may hurt your development more taking intense circuit training classes than help it.

But, if you are stretched out, have run a lot of marathons or ultras and already run fewer days a week while easily maintaining your volume and that aerobic fitness… then OT circuit training could certainly help you.

Many runners I know who swear by OT are avid marathon runners who also run many other shorter races. They’ve improved their fitness and race performance substantially through OT and their base training, without getting injured.

Someone who comfortably maintains something similar to a Gaudette style schedule (runs every other day except the weekends, where a medium-length run is followed by the long run) can probably handle an OT class between two of their regular runs.

Someone who does a Daniels-style 2Q schedule, with two brutal long workouts but then a flexible schedule of easy running and maybe days off in-between, can totally fit OT training in their schedule if they wanted… provided it buffers at least one easy day before and after, to provide spacing from the longer, tougher run workouts. They could also reduce the scope of the quality workouts, replacing tempo segments with easy running or just shortening the workouts… as well as eliminating all the optional quality workouts in the training plan and just doing OT + easy running instead.

The only people to which I’d say outright avoid OT are those who do more hardcore run training, like:

– Pfitzinger’s demanding marathon programs
– The Hanson Brothers’ more specific and volume-rich marathon programs where your rest days are isolated and carefully plotted out
– A program like FIRST where even if you run only 3 days a week all of the run workouts are long and/or very intense.

Your opportunity for recovery in any such plan is already fairly limited, your training is already fairly demanding, and adding OT workouts will probably only get you injured or irreparably compromise your goal training.

Barring such specificity, however, being suitably fit to where run training is on cruise control… or doing a training program of reasonable volume with a lot of easy days planned… can totally allow for OT workouts.

One key value of Orange Theory’s subscription plan is that it’s month to month and easy to cancel, as well as easy to freeze. Plus the 1st month is allowed a full refund if you wish to cancel then.

Thus, if interested and still in doubt, and you have plenty of time before your next race… you can simply try it for a few weeks, during spaces in your life and training schedule: Take an introductory class, and if you still like it just take the minimum 4 class per month membership. Do it once a week and see how it impacts your training and development.

Worst case scenario, if it doesn’t work for you, you can just quit and go back to your previous training.

But, as it has for many others, many of whom I know, Orange Theory may benefit your running development as a form of cross training. It’s worth considering if you’re able and willing.

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One thought on “Orange Theory: Who and what it’s good for

  1. […] to some extent strength/aerobic fitness sessions like Zumba, OrangeTheory, dance classes like modern or ballet, etc. I actually think these are great for developing overall […]

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