Two words most runners have heard throughout their training: IT band. That’s because running easily irritates this thick piece of fascia (aka connective tissue), which runs from your hip to your knee. In fact, the telltale tenderness is one of the most common overuse injuries among runners — and a dreaded reason for taking a break from the sport.
“The main purpose of the IT band is to resist the bowing of the femur [or thigh bone] that occurs whenever we run,” says Cameron Yuen, DPT, CSCS, and senior physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments. Experts suspect “the pain is due to compression and tightening of the IT band [as the knee bends and extends] between zero and 30 degrees,” he explains. This is the typical range of motion during your easy, long runs, says Yuen.
While regularly foam rolling and doing IT band stretches may be your go-to for pain relief, it’s not the only — or even the best — solution. “We now know that we can only stretch the IT band two to three millimeters at most. Most of what we experience following foam rolling is relaxation of the nervous system,” says Yuen. “Rolling the IT band will temporarily make the spot feel better, but will not change it much for future runs.”
Luckily, there are effective exercises to calm your cranky IT band. If you’re experiencing pain from your hip to you knee, Yuen suggests cutting back on mileage and the intensity of your workouts as the first line of defense. Then, do these IT band stretches and strength exercises to soothe what ails you.
5 Best IT Band Stretches and Strength Exercises
1. TLC for Your TFL
Your TFL, or tensor fascia latae, is a small muscle just in front of your hip and is one of the muscles that attaches directly to your IT band. Giving it a little tender loving care can help relieve some of the tension in your IT band.
How to: To find your TFL, place your foam roller directly on the side of your hip. Then, rotate slightly forward so that your pelvis is at a slight angle towards the floor. Gently roll out this area for 30 seconds to one minute and switch sides. Using a lacrosse or tennis ball will also help you get deeper into the muscle.
2. Roll Out Your Glutes
Your gluteus medius and gluteus maximus are particularly important to get loose. These are two other muscles that insert directly onto the IT band.
How to: To locate your gluteus medius, sit on the foam roller with one knee bent, ankle placed on the opposite knee. Lean over toward the bent leg so the foam roller is directly on the side of your hip and rotate backwards slightly so your pelvis opens up towards the ceiling. Slowly roll out this area for 30 seconds to one minute before switching sides.
Your gluteus maximus is the large muscle on your rear. Sit on top of the foam roller and cross one ankle over your knee. Stay facing upright (instead of rotating slight to the side, as shown above) and gently massage this area for 30 second to one minute and switch sides.
3. Ankle Dorsiflexion Mobilization
What’s below your knee matters, too. “Your ankle needs a certain range of motion when running, and if you don’t have it, your knee will tend to collapse inward,” contributing to IT band pain, says Yuen.
How to: Fix a resistance band to an anchor point that will not move. Loop the other end of the resistance band around your ankle, just below your ankle bone, and place your foot on an elevated surface (like a bench). Keep the foot flat as you push your shin forward over your toes until you feel resistance. Repeat 15-20 times.
Don’t have a resistance band? You can still perform this movement, focusing on moving your shin further and further over your toes.
4. Standing Fire Hydrant
A healthy IT band depends on strong hips. “Without these muscles, the knee tends to collapse inwards, which can place even more stress on the IT band,” says Yuen. This exercise isolates and strengthens the hip abductors and external rotators, which are the muscles that control hip and knee position.
How to: Place a resistance band around your knees. Stand on your left leg, with a slight bend in your knee. Bend your right knee to form a 90-degree angle. Hinge from the hips and lean your torso forward. Lift your right leg up, maintaining the 90-degree bend in your knee, and then bring the knees back together. Try to keep your hips and torso steady and maintain a long spine. Complete three sets of 15 reps on each leg.
5. Standing Wall Squat
Running is essentially a single leg sport, which means hip and core control are essential, says Yuen. This is a great functional strength training exercise for runners, working the thigh and hip muscles.
How to: Stand next to a wall with your feet parallel and hip-width distance apart. Position a foam roller between your right hip and the wall. Transfer your weight to your left foot and lift your right foot off the floor. With a neutral spine, engage your core and perform a single-leg squat, driving your hips back while maintaining pressure into the foam roller. Don’t let your left knee fall inward. Complete three sets of 10 reps on each side.