6 Secrets for Getting Into the Race

Experts share tips for getting fit and having fun running in a race -- even if you're a beginner.

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

You've admired those dedicated runners who take on the Boston Marathon. You've felt inspired by friends and neighbors who have participated in races for charities, the PTA, or other community groups.

But when it comes to signing up for a race yourself, you always seem to end up on the sidelines. Even if you've been exercising regularly, you may wonder, "Can I really do it?"

The answer is, "Yes, you can!" says Sally Edwards, director of HeartZones.com, who helps race "newbies" get started with national training seminars for the Danskin Triathlon event.

"Everyone thinks that in order to run a race, you have to be an experienced racer, but that's not at all true," says Edwards, herself a Master World Record holder in the Ironman Triathlon. "For example, we have many participants in the Danskin Triathlon who are racing for the very first time."

Most require only six to eight weeks of training to get in the game, she says.

Clearly, your athletic prowess before the race -- as well as the difficulty of the race itself -- figure into how much you training you'll need, and how you should go about it.

But experts say there are a few ground rules anyone can follow to help make that first race fun, successful, and injury-free. Here are six of their top secrets to help you prepare:

1. Buy Good Shoes

Believe it or not, experts say that having the right shoes can be just as important as starting a training program.

"You can't just go to your local discount store and pick up whatever is on sale, and you can't wear your old boat or tennis shoes," says Kevin Plancher, MD, director of Plancher Orthopedics in New York, and in Greenwich, Conn. "You really have to pay attention to footwear."

Each person's feet are different -- some have flat feet, some a high arch, some pronated feet, Plancher says. And each type of foot requires a slightly different shoe for maximum support.

The wrong shoe, Plancher says, can dramatically increase the risk of injury.

"The long-term effects of running in bad shoes -- even for one race -- can be chronic foot and leg injury that may never go away, and now you are spending thousands of dollars in health care that could have been avoided with the proper shoe wear," Plancher tells WebMD.

To find the best shoes, experts recommend going to a shop that specializes in athletic shoes and that employs a fit specialist. Such a specialist can help you find a shoe that not only feels good, but is right for your own foot and your running needs. After you find the shoe of your dreams, run in them at least a few times before the big race.

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.

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