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  • Writer's pictureAlexa

All about the IT Band

Many runners have heard about IT bands, the get “tight”, they need foam rolling, they can cause pain etc. Here I hope to explain a little about what an IT Band really is, what it does, why it sometimes gets cross and how to look after it!

What is an IT Band?

Imagine a Giraffe (bear with me on this one…!) it’s developed strong thick ligaments that run up and down it’s neck, so it doesn’t have to use as much energy and muscle power to hold it’s head up - clever!

As two legged animals we have developed an IT Band for similar reasons; it’s a band of thick ligament like tissue (very strong fascia) that runs down the side of each leg from above the hip to below the knee which helps to keep our legs pointing forwards and stops them from collapsing under us when we stand, walk and run - without using as much muscle power to do so. We are the only animals to have such a well formed IT Band as we are the only ones that walk so upright and for so much of the time, other primates have much less developed versions.

The “IT” in IT band stands for iliotibial - all this means is that it’s a band that runs from your Ilium (the top of your pelvis) to your Tibia (your shin bone). It attached straight onto the bone on your Tibia. However it connects to your pelvis via two muscles;

Gluteus Maximus - your biggest bum muscle - see my previous article on the glutes

Tensor Fascia Lata or TFL - which literally translates to the muscle that provides tension to the fascia on the outside (of the leg) - does what it says on the tin!

The position of the IT band means it runs over the outside of your knee and over the bony bit on the outside of your hip joint, running down the outer edge of your leg in between.

Anatomical drawing of the side of the upper leg, with IT Band and muscles labelled

The IT Band has been studied and tested a lot. The most interesting and relevant test is when they put one on a stress testing machine and put over 800kg worth of force through it before it showed any sign of a slight stretch or damage. So I’m afraid it’s pretty impossible for any stretching you can do will have any impact at all on the IT Band itself!

What does the IT band do?

I mentioned earlier than two of the things the IT band does are keeping our legs pointing forwards and helping to stop them collapsing under us, let’s explore this more when it comes to running.

For the more efficient running you want your legs to be moving forwards and backwards from the hip sockets, without much movement at all side to side or rotating. This means more of your energy is spent going forwards (a good thing!) and that less sideways forces are transmitted down the legs into the knees, ankles and feet; knees particularly do not like twisting or sideways forces at all. These sideways or rotational forces can also go upwards into your lower back and beyond.

A strong core and glutes will help control these movements, with each stride we take they adjust our position with each step aiming to keep any sideways or rotational movement in our legs in check. When these muscles aren’t doing enough the IT band is left dealing with higher and higher forces and the muscles it attaches to, especially the fairly small TFL muscle, get easily overloaded and tighten up. This leads us on to…

Why does the IT band sometimes get cross?

When these muscles fatigue and tighten up, they pull the IT Band tighter that it should be. This means that instead of gliding over the outside of the knee, leg and hip it can get stuck or rub. This is what causes you pain.

An important thing to say at this point is that it’s highly unlikely that you are doing any damage to your IT Band, remember how strong it is. What’s more likely to be happening is that as it rubs with each bend of the knee and hip it irritates the tissue underneath causing pain and swelling.

How to look after your IT Band?

If you’ve been diagnosed with an IT band issue the first question to ask your physio/GP/doctor is why is the IT Band getting angry and whether it’s because it’s in a position where it’s having to do more than it should. A good physio will be able to work with you to strength the areas that should be doing more work to “de-load” the IT band.

When analyse running technique I often see weak glutes as a cause here; knees rotating inwards as we land and push off (and feet flicking out as a result) putting much more strain on those IT Band connecting muscles. So it can also be worth getting your technique looked at if your IT Band is often grumpy.

Glute strength work is really beneficial for all runners, it adds power and stability to your running - as well as ensuring the knees, feet and ankles are able to work in the way they should; minimising those sideways and rotational movements. So this would be my first recommendation on how to look after your IT Band.

Often people ask me about foam rolling your IT band too, where you run the side of your leg up and down the foam roller. It’s certainly painful and feels like it’s doing something…! Remember how strong that IT Band is though, you are not going to be able to stretch it. In reality by foam rolling like that you are just squishing it into the muscles and tissue underneath - which doesn’t help as if it’s rubbing it’s probably already a little stuck to them.

So what should you do?

Stretch off the glutes and TFL with a knee to chest and a side bend stretch (PICS)

Drawing of a man lying on his back doing the knee to opposite shoulder stretch

Picture of a man doing a side bend stretch

Foam roll up the back of your leg and slightly to the side. So if this was a slice through your leg looking from the top down, you roll on the green points but not the red. This will lift the edges of the IT band away from the muscles underneath and provide some relief.

Drawing of a slice of the leg with red and green points marked

This article was first written for the October 2019 issue of the Reading Roadrunners club newsletter.

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