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2. Set Up a Training Program

A training program, says Edwards, spells out all you need to do to accomplish your race goals.

"It's a plan -- which I suggest you actually write out -- that specifies how you are going to train, who you are going to train with, how many days a week you can devote to training, what you plan to do during each session," says Edwards. "It's kind of a blueprint that takes you from day one to race day with some organized structure."

While how much training you'll do depends on both your physical condition and the complexity of the race, Edwards says most folks can get ready by working out four to five days a week for six to eight weeks.

"You can't just jump off the couch and go hog-wild and start running because you will hurt yourself," says Edwards. "You have to have a plan to take you from point A to point B."

Remember, if you're new to exercising or to running, it's best to see your doctor before devising any training program.

3. Be Sure to Cross-Train

Whether your race is a simple 5K run or a triathlon, experts say, don't focus your training on running alone.

"When we focus on one activity, such as running, we can put so much biomechanical stress on a select area of the body that we actually do ourselves more harm than good," says Kevin R. Stone, MD, director of the Stone Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis Research in San Francisco.

Varying your workouts, he says, helps build muscles throughout your body -- for strength you'll need as the race progresses.

"You don't just need strong legs to run, you need a strong cardiovascular system, you need core strength -- you need to be strong overall, and cross-training is an important way to achieve that," says Stone, who has counseled professional athletes including Picabo Street and Martina Navratilova.

Edwards notes that "to race, you have to train not just your muscles, but your cardiovascular system to be able to handle the distance and the endurance. And cross-training gives you diversity and helps develop your strengths body-wide."

What activities should you do? Edwards advises alternating walking and running with biking, elliptical training, and strength training -- and swimming, if you have access to a pool.

"Ultimately, the best training would be alternating these activities five days a week, beginning at least six weeks before the race," says Edwards.

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