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4. Know Your Race

Think you know how long a mile is? How about 2, 4, or 5 miles? If you're used to judging distances by zipping along in your car at 45 mph, experts say you may have no idea of the "walking distance" of a particular race.

That's why Edwards advises knowing the race you're getting into, long before you're at the starting line.

Her advice: For anything less than a marathon, you should at least be able to walk the distance starting several weeks before the event. A week or two before the race, you should be able to run the course -- at least at a leisurely pace.

Stone says that trial races are among the best ways to prepare.

"It's essential that you believe you can do the race without getting hurt," he says.

5. Practice Running

As simple a concept as this seems, Plancher says, it can get lost in the shuffle of trying to prepare.

"We need to concentrate on building muscles throughout our body, but being able to run well still counts a lot," says Plancher.

Indeed, early results from one study shows that practicing running may be the single most important thing you can do to get ready for a race.

In the research being done on marathon runners by experts at Michigan State University, results indicate that the total mileage participants run before a race is the factor with the greatest influence on their speed during the race.

6. Enjoy Yourself

While it's hard to beat the exhilaration that comes with completing a race (or even winning one), experts remind us that it's the joy of participating, not the outcome, that counts most.

"It's the jumping into the game that matters most, because the more you do, the better you will get -- and there is much to enjoy along the way," says Linda Burzynski, chief executive officer of the Liberty Fitness gym chain, who is training for her first race.

Even if you try a trial run and find you're not in as good shape as you thought, she says, that shouldn't discourage you from participating -- as long as you know your limitations.

"Many races are as much a social as an athletic event, so many first-timers end up doing a combination of running and walking," she says. "You can still enjoy the race even if you can't run it all the way through."

The bottom line, says Burzynski: "Have fun, and let fitness into your life!"

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