Tight IT Band? A Quick Breakdown and Easy Solution

“Mat, I have a tight IT Band? I keep foam rolling and it feels better temporarily but it always comes back!” If this sounds like you then this blog is for you? Maybe you’re a runner? A cyclist? A weekend warrior? IT band issues are common but they don’t have to hinder you from exercise!

Here is a breakdown of today’s blog:

  • What the heck is the IT Band?
  • What causes the IT Band to be tight/painful?
  • How can I prevent IT Band tightness/pain?
  • What exercises can I do to fix it?

What is the heck is the IT Band? 

The IT Band also known as the iliotibial band is made up of two muscles, the gluteus maximus (not seen in the pic above) and the TFL (Tensor Fascia Latae). These two muscles begin at the pelvis and come together to create a THICK fibrous band that runs down the outer part of your thigh, below your knee joint on the tibia. It’s important to note, the IT band itself IS NOT A MUSCLE!

When this tissue is irritated it is known by a couple different names; IT band friction syndrome, IT band tendonitis, or runner’s/jogger’s knee. It can cause pain/tightness up by the hip or down at the outside portion of your knee. This band is vital in stabilizing your knee, especially during walking and running.

Tight IT Band? What’s causing it?  

IT band issues can originate from many different things but normally it’s caused by repetitive overuse combined with poor movement or training. So runners and cyclists with bad mechanics tend to be the most common people with IT band dysfunction, although, those that enjoy exercising or walking on uneven surfaces such as hills or at the beach are susceptible.

To dive into the proper biomechanics of running is whole other issue in itself and I recommend you check out my friend Jess Mena‘s post here. She is a physical therapist, an avid runner, and she specializes in running injury prevention.

Now poor running mechanics is only one cause of IT band issues as those who don’t run can also have IT band dysfunction. Some things that can cause IT band pain is poor hip flexibility/mobility, weak glutes, over pronation at the foot, and leg length discrepancies. Of those things I mentioned, weak glutes are BY FAR the biggest contributing factor to IT band tightness and pain….but I’ll get to that in a bit.

How can I prevent IT band tightness/pain? 

Many times the most important thing you can do to is to modify activity….notice I said modify and not completely STOP activity. Many times, IT band issues will arise from those that increase their running regimen to prepare for a 5k or train on uneven surfaces for an extended period of time. If this is the case, do your body a favor and go back to the training you were doing before pain-free then gradually increase the mileage or training surface.

At this point, if your pain or tightness does not subside then I would recommend you go see a physical therapist. A good physical therapist will analyze your movement and give you a specific regimen to get back to the activity you love doing.

Besides seeing a physical therapist is there something I can do on my own?

Yes, there are things you can do to work on IT band but must leave a disclaimer that the following is NOT to be used as medical advice. It is always a good idea to see a musculoskeletal provider prior to doing any of the following exercises/suggestions.

Now that I have that out of the way, this is what I like to use with my patients that have IT band issues. I initially LOVE using the foam roller to improve hip and knee mobility. It’s normally at this point people tell me “Mat, I have been stretching and foam rolling my IT band but it doesn’t work!”

Alluding to my point earlier, the IT band is not a muscle and can’t be “stretched” in the traditional sense. “Tightness” is a byproduct of your nervous system protecting the body from an underlying tissue that is not working properly; *cough* your glutes *cough.* But again, I’ll get to the glutes in a bit. The other thing I see with people rolling out their IT bands is it tends to look like this.

I would advise you that the pain and suffering of foam rolling like the photo above is not inherently beneficial and can actually make your pain worse. Again, your IT band is a THICK fibrous tissue, and research has shown human beings cannot generate enough force to lengthen this tissue. If you’d like more details on this, then check out this blog from the infamous Dean Somerset.

To get a better release, I recommend moving the foam roller closer to your pelvis and actually foam rolling your glute max and TFL. It should look like this video below. I would spend no more than 5 minutes rolling out these two muscles. If you don’t have a foam roller you can purchase one of Amazon here (I recommend getting the 18 inch because it can be used in a variety of ways).

How to strengthen your glutes!

Now, foam rolling is half the battle and normally gives you temporary pain relief. To get long term results we must learn how to turn on the glutes properly. Quick anatomy lesson, the gluteus maximus and more importantly, the gluteus medius are key muscles in stabilizing your hips during walking and running.

Gluteus Medius = Red

When you walk and run the gluteus medius (featured above) should stabilize your hips when your leg is planted on the ground. Unfortunately, in the majority of patients I see with low back, IT band, and knee pain this vital muscle doesn’t properly activate and looks more like this.

 

Can you see why this hard working fitness model above can develop IT band/hip/knee pain? Her gluteus medius is not firing, her pelvis drops, and her knee collapses inwards. NOT GOOD! Luckily, I am here to be your guide to get these muscles activated properly. Let us start with the 3 basic glute med exercises that I begin with everyone to get you moving in the right direction!

Clams

Sidelying Hip Abduction

Fire Hydrant

Summary

  • The IT band is a THICK fibrous structure made up of your gluteus maximus and tensor fascia latae (TFL) that helps stabilize your leg during walking and running
  • IT Band issues can affect anyone but predominantly affects runners and cyclists who train or run with poor mechanics
  • Poor hip flexibility/mobility, weak glutes, over pronation at the foot, and leg length discrepancies can also cause IT band problems
  • When using a foam roll be sure to foam roll closer to your hip at the actual glute max and TFL to get the best results
  • Foam rolling is only half the battle, to get long term results you must also strengthen the gluteus max and gluteus medius which play an important role in stabilizing your hips during walking and running
  • Follow the exercises in the videos and let me know what you think or if you have any questions!

If you want more help with IT Band, sports, and running issues? Then be sure to download our FREE guide “The Ultimate Guide To The 7 Most Common Running & Sports Injuries: Rehab Like The Pros And Get Back To Your Favorite Sport!” that you can download by clicking HERE!

 

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