Running for president doesn't stop after the election.

Take it from President George W. Bush. Able to run a mile in seven minutes, Bush smokes out the competition every time he laces up his sneakers.

According to Runner's World magazine, the current president is as fit as an elite marathon runner. The magazine reports that in 2002, the president ran a 3-mile race in 20:29 — a time that places him in the top 3 percent of all U.S. 5K race finishers of any age.

It's a good thing for the 6-foot, 194-pound Bush, not only for his health but for his image. Consultants say running gives an air of discipline and strength that boosts a leader's image with every lap.

"Running says 'I'm ready for the game. I can run this distance,'" said political image consultant Anderson C. Toney.

"Right now, the whole war hero thing going on, everyone wants to be portrayed as the strongest, toughest and baddest. The public wants someone who will be in there for the duration," Toney said.

Running "projects an image of an individual who is very disciplined, which is something America likes, and shows they are energetic and vigorous. If you are running for office, you would want people to think you have those qualities" Runner's World Executive Editor Amby Burfoot told Foxnews.com.

American presidents have run laps around the White House since the 1970s, staying in shape while managing the free world. George H.W. Bush was also known as a jogger, but no competition for Bush the younger.

Former President Bill Clinton endured jokes about his jogging skills. From digs about having pasty thighs to his true motivation for running — getting to McDonald's faster — Clinton heard it all, but kept up his fitness routine just the same. Though he never entered a race while in office, he reportedly clocked an 8-minute mile.

"People made fun of the fact that he wore baggy clothing and wasn't the thinnest guy on the block, but he was doing the right thing for him to stay in good shape and keep his weight under control," said Burfoot.

Clinton's Vice President Al Gore also hit the pavement frequently and while he was in office he ran the Marine Corp Marathon (search) in 1997, crossing the finish at 4:58:25. No sitting president has ever run a marathon.

But running doesn't always enhance the commander-in-chief's machismo. Jimmy Carter (search) had an unfortunate running incident while he was in office that bruised his reputation and ego.

During a 10K race in 1979, Carter's face appeared anguished before he collapsed to the ground. He later said he felt fine and had just pushed himself too hard. But the damage was done — the photo of him keeling over was splashed on every newspaper and broadcast and some said it was further proof that he was a weak president.

In 2004, the president, with just 14.5 percent body fat, may find the race a little longer and the image a little harder to maintain.

The top two men vying to fill Bush's shoes are both fit — John Edwards (search) jogs approximately three to five miles per day, according to a spokesperson. He was even filmed running in a campaign commercial.

But if physical activities really matter to image, it's John Kerry (search) who poses the real threat. The current Democratic front-runner, who has been lauded for being "very presidential looking," is an avid ice hockey player, windsurfer and kite surfer, leading some to wonder if the country is ready for an extreme-sports president.

"I hope America is ready for somebody who honestly appreciates doing the things that he or she does," Kerry told The Boston Globe in 2003. "These are things I love to do and have done ... Obviously, if I were to be president, it would be harder to go out and do those things ... But it's fun ... There's a sense of freedom in it, exhilaration."

Toney said the sport played is less important than the effort that goes into it.

"It's about someone being healthy and athletic, no matter what they do," she said. "If you can't take care of yourself how can you take care of the people around you? We are counting on the president ... this is one way of saying, I will be responsible."

Bush told Runner's World that one of his jobs as president was to set an example: "I have an opportunity to send the message to the American people that I'm serious about exercising — and you should be, too."

John Orman, a presidential historian at Fairfield University, said using sport to spawn publicity has long been a part of the presidency.

"Harry Truman (search) used to walk briskly around the block around the White House and reporters would take pictures, but they could barely keep up with him, he was a very brisk walker. He also knew it was a good photo op," he said.

"After Nixon, which was a really closed presidency, Ford came in and was the open president, let reporters follow him all around got to see him play golf and ski."

Orman added that a society obsessed with weight is going to notice its leader's waistline.

"On television and in our celebrity culture you couldn't be 380 pounds like William Howard Taft in today's televised era," he said.

That doesn't appear to be an impending problem for the current president. Bush makes time to run three days a week and supplements that with a "water jog" once a week in the White House pool. He also uses an elliptical trainer for 25 minutes, three times weekly, and exercises his upper body by lifting free weights twice a week. The president even has a treadmill on Air Force One to run on during flights.

And while being in shape might enhance his image, Bush appreciates the other payoffs.

"I exercise every day ... and I feel better for it. I sleep better. I eat better. I'm a lot more pleasant fellow to be around after I exercise," he told seniors at an Orlando, Fla., retirement community he visited in June 2002 to promote a health initiative.