You’re in Helen with the family or friends, getting stuffed on schnitzels and lager and shopping a lot, yet the solitude of the Blue Ridge Mountains with its hardwoods and dozens of waterfalls beckon. There is a lot to see, but you can have peace and pace before the rest of the crew knows where the coffee and frühstück is served. Trail running in Helen is transcendent: there are hundreds of trail miles in the area and even one great option right outside of your downtown lodgings. Do you need special shoes? Short answer: not yet, you can just use your running shoes (though they may get dirty).
First, let’s talk general technique. The unpredictable terrain of trail running takes away rhythm and prioritizes reaction. Compared to road running, that means:
· Shorter stride: Your feet need to stay underneath you at all times—over-striding beyond the area you have scanned is dangerous. Remain light on your feet.
· Active eyes: You may take breaks to site-see, but otherwise your eyes need to be 10-15 feet in front of you, planning your next few steps.
· Obstacle reaction: When you come to a rock bed or series of roots, your pace will be interrupted, but you should always choose a sure-footed sequence—this will feel more like hopping than running.
Next, you should prepare yourself for the added dimension of sustained inclines. Hills are fun—if you aren’t too aggressive. On mountain trails, often designed with hikers in mind, the inclines and durations can necessitate “power-hiking,” a style of walking up the hill that will actually be faster and more efficient than running.
In general, whether running uphill or downhill it is important to remain relatively upright to effectively use your glutes and hip flexors and keep your breaths effective. You will naturally want to lean forward going uphill and backward downhill, but your focus should be staying tall and keeping your feet under you.
Power hiking just means walking with maximum pace and pushing your hands into your thighs as you propel upwards with your hips. Here is a video explaining hill running and power hiking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_t8CABMsVZU
If you approach the trails with the above tips, you won’t get in over your head anywhere. On the other hand, there are trails that will give you little need to power hike or manage your stride in our vicinity.
Here are some trails within a few miles of town that you can try to ease into trail running.
Anna Ruby Falls trail (.9 mile one way)
Okay, this isn’t exactly trail running, but it’s a low-commitment way to build your enthusiasm. The path is paved, but it takes you through nature pleasantly to a popular waterfall. Year-round, regardless of weather, this trail will give you a quick reward.
This is trail running for beginners and anyone who wants to enjoy the view a bit. This 2.5-mile loop encircles Smith Lake from the Alpine Helen Visitor Center. You get great views of the foliage, water, and hills. The well-maintained trail is compacted soil which doesn’t become treacherous due to weather or fallen trees.
You can get a tree guide from the visitor center if you are interested. Fall hikers love this trail for its great photo ops.
Unicoi Hill City Park is in downtown Helen and is your gateway to a challenging beginner to intermediate trail. This 3-mile one-way trail crosses multiple small streams and rocky hills on your way to Unicoi State Park. If you can handle around a six-mile total or want to run in and walk out (or have someone pick you up), this is a great sunrise run. The inclines are not too steep but fairly long, so you need to pace yourself or alternate running and power-hiking.
Looking for that natural endorphin boost? Trail running in Helen has you covered! Keep your feet under you, and happy trails!