The iliotibial band, or “IT band”, is a multifaceted system of tendons and fascia which connects the hip to the knee.
And it can be the source of considerable pain for runners.
As if completing your goal race wasn’t difficult enough, sometimes the human body responds to such stimulus by introducing hurtful friction of the IT band running against the thigh. This kind of a flare-up is called Iliotibial Band Syndrome, or ITB Syndrome.
But while extreme distance running is an often-cited cause of this painful syndrome, so is another activity we’re much more likely to experience during quarantine – sitting too much.
So whether you’re used to a brisk 20-mile run every day before breakfast, or you’re simply sitting more often now than ever before, this is the perfect time to learn how to take care of your IT Band.
IT Band Basics
Medically speaking, the IT band is a tendon and network of fascia which runs from the ilium (A.K.A. the upper pelvis) down to connect main tendon of tensor fascia latae (A.K.A the hips) and secondary tendon of gluteus medius & maximus, through the knee to the tibia (A.K.A. the shin bone).
Want to feel it yourself?
To activate your IT bands, stand with your knees bent and legs slightly more than shoulder length apart, and shift your weight from one foot to the other. Placing your hands on your outer thighs, from the hip to the knee.
Yep. Those are your IT bands at work.
The IT band assists with hip external rotation, abduction and extension at hip. So without them, your hips would wobble uncontrollably with every high-impact movement (such as every step you run), and your knees would be in a heightened danger of hyperextension on every downstroke of each leg.
Changing direction while playing a sport? If your IT bands and surrounding muscles are weak, you’d find it difficult to change directions quickly.
IT bands can get out of whack when overburdened with an imbalanced movement pattern. This could happen after a long run in a state of fatigue with pronating feet, or habitually wearing high heels, or sitting all day. Essentially, the IT band adjusts over time to the stimulus it’s given, and can overcorrect to cause pain and reduced stability.
The best way to stop ITB Syndrome is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Fortunately, you can attend to your IT bands with attentive stretching and movement.
IT Band-Friendly Dynamic Stretches
Before your daily exercise routine – whether you’re doing strength work, aerobic workouts, yoga, cardio, etc. – make sure to do some dynamic stretching, and emphasize movements that help to reset and rebalance your IT Bands.
Some good ones to try:
- Hip Circle – standing on a leg, swing the other straight forward and keep it straight as you swing it in a circle around to the back. You can also do the same with the extended leg bent at the knee, and “draw circles” with the extended knee. Alternate legs.
- Forward Lunges with a Twist – standing with your back straight, hands-on-hips and feet remaining parallel but not overlapping, lunge forward one long step forward. Slowly bend both knees at once until your body dips as low to the ground as you are comfortable with. As you reach the bottom of your lunge, raise the arm on your non-lunge side up above your head in a “hailing a cab” stretching motion that extends to the centerline above your head. Be conscious of your abs as you do this, to keep stabile. Alternate legs.
- Side to Side Lunges – similar to a forward lunge, except this time step sideways with both feet still facing forwards, so that your legs are in a jumping-jack position. Bend only the step leg as you dip your body down. While still crouched, transfer your weight from one leg to the other, alternating your knee bend to the destination leg. Add reaches – rotate your opposite arm to the top of the foot of the bent leg, with the other arm stretched upward.
- Leg Pendulum – standing on one leg, keep the other leg as straight as possible while swinging it straight forward and back a few times, then swing a few times side to side from a lateral extension to crossing over your standing leg. Alternate legs.
IT Band-Friendly Static Stretches
After you exercise – and throughout the day if you’re experiencing pain diagnosed as ITBS by a medical professional – static stretching that focuses on your IT bands can help keep you feeling limber and loose.
Try the following:
- IT Band Stretches – Grab an band or, if you don’t have bands in the house, a towel. Cross one foot over the other in a sitting position. Keep both legs straight with only a slight bend at the knee, loop the band or towel over your feet, and clasp onto the band or towel, reaching down as far as possible to the inner arch of your crossed-under foot. Hold for 20 seconds. Alternate legs.
- Standing Forward Bend – Used often as a yoga pose, this works similar to the IT band stretch but with a slightly different emphasis on the upper IT band. First, set up a chair, table, short stool or box to support your weight. Face your support and cross one leg over the other in a wide scissor-like position. While keeping your legs straight, bend at the waist and extend your arms to hold you up against the support in a push-up position. Hold and alternate.
- Piriformis Stretch – sit on the floor and extend both legs straight, then cross one leg over the other and bend the top leg at the knee until you can rest that foot flat on the floor just outside the knee of the straight leg on the ground. Maintaining an upright back, twist your torso in the opposite direction of your leg cross, and reach your forward-facing elbow to the outer side of your upward facing knee while extending your other hand backward to support your weight and maintain balance. Hold for 20 seconds. Alternate sides.
What About Rollers, Balls, and Other Therapeutic Devices?
In addition to the above stretches, a number of additional therapeutic exercises may be recommended for IT band care. Rollers are recognized by current research as the most effective way to quickly alleviate pain related to ITB Syndrome.
We recommend consulting a professional if you think you have ITB Syndrome and hold off on adding to your stretching routine with tools such as rollers or exercise balls. But if you have that stuff already and have received instruction on proper form, by all means continue any training regimens you’ve been following.
In the meantime, keep stretching, and keep taking care of yourself. It’s Time to Fly™. #timetofly
Yoga Journal – What You Need to Know About Your IT Band
Redefining Strength – 21 Dynamic Warm Up Exercises
Healthline – 5 Recommended Exercises for Iliotibial Band (ITB) Syndrome
Fact Checker – Kristopher Tillman