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.

Better Late Than Never for Exercise

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.

How to Pick a Pair of Athletic Shoes

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.

Tool: View the Basic Stretches Slideshow

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.

Finding a Personal Fitness Trainer

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!"

Missing Exercise Can Be Depressing

By Colette Bouchez, reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

SOURCES: Sally Edwards, professional athlete, director, HeartZones.com, Danskin Triathlon Trainer. Kevin D. Plancher, MD, associate clinical professor, orthopedics, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York; director, Plancher Orthopedics, New York, and Greenwich, Conn. Kevin R. Stone, MD, director, Stone Foundation for Sports Medicine and Arthritis Research, San Francisco. Linda Burzynski, CEO, Liberty Fitness, Austin, Texas. Detroit Marathon Study, N. Erlich, Institute of Public Policy and Social Research, Michigan State University.