The Best IT Band Stretches and Strengtheners for Runners
They say there are only two things inevitable in life—death and taxes.
On behalf of all runners, I’d like to amend that expression. It’s death, taxes and IT band pain.
If you’ve been a runner for any length of time, you’ve undoubtedly dealt with IT band syndrome. IT stands for iliotibial, the band that goes from the outside of each knee up the thigh to your hip.
The IT band’s main function is steadying the knee while helping the joint to move. That’s an important job, of course, and we couldn’t run without that stabilizing force.
But when the IT band gets angry … well, it has nothing on the Hulk.
If you’re one of the small number of runners who has never experienced a flareup, an inflamed IT band hurts like the dickens. It feels like someone’s sticking little burning knives in the area outside your knee, where the muscle starts to widen into the thigh.
When you experience the pain for the first time, it can be confusing. For many runners, the discomfort occurs only when running. When walking, it feels fine.
So how to get rid of IT band syndrome? I’ve compiled some suggestions, equal parts treatment and preventative. First, let’s explain why you develop IT band pain.
What Causes IT Band Syndrome?
The most common reason for an IT band flareup is overuse. That means you’re running too far, too soon. You can see why the ailment is common among new runners.
You get excited about your new hobby, and you want to do it as much as possible. The IT band pain is your body’s way of telling you to cool those jets. You need to work up to longer mileage so your body is prepared for it. You shouldn’t go from 0 to 5 miles in a week or two.
That’s why many trainers recommend increasing your total mileage no more than 10 percent per week. That’s a good benchmark, but for you the magic number may be slightly higher or lower. Experiment to see what works for your body. For instance, I tend to have IT issues on runs over a certain length no matter how slowly my mileage creeps up.
Increased mileage isn’t the only catalyst for IT band issues. Other causes may include:
- Weak hip muscles
- Improper running
- Old or worn-out shoes
- Tight muscles
- Different leg lengths (this describes me, hence my propensity for IT woes)
Treating IT Band Syndrome
Now that you know the cause of IT syndrome, you are ready for some relief. Here are a few ways you can treat your injury. Within a few days—and sometimes as fast as a few hours—you will begin to feel relief, but don’t push it by returning to the roads too quickly.
(I know we runners have a terrible time pulling back during injury, but it really is important to give yourself a break so you can heal. You won’t lose THAT much fitness in just a few days.)
Treatment No. 1: RICE
Rest, ice, compression and elevation can be used to treat just about any injury. Icing the part of the leg where the injury hurts the most will help reduce inflammation.
You can also take an anti-inflammatory, such as aspirin or ibuprofen.
Treatment No. 2: Foam Rolling
This, for my money, is the most effective form of treatment for IT band syndrome. I feel instant relief when I roll. I tend to concentrate on the area where the upper thigh meets the hip, but you may want to experiment to see what works best for you. I have a friend who foam rolls closer to the knee, but that doesn’t always help me.
Make sure to foam roll for at least 5 minutes. Longer is better. Do it consistently, at least twice a day for several days after the flareup begins.
Treatment No. 3: Stretching
Stretches can help work out the tightness radiating up the band. The most effective stretch is to cross one foot over the other and reach for your toes. Hold the static stretch for 10 to 20 seconds. Repeat several times on both sides.
Treatment No. 4: Massage
Forewarning: This will hurt. It will also leave you feeling much better much quicker than just waiting it out. You can either get a professional massage or use your hand or a tennis ball to massage the area in pain. This offers a slightly different type of pressure than the foam rolling.
Treatment No. 5: Sleep
Am I really telling you a nap could solve your IT band trouble? Not exactly, but it can help you heal faster. Your body repairs itself when you sleep. If you’re not getting enough, then you will delay the process of healing.
Prevent IT Band Strains With Stretches and Strengtheners
Want to avoid IT band problems in the future? The best way to do it is to use these strategies. Remember, this is a long-haul type of thing. There’s no snap-of-the-fingers cure for IT band woes, so you must be consistent with these tips.
Getting some “om” in your day helps to loosen tight muscles. A lot of us runners neglect stretching after a run (no judgment, but I know it’s true). The more you stretch, the better off you will feel. Pigeon pose is a particularly effective IT band stretch. Grab your yoga mat for a few poses after a run if you can’t squeeze in a full class.
Target Weak Glute and Hip Muscles
Exercises such as squats, clam shells and hip bridges can target these weak muscles. When you build strength in the butt, your IT band will be under less strain.
Tennis Ball Massage
You can’t always drop to the ground to foam roll. A more incognito form of massage is using a tennis ball to work out a sore hip or IT band. Roll it the length of your outside thigh and stop to push anywhere you feel you need the extra stretch.
I truly do not have the coordination for this one, but others have told me it works. Get on the treadmill sideways, so your foot is perpendicular to where it would be if you ran normally. Going 1 mph, side-step with your left foot out front, crossing over the right, for a minute. Turn the other way and repeat with the right foot stepping first.
Put IT Band Issues in the Past
I’d love to know if you have any tips on side-stepping IT band issues. I’m always eager to try new ideas. You can leave a comment here or on social media.