The Iliotibial Band or IT Band (ITB) is a length of connective tissue that runs down the outside of your thigh from your pelvis to your knee and shin bone.
Your ITB gives you mobility and stability in your knee and helps to strengthen your thigh.
The ITB also helps your hip mobility (both movement and rotation) and lateral (sideways) movement.
You may experience a sore ITB due to over-work, like going through a heavy training period, or a muscle weakness somewhere else in your body which is causing your ITB to be put under stress.
Your ITB is super important, and without it, you wouldn’t be able to walk around and enjoy your life day-to-day. So you need to take care of it!
“Foam rolling is good for my muscles, so must be good for my IT Band, right?”
A lot of people run with the No Pain No Gain mentality, and for those of you who have not tried foam rolling your IT Band, it is painful!
But pain is not always a good thing!
So should you foam roll your IT Band?
No, not directly.
Instead, you should foam roll the muscles around it.
The ITB is connective tissue, not muscle, so foam rolling your ITB will not alleviate tightness and soreness (it’s a bit like rolling a seat belt, nothing much happens).
Instead, you should focus on the muscles that are either tight or weak.
Let’s get into why…
So why do we roll it in the first place?
Tight muscles are no good, so when people are feeling their legs, they feel their quads and it is nice and soft but when they feel the sides of their legs, especially around the knee area, it feels very tight.
Oh no, must be bad, right?
When you go to roll it is very sore, again a good sign that it is helping you, I think?
Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation on the internet. The internet is filled with videos on how to roll your ITB and you can quickly get sent down a rabbit hole.
There are muscles in and around your IT Band that benefit from the use of a foam roller (such as gluteus medius which runs along the outside of your hip) so once you learn the proper foam rolling technique then you can get to work!
What causes a Tight IT Band?
Your IT Band in your leg is always tight.
It is a very strong band connecting your hip to the muscles in your leg and all the way down to your shin.
What most people talk about when they talk about a tight ITB is an overly tight IT band, and as mentioned before, an imbalance, or tightness, in the muscles in your legs and hips will cause a tight and sore IT Band.
Your IT Band is connected to your pelvis, your gluteus maximus (the largest bum muscle), your hip flexor (the muscle on the front of your hip), and your tibia (which is the largest bone under your knee).
When you have very tight muscles in and around your hips, they will pull on your ITB making it tighter, like pulling on an elastic band. The tighter your muscles, the tighter your IT Band gets pulled.
Often people who sit down a lot of the day, for instance at a desk, can develop an imbalance in their hips which can lead to a tight ITB. Sitting all day will slowly cause the front of the hips to tighten and stay tight, pulling your pelvis forwards and off setting your posture.
(For the full picture, check out this study from Statspearls.)
what does a tight IT Band lead to?
A tight ITB causes discomfort down the side of your leg but in most serious cases will cause pain and swelling in the knee.
The ITB crosses over your knee, so when it is tight it can cause a rubbing effect and this, in turn, irritates and damages your knee.
This is often referred to as runner’s knee or IT Band Syndrome (ITBS).
ITBS can be very painful and can put you out of the game for a long period of time, and this can be very irritating.
If you don’t try to remedy the problem, the swelling will go down . . . but when you get back on the road, your injury will flare up again. It can be a cycle of injury that would put anyone off running.
5 Stretches to Help your tight IT band
Stretching is a great natural remedy for ITBS.
With all of these stretches, make sure you are warmed up beforehand and stretch gently. You are not aiming for pain here, you are aiming to stretch but not tear the muscle.
(To see if your stretching is sabotaging your running, check out this article.)
Here are 5 Stretches to loosen the muscles around your IT Band, and to prevent (or remedy) ITBS.
Here we go!
1. ITB Stretch
The ITB Stretch will allow you to stretch the muscles at the ends of your IT Band.
- Stand up near a wall and cross your left foot over your right foot.
- Lift your left arm up to the sky and reach over to your to your right side.
- You should feel a stretch down the outside of your left leg. Hold for 30 seconds.
- Do the same movement on your right side.
- Repeat this 3 times.
2. TFL Stretch
The TFL stretch loosens the Tensor Fascia Lata (TFL) Muscle which is found on the outside of your hip.
To perform a TFL stretch:
- Sit on the ground with both legs outstretched infront of you. Bring your left knee towards your chest and cross your left leg over your right, placing your left foot on the floor on the outside of your right leg.
- Gently pull your left knee to the right as your body twists to the left.
- You should feel a stretch on the outside of your left hip.
- Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat this on your right leg.
- Do this 5 times on each leg.
3. Figure Four
The figure four stretch will focus on your glute muscle.
- Lie on the floor on your back with you left foot on the floor near your bum.
- Bend your right leg and cross it over your left leg so your right ankle is lying on top of your left thigh.
- Interlace your fingers behind your left leg and gently pull your legs towards yourself.
- Hold this position for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side.
- Do this 3 times on each side.
4. Cross Ankle Standing Forward Bend
- Standing up, cross your left leg infront of your right leg, and bend your knees slightly.
- Bend your body forward, hinging at the hips letting your hands fall towards the floor, or a block.
- Gently press your left leg into your right leg, and hold this position for 30 seconds.
- Repeat this again on both legs, 3 times each.
5. Quadricep Stretch
- Standing next to a wall (you might need it for balance), bend your left knee and hold your foot behind your hips.
- Keeping your stomach tight so not falling forwards, pull your ankle up and back until you feel a stretch down the front of your thigh.
- Hold for 30 seconds and then repeat on the other side.
- Do this 2 more times on each leg.
Foam rolling around your IT Band
Jemma Kelly (ACertSAL, VTCT Level 5 Therapist and Soft Tissue Therapist) has extensive experience in injury management and rehabilitation and discusses the correct technique when using a foam roller.
“Manipulation of Soft Tissue (in this case muscle, tendon, connective tissue, and skin) with the appropriate speed, force, and direction can be very beneficial. Just ask anyone who enjoys a massage.”
Jemma talks about how in her own practice, she has found the correct use of foam rollers to be beneficial for her clients when going through recovery.
“In my experience, the amount of force applied to the tissues is the key to any successful treatment outcome, therefore how and where the body is positioned is crucial.”
Jemma corrects the common misconception of placing the full weight of the body directly over the roller, “especially if the tissues are not warmed up [as this] can result in a very uncomfortable and potentially damaging experience.”
“Putting too great a force, in this case body weight and gravity, can result in the fibres simply becoming compressed rather than being manipulated. As a general rule, if the roller is on the floor, the hands and feet should also be on the floor, supporting the body.”
“Putting the roller against a hard flat surface, like a wall, then leaning the body against it is a much less aggressive way to manipulate the tissues you want to stretch.”
(For a great video on the correct way to foam roll around your IT Band check out this video from Dr. Jordan Fairly)
Prevention rather than a cure
With everything in life, it is better to never get injured in the first place. Once you develop an injury, the road to recovery can be long and demoralizing.
Even if you are unaffected by ITBS, it is a good idea to keep on top of your body’s flexibility so you are always in top shape for your next run. And if your are suffering from ITBS then take time off and be patient with your recovery.
And before you know it you will be back running again!
Remember we all want to be running until we are old and grey.