About 7 years ago, I started working with a doctor who couldn’t run anymore. He loved to run but his knees would hurt so much afterwards that he had to cut back and then finally his physician told him that he’d never run again. As soon as I heard this I thought, “Challenge accepted!”
Not because I knew more than the doctor, I just had a different set of tools I could draw from. And within a few months of working together, his knees were feeling better and he was feeling stronger than ever. Then within the year he was out hitting the pavement again.
We did quite a few things in his workout program to help him run again– but without a doubt a vital component was helping him foam roll his IT Band. And even if you have no earthly desire to run, this is a problematic area of the body that needs special attention.
What Is The IT Band?
The IT Band is a thick band of connective tissue that runs along the outside of your thigh.
It connects just below your knee, the outside of the knee, and right above your hip. The IT Band assists you with walking, running, climbing and helps bring your leg outward (like in a jumping jack). And it also helps stabilize your knee when you stand straight.
Why Should You Foam Roll the IT Band
First, it can pull the body out of alignment. Think about where the IT Band attaches on your body: shin (tibia), outside of the knee cap (patella) and above the hip. That means if the IT band gets tight and stiff it can literally pull your knee cap sideways… rotate your shin… and rotate your hip.
Second, it can lead to IT Band Syndrome. This is where the IT Band gets so tight that it starts creating pain and inflammation on the outside of the knee. This is very common in repetitive activities such as running and cycling. In some cases this can require complete rest and take 6+ weeks to heal.
And that’s where foam rolling the IT Band comes in. This can help keep it limber and prevent it from getting tight and causing problems.
Since the IT Band is involved in so many movements, it’s susceptible to overuse injuries. And it has the tendency to get short and stiff – especially when other muscles are not doing their jobs. When this happens, many things can go wrong.
How to Foam Roll The IT Band:
Single Leg:In this variation, you’d lay on your side with the bottom leg straight and the top leg bent. You’d roll from right above the knee to right below the hip.
A common mistake is bending the bottom leg. This will take the pressure off the IT Band and make it less effective.
Double Leg:If you are one of the rare few who don’t find this painful- you can try a more advanced variation where you stack both legs on top of one another and do the same thing. This will add extra pressure to the leg.
You’d roll the IT Band for about 20-40 seconds. Do this at least once per day until it gets better.
If you’re like most people, rolling the IT Band will not be pleasant but don't let that deter you from doing it.
What About Those Who Say You Shouldn't Foam Roll the IT Band?
I’ve heard a few physical therapists, fitness professionals and massage therapists say that it doesn’t really work or that it’s too painful.
If it’s too painful there are ways to scale it back. Even with the single leg variation you can lessen the pressure. Instead of rolling the whole side of the thigh, you can just put your weight on one spot – and hold it. This still might not be pleasant but it tends to be better than putting more of your bodyweight on it. Another option is to kneel on the ground and roll the outside of your thigh with a rolling pin (or massage stick). This can be a great starting point and much more tolerable.
When people say it doesn’t work, I question how many people they’ve tried it with. Because I’ve seen it work time… and time… again. There is an exception (which I’ll get to in a moment) but in most cases, if someone consistently foam rolls the IT band it will get better and become healthier. In fact, I’ve had people with even extreme IT band tightness find relief. One person’s IT band was so bad that just a slight tap on the thigh was enough to make them want to jump out of their skin. Since they’ve been foam rolling though, they’ve had considerable relief and that area is nowhere near as tender. So the IT band can certainly get better with foam rolling.
When Foam Rolling Doesn’t Work On the flip side, I’ve come across some people whose IT band just always seems to hurt even though they’ve foam rolled consistently for months. If that’s the case, then foam rolling is simply treating the symptom and not the cause. Something may be causing the IT band to get excessively tight.
It could be your form during a sport or activity. It could be because of overuse. Or it could be a weakness somewhere else. The IT band will keep getting tight until that’s addressed. That’s when you may want to enlist a movement professional to help you figure out what’s going on. However, it doesn’t make foam rolling a bad tool; it just means we need to pull in some other tools to handle the job.
You may find that simply foam rolling the IT band gives you the relief you need though. See for yourself and even though it is painful now, in most cases it will get better the more you do it. And you’ll be glad you did.
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