Disclaimer from our coach: There is a limited amount of data and research on how to fix or strengthen your IT band. Findings of recent studies are inconclusive, meaning the subject is one that requires further research.
The IT band, or iliotibial band, starts just above the hip at the iliac crest in the pelvis, runs down the lateral or outside part of the thigh, and crosses the knee to attach into the top part of the tibia (i.e., your shin bone). It’s made up of a band of tight connective tissue called fascia. Often compared to tendons because they both serve similar functions, fascia is an elastic connective tissue that can be found throughout the human body. Fascia is made up of large “sheets,” whereas tendons are more rope-like. Fascia basically serves as a sheath that compartmentalizes or encloses muscles that serve similar functions together.
Movements like running and biking cause the IT band to tighten and overuse can lead to IT band syndrome. In this article, you’ll learn how to remedy tightness and recover from IT band syndrome.
IT band purpose
Like we mentioned in the small disclaimer above, the IT band is mysterious. In fact, it’s primary purpose is currently under debate as new studies emerge. It was originally believed that its primary purpose is to stabilize the hip and knees during walking and it does still, of course, serve this important purpose. However, newer research suggests that it serves an additional purpose as well by acting as a spring to aid in locomotion and conserve energy (similar to the Achilles tendon). To help visualize this, picture a big rubber band putting more spring in your step and making you “bouncy” during runs.
Tight IT band symptoms
If you are a runner or cyclist, you might experience tight IT band symptoms. These include pain on the outside of the knee, especially during running and more specifically when the heel impacts the ground. The sensation might begin as a prickly feeling during your run or bike ride and then develop into a more stab-like pain that can be severe during when your heel hits the ground while running or sometimes when walking.
Listen to your body when you have these tight IT band symptoms and rest — you’ll save yourself a lot of pain and possible scarring, the latter of which can cause long-term issues including limited range of motion in your knees and hips, as well as increased pain during mild activities.
Tight IT band causes
The technical cause of the pain associated with tight IT bands is inflammation. Inflammation and irritation of the iliotibial band can occur as it travels back and forth during repeated flexion and extension (i.e., walking, biking or running), crossing the bony prominence of the bottom end of the femur bone every time the knee bends and straightens.
This inflammation is known as iliotibial band syndrome (IT band syndrome), an overuse injury generally sustained from running, cycling or any other activity requiring repeated flexion of the knee and hip joints. This is also sometimes compounded due to poor biomechanics in running or cycling gait, muscle weakness, flexibility issues, or muscular imbalances found in the body.
Bodily imbalances like having one leg longer than the other, abnormal pelvic tilt, or bow-leggedness — all of which and these issues will definitely have an impact on the tightness and therefore the friction present in your IT band when performing movement.
Although IT band syndrome is an overuse injury, it’s also triggered by muscular imbalances and flexibility issues cause by either weak or overly strong muscles. These problems in the hips, glutes, lower back, and pelvis will do it.
Cyclists can experience IT band issues from improper saddle position, bike fit, and poor posture. The most common cause for cyclists, however, is either peddling with bow legs (knees pointing out) or with knocked knees (knees pointing inwards). This increases the angle of the IT band, hence causing more stress and increased friction as it moves.
Runners can have similar body imbalances as well. It’s also important to note that too much running — either in duration or too high a frequency — prevents your body from recovering properly, exacerbating IT band syndrome.
Aside from body mechanics and overuse, training errors can also cause IT band syndrome for runners. These include:
- Poor or uneven running surface (beach, slanted sidewalks, etc.)
- Old or unfit running shoes that increase the impact
- The wrong shoes for your feet (especially for people who tend to pronate or supinate)
- An aggressive training program (“too much too soon” scenario)
Tight IT band test
If you want to identify if your IT band is what’s causing you discomfort, you need to move and exercise. Usually, a tight IT band can be self-diagnosed by feeling a sharp stabbing pain on the lower outside of your knee while running or cycling — especially when you plant your heels.
A professional (i.e., doctor or physiotherapist) can usually diagnose you with nothing more than you describing the pain and providing a list of activities you may have done and their frequency. This is, by far, the best way to figure out if your pain is being caused by your IT band. To determine the extent of the inflammation and scar tissues that may be contributing to it, an MRI is the most accurate measure. The following tests help judge whether an MRI is needed:
- Ober test: A flexibility assessment performed by a physiotherapist to determine the length of your IT band.
- Thomas test: Used to test the length of the muscles involved in hip flexion, including IT band.
How to fix a tight IT band: Stretches and movements
Considering tight IT band is an overuse injury, our best advice is to focus on prevention. Create a well-rounded training program that pushes your limits, but doesn’t put unnecessary strain on your IT band, and ensure that your workout gear and environment don’t create imbalances in your body.
There’s no way to fix a tight IT band, but you can make it feel better with rest, ice, compression and elevation — also known as the R.I.C.E. method. Most people suffering from a tight IT band can expect to recover in anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months depending on the extent of the condition. The main message here: Be patient.
If your condition persists, see a professional such as a physiotherapist or kinesiologist to accurately assess any postural, imbalance, flexibility or muscular issues that may be the root issue. There are also some at-home techniques to try:
- Self-myofascial release: Use of a foam roller, lacrosse ball or other various mobility tools is considered self-myofascial release. There is some debate as to whether or not this is an effective means to relieve the pain, as the IT band itself won’t actually lengthen during this process, but I personally find it effective.
- Strengthen, stretch and work on your imbalances: This at-home work plays a huge role in recovering from and preventing IT band issues.
How to prevent a tight IT band
In addition to some of the tips we mentioned above about wearing the right gear and training in the right environments, regular stretching, strengthening, and biomechanics work will help prevent tight IT bands.
- Stretching. Stretch everything from your low back to your toes to make sure the muscles around your IT bands are in tip-top shape.
- Strengthening. Muscular imbalances that cause IT band tightness, as well as many other issues and body pains, can be prevented. When one muscle group or one side is stronger than the other, imbalances form and cause your body to pull itself or lean in unnatural ways. Considering we all have a dominant hand that we write with, this should come as no surprise. In order to understand where your body’s imbalances and weaknesses are, see a kinesiologist or physiotherapist to get a program to remedy the issue.
- Perfect your biomechanics. Your running gait could be the reason you’re suffering. Seeing a physiotherapist or running coach could be very beneficial. for you here.
If you feel as though you are suffering from IT band syndrome due to cycling or running, rest first, and then once you recover, work on prevention techniques. Always remember:
- Listen to your body
- Don’t overdo it with training
- Run on even surfaces
- Avoid running in old, worn out shoes
- Get your bike fitted properly
- Make sure your toes aren’t pointing in — and your knees aren’t pointing out — when you peddle
For HIIT workouts while you recover from IT band syndrome, sign up for 8fit.