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NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - As some 42,000 runners prepare to lap the miles of the 2010 New York City Marathon on Sunday, experts agree that there's nothing like long distance running for cardio vascular fitness.
But they caution that overall fitness is not built by running alone. Going the distance takes mindful training, whether you're an elite runner or a rookie on your maiden dash.
"If you can run a marathon you have a really good cardiovascular fitness level," said Dr. Henry Williford of the American College of Sports Medicine. "But unless you do some sort of resistance/weight training your muscle strength is not as good."
And building those fitness levels is a slow and steady business.
Williford, a professor of exercise science at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama, said a beginner may need at least six months of training to achieve the stamina to tackle Sunday's 26.2-mile run.
"But if you train well," he said, "you should thrive."
Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, a sports medicine physician with the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City, urges everyone to take on a marathon at some time in their life.
"You can do it walking," said Metzl, who will run, not walk, his 29th marathon on November 7. "On TV you see these really fast people, but that's not the majority."
One of Metzl's runners is an 84-year-old woman. Another was 300 pounds (136 kgs). She had a heart attack, started walking, then slowly jogging. Now she's doing her third marathon. He said it takes her about six hours.
"I preach preparing your body by cross-training," Metzl said. "Strength training, jumping, landing. I always say if you want to keep running, a strong butt is a key to a happy life."
He basks in the excitement of first-timers, but admits rookies are twice as likely to injure themselves.
A common mistake is running through the pain.
"Any pain changes your gait cycle, you've got to check out," he said. "Remember, the first guy who ever did this died at the end of the race."
That guy was Pheidippedes. In 490 B.C., according to legend, he raced to Athens with the news of Greece's victory in the Battle of Marathon. Once there, he shouted, "Rejoice, we conquer!" then dropped dead of exhaustion.
Dehydration and overuse injuries are most likely to thwart the hopes of Sunday's marathoners, according to Polly de Mille, an exercise physiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
"Cramping is the thing that makes people drop out or slow down, or not having fueled themselves really well," said de Mille, a former marathoner.
She said entrants will have likely run their last long race two weeks earlier.
"By now their training is in the bank. They're resting up. Better to go into the race a little undertrained than overtrained."
First-timers, she says, must take care to pace themselves.
"It's hard not to start running really fast when you hit First Avenue. It's so thrilling you can get carried away. But you still have the Bronx to go," she said referring to areas covering in the marathon.
And when the race is run, walk for a while to keep muscles from cramping and blood from pooling.
"When you get home, an ice bath is a good idea," de Mille said. "But when you cross the finish line, the most important thing is to keep moving."