If you’ve ever been around runners, you’ve probably heard of the IT Band. It’s the thick mass of connective tissue (fascia) that runs from the pelvis to the tibia, crossing both the hip and knee joints. It’s infamous around the fitness community because it has a knack for torturing runners with knee pain. I’ve heard it described as ‘hell on earth’. What’s even more concerning, however, is how often foam rolling is prescribed as a remedy. Sadly, this strategy is counterintuitive on so many levels.
I know it is popular. I know people swear by it. But that does not make it right.
After beating your IT band with a roller, your tissue may feel ‘different’, but this is merely because your nervous system is adapting to the stress you just placed on it. This does not mean that your IT band suddenly got longer or you magically dug out some adhesions. Save yourself the agony. Stop foam rolling your IT band.
Why Doesn’t Foam Rolling Help?
The IT band is comprised of connective tissue that lacks blood flow and elasticity. With structures like this, it is often painful when excessive pressure is applied. Furthermore, there’s a prominent superficial nerve that runs down the lateral thigh. By rolling this site, we’re adding compression to the nerve, which exacerbates pain rather than easing it.
If IT band injuries are rooted in excess compression and friction, it simply doesn’t make sense to add more pressure. Furthermore, this tissue was never intended to be stretched or lengthened in the first place. Its main purpose is to be a fibrous reinforcement that contributes to knee stabilization. The IT band’s functionality literally lies in its stiffness!
The reality is, we are unjustly blaming the IT band when it’s commonly not the victim. Sure, there are cases when an injury does lie in the tissue itself. However, the surrounding muscular has a huge role to play in its health too. For example, if your glutes are weak, you may have an unnecessary pelvic tilt or drop that can pull on the IT band. You may also struggle with excess medial rotation of the femur (leg bone) causing even more stress on this fibrous tissue.
This ultimately comes down to an overuse and imbalance issue. If we're constantly doing vigorous exercise in one plane (ex. running - sagittal plane), we're failing to balance training across the body. By completing 'cross training' with strength and stability work in multiple planes, many of these issues can quickly evaporate.
It’s time we expand our view of what’s really going on when the knees buckle and our legs feel tight. Chances are, our problems go far beyond the IT band.
What Should You Do Instead?
For a high-volume, impact sport like running, strength and stability training should be prioritized. If you can achieve proper muscle balance and alignment during your gait, you’ll give yourself a far better shot at avoiding IT band irritation. Here are five simple exercises to boost strength and decrease injury risk:
Glute Bridges (2x20 reps). Progression = single leg bridges.
Hip Abductions (2x10/side). Progression = add band.
Side Planks (30s-1min/side). Progression = opposite leg raise.
Deadlifts (2x15 reps). Progression = single leg deadlift, increase lbs.
Calf Raises (2x20 reps). Progression = elevated calf raise.
If you’re really set on foam rolling, stick to muscles like your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. There is solid evidence to indicate that rolling muscles can elicit warm-up and cool-down benefits. Just know that this too isn’t magic. There’s no ‘myofascial release’ going on…but that’s for another article.
Foam rolling the IT band is popular, but that does not make it right. As a health and wellness community, we must continue to challenge faulty paradigms to push the envelope. By switching your mindset to strength and stability work, you can set yourself up for a robust, sustainable running career.
Drop the roller and grab a barbell. Your IT bands will be eternally grateful.