Leaning Into Weakness: Rekindling a Growth Mindset

A look at the rewards to be gained from leaning into one’s weaknesses.

By on May 8, 2024 | Comments

Over the past few months, I’ve been leaning into my running weaknesses, literally and figuratively. While uncomfortable in many senses, I’ve largely found it rewarding and intriguing. The process involves a sense of wonder, learning, achievement, and excitement. Here’s a little bit about my journey.

Readers of this column will know that I’ve dealt with bad Achilles for a couple of decades. They’ve slowly gotten worse over time, and with that, I’ve increasingly babied them. Sometime early this year, it got to the point where I suspected that this would be my last season running in the mountains unless I chose to care for these chronic injuries. Not long after, I started doing eccentric drops, a basic Achilles rehabilitation exercise that I’ve found useful when tolerable. I dabbled on and off with the eccentric drops over a few months, slowly building the number of repetitions, and backing off as needed. It was progress.

Leaning into Weakness - San Juan Mountains - May 2024

The view from a recent run at home in Colorado when I ran some hills with a heavy pack to build calf strength. All photos iRunFar/Bryon Powell unless otherwise noted.

As I progressed with those eccentric drops and the Achilles’ attachments — the focus of my dysfunction and pain I began to sense the general tightness in my calves more acutely, so I increased my occasional stretching of them.

The slow and general loosening of my lower legs led to me find specific areas of tightness and adhesions in my calves. Over the past few weeks, I brought out a vibrating massager and, more recently, a Sidekick scraping tool to work on those areas with noticeable improvement. What fun!

At the same time as finding the general lower leg tightness, I started to sense the stretches working up into my hamstrings, particularly my left hamstring. I leaned into it literally, with brief standing hamstring stretches peppered in throughout my day. First, I managed to get to where I could touch my toes. And then the ground. There are no marathon stretching sessions, no dynamic stretching, no laying on the ground. Nope, just a reminder of the power of incremental gains by sneaking in “work” in little moments here and there — for 30 seconds while working in the yard, while cooking lunch in the kitchen, or after a set of eccentric drops.*

Maudie - Wanaka February 2024

I first started leaning into my hamstring tightness during extended sessions of fetch with my friend Maudie in New Zealand. Thanks, Maudie!

Speaking of eccentric drops, in the past two weeks I finally started doing eccentric drops with weight in a backpack. It started at 20 pounds and is now 25 pounds. Adding 12% or 15% to my body weight was a big step up and has required pulses of progress and recovery, but it feels like it’s helped with tissue function, mobility, and certainly strength while not reaggravating my Achilles attachments. Win-win!

More directly on the running front, I added faster running back into my training some months ago. Early in my running career – in high school, college, and beyond — I really enjoyed speedwork. I’m not sure when it disappeared from my running, but I was likely burnt out on it, and as my Achilles got worse over the years, I increasingly avoided even playful speedwork to reduce the chance of an Achilles flare-up.

Once again, I’m playing with speed, whether picking up the pace for 20 or 30 minutes or jumping into a parkrun for a hard 5-kilometer race. It’s fun to simply move fast again. It’s not as fast as when I was younger or in better shape, but it feels like flying compared to recent years. I feel pretty good about moving quickly for my age and occasionally hanging with speedsters less than half my age.

Bryon Powell - hill workout - snow April 2024

A recent hill workout in a snow squall in Silverton, Colorado. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

Running fast revealed another weakness. My left hamstring is weak in addition to being tight. One thing, or three, at a time here. I’m excited to work on strengthening both my hammies, but I want to feel a bit more confident in the strength and pliability of my lower legs and the looseness of my hamstrings before I add a fourth element to my general rehab program.

All of this speaks to opportunities for improvement and, in some cases, tangible improvement already achieved. Each recognition of a weakness is a chance to smile at least three times: once when I find that area where I can improve, again when I sense I have improved, and, finally, in retrospect at a journey successfully undertaken.

In reality, each weakness can contribute to countless smiles.

Runner in red rock desert

A recent run with friends in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada.

I can’t tell you how many times over the past three months I’ve been happy, proud, relieved, or even giddy at some small moment of improvement. There was restarting my eccentric drops when living overseas. There’s been every time I added a set of eccentric drops or more repetitions to a set or, quite recently, when I added more weight to a pack while doing the drops.

There was that moment a week ago when I walked on tiptoes, and the corresponding moment when I consciously thought about when was the last time I could do so, especially pain-free. Honestly, I couldn’t remember. It could have been years. It could have been a decade!

Indeed, that achievement has me dreaming of skipping. Skipping what? No, actual physical skipping. Like the thing kids do without a second thought. Yeah, I can’t do that and haven’t been able to for a long time due to pain from my left Achilles attachment and lack of strength. I’ve played around with skipping this week. It’s not a full skip by any means, but it’s not painful, and I’m not scared of it. Maybe I’ll skip by the end of summer … or the end of spring?!

It’s time to lean a little further into weakness and see what I can find. Will you give it a try, too?!

Call for Comments

  • Which of your weaknesses have you recently leaned into?
  • What rewards did you find in the process?

* I could go on. While stretching my hamstring, something below my rib cage would sometimes cramp. Fortunately, I’ve got iRunFar’s Stay the Course columnist Joe Uhan on my side to diagnose and suggest a treatment for a very tight diaphragm. Yet another weakness I get to work on.

Arrastra Gulch - late April 2024

Arrastra Gulch, Colorado, starting to melt out in late April.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.