The Right Way to Fix Your IT Band

Treat the muscles on both ends of your IT band to reduce pain. Credit: SEBASTIAN KAULITZKI / Getty

If you’re an active person, and especially if you’re a runner, Iliotibial Band Syndrome is one of the most common overuse injuries that can sideline you. Though many people suffer from IT Band Syndrome, few understand what it is and how to treat it.

The IT band is a long, thick swath of fascia that starts near your hips, runs along the outside of your leg, and attaches outside the knee. It's not a muscle and it can't contract, which means it does not lengthen, shorten, or stretch. Picture the IT band like a rope — you can increase or decrease tension on it, but its actual physical length never changes. The IT band is pulled by the muscles attached to it — the largest glute muscle and outer hip — and pushed by the vastus laterals (the outer quad), which is located at the bottom of the IT band. When any of those muscles become too tight, you have a problem.

One of the main functions of the IT band is to help stabilize the knee. When you have restrictions in the muscles attaching to the IT band, it can cause tension on the band, and this creates friction and compression on your knee. The pain and swelling that often occurs with IT Band Syndrome isn’t far behind. IT Band Syndrome symptoms often flare up when people exercise in old or improper shoes, ramp up their workouts too quickly, fail to warm up, or work out on an unstable surface. If the muscles surrounding the IT Band are already tight, these factors can trigger IT Band Syndrome because they force the body to compensate, further overusing the restricted muscles, which in turn prevent the IT band from doing its job.

To treat IT Band Syndrome, you need to address the underlying causes: tightness and weakness in the muscles attached to the band. These exercises will help get your body back in balance.

Hip Flexor Release

  • For this release, use two lacrosse balls taped together.
  • Lie facedown and place the double lacrosse ball just below your hip bone.
  • Lean a tolerable amount of weight onto the lacrosse balls.
  • Bend the knee on the side of the release back to a 90-degree angle.
  • Swing your leg side to side in a tolerable range of motion. Repeat for 30-second to two-minute intervals. Switch sides.

Vastus Lateralis Release

  • Lie on one side, with a foam roller under your bottom leg halfway between your hip and knee.
  • Slide your leg up and down along the foam roller, moving it from the top of the knee to the base of the hip, trying to work over the more tender areas.
  • Repeat for 30-second to two-minute intervals.
  • To focus on a specific area of the IT band, locate the most tender area with the foam roller and stop. Bend your knee at a 90-degree angle, and then straighten. Repeat motion of bending and straightening the knee for 10 to 15 seconds. Switch sides.

Glute Max Release

  • Sit with your legs out, and place a lacrosse ball under the right glute with pressure on a tender area.
  • Bend your right knee up with your foot flat on the floor, still leaning into the lacrosse ball.
  • Fan your knee out to the side and back in to work your glute over the ball.
  • Repeat for 30-second to two-minute intervals. Switch sides.

Inner Thigh Squats

  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed out at a 45-degree angle, weight in heels.
  • Squat, pushing hips back as if you were sitting in a chair that is too far behind you.
  • While squatting, push knees out. Go as low as you can, then push through heels to stand. Do 3 sets of 15 reps.
  • Repeat, doing 3 sets of 15 reps, but this time with weight in the balls of your feet.

David Reavy, founder of Chicago-based React Physical Therapy, is the creator of the Reavy Method, a whole body approach to physical therapy and exercise. Reavy works with numerous pro athletes from the NFL, NBA, MLS, and the WNBA.