The iliotibial band—or IT band—is a piece of connective tissue that runs along your outer leg from your hip to your tibia (shin bone). It helps with hip movement, stabilizes the knee and, according to a Harvard study, it also stores elastic energy during running to facilitate locomotion. In other words, it helps to put a spring in your step.
For some, the IT band is simply a piece of fascia—something they’re peripherally aware of, but nothing of concern. For others, it’s a regular source of frustration. That’s because IT band syndrome is a common and painful overuse injury that’s often experienced by runners, but can strike anyone—whether you’re logging miles on the bike or taking your favorite Aaptiv classes.
“The IT band is important because it help[s] us walk, run, cycle, and move,” says Aaptiv Trainer John Thornhill. “It’s not a muscle, but instead made up of fascia, which connects muscle to bone.” Because it’s not a muscle, the IT band doesn’t contract or relax. That means that IT band pain is typically a symptom of something else, like tightness in the glutes, hip flexors, or quads. “It’s essential to stretch, foam roll, and strengthen the muscles around the IT band to keep healthy and pain free,” adds Thornill.
Stretches to Try at Home
Below, Thornhill provides four stretches that will help to relieve pain and tightness in the IT band. “If you’re warming up, keep the stretch shorter and more active,” he says. “If you’re warm and done working out, hold the stretch longer.”
Standing IT Band Stretch
Stand tall with your feet together, but with your left leg crossed behind your right leg. Hinge down to the ground while leaning to the right so that you feel a stretch in the outside of your left hip and leg. Switch sides and repeat.
Standing Quad Stretch
Stand tall and grab your right foot with your right hand. Keep your knee pointed down toward the floor as you stretch the quad. Switch sides and repeat.
Lie on your back and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Grab your left leg and pull it toward you until you feel a deep stretch in your right glute. Switch sides and repeat.
Hip Flexor Stretch
Kneel on your right knee with your left leg bent and your left foot planted firmly in front of you. Lean forward so that your left leg forms a 90-degree angle, with your knee above your ankle. You will feel a good stretch in your right hip flexor. Hold the stretch, then switch sides and repeat.
Foam Rolling for IT Band Pain
One of the most prescribed relief aids for a tight and painful IT band is the humble foam roller. While not the same as stretching, a foam roller can still help to alleviate tension in the band and surrounding muscles, so it’s a sound practice for anyone experiencing IT band issues. That said, the jury is still out on how best to utilize this particular piece of equipment.
Many people suggest targeting the IT band specifically by rolling the outside of your leg. If you’re experiencing pain and inflammation, doing so can be excruciating. But, proponents claim that it’s the quickest way to achieve happier tissue. In fact, a trio of physical therapists previously prescribed this method to Aaptiv.
Others disagree, including Dane DeLozier, doctor of Physical Therapy at Revo PT and Sports Performance in Boulder, Colorado. He says that hammering on your IT band when it’s already sore and inflamed will only cause more soreness and inflammation. He also notes that you can’t lengthen the IT band like you can a muscle, so this practice just isn’t very effective.
Thornhill falls into the latter camp, advising that you stay away from foam rolling the band itself. “Make sure you foam roll other areas of the leg around the IT band like the quads and hamstrings, but don’t roll directly on the IT band,” he says. “It’s important to only foam roll on muscles, not on fascia.”
In addition to giving those adjacent muscles some attention with a roller, Thornill also suggests strengthening the leg muscles around the IT band by doing squats, lunges, and deadlifts. Keeping those muscles strong and flexible will keep them from pulling on the IT band and should help you to enjoy more comfortable workouts.
For more on stretching and strengthening your muscles, check out hundreds of classes on the Aaptiv app, where there’s something for everyone.