After you work out or finished a nice long hike, you realize that the side of your thigh feels like it has a tight rope running down the side toward the knee. It may even be causing some strain or pulling on your knee. So you go and grab a foam roller to use. Are you guilty of trying to roll out your IT Band (Iliotibial Band or Tract)? I have seen this many times at gyms. The side of your upper leg and knees feel “tight” and may even cause you some pain, so you grab the trusty foam roller to roll over that area of your body to try to help alleviate it. Sounds like a good plan, right? Wrong. When you are trying to work out muscles, a foam roller can be a useful tool. However, it seems to be a very common misconception that the IT Band is a muscle too. Well, I am here to tell you that it is not a muscle, so trying to lengthen and stretch it will do you no good.
So what is the IT Band?
The IT Band is categorized as a deep fascia (pronounced “Fah-Shah”) of the body. This deep fascia is made almost exclusively of collagen fibers and fibroblast cells, which produce collagen. Collagen is the strongest protein found in nature and is extremely strong, tough, and avascular, making it the strongest structure in the entire human body. The IT Band starts up at the hip and runs laterally down the side of the leg to the knee. (Think where the seam of your pants is along the side of your thigh.) This long, tough band serves to help maintain stability of your hips and knees.
Why is it tight and what to do about it?
There are two main muscles that the IT Band actually derives from up in the hip region. The biggest one is the Gluteus Maximus. That’s right, your big butt muscle. The other muscle is a much smaller (about 3 finger width), and superficial, muscle called the Tensor Fasciea Latae (TFL), and attaches to the beginning of the IT Band, in front of the Gluteus Maximus muscle. When the Gluteus Maximus or TFL muscles are tight, they pull upward on your IT Band, giving you that tight and taught rope-like feeling along the side of your leg. It also may cause tension and pulling of the knee. So if you work on relaxing and stretching the Glutes and TFL, you will then relieve some of the tension you are feeling on the IT Band.
Another muscle that usually affects the IT Band is the Vastus Lateralis muscles, which is one of the quadriceps muscles. The IT Band runs right over the Vastus Lateralis Quadricep muscles. Often times, when I am working on clients with IT Band issues, after I finish working on their glutes and hip flexors, I will do some cross fiber friction along the IT Band and do some pulling and pushing away from the quads and hamstrings. I often find that the band feels stuck to these muscles, preventing the band to move freely as the hip and knees flex and extend. By breaking up any adhesions and freeing the IT Band from its surrounding muscles, especially closer to the knee, you can help alleviate pain and limited mobility as well.
In one of my many researches online, I did run across this video which I think is pretty helpful in regards to the IT Band. Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WvRy3JDkZi4&feature=youtu.be
I hope you now have a better understanding of what your IT Band is, and is not. I would like to thank my CrossFit coach for sharing his frustrations of seeing clients foam rolling their IT Bands after working out, and inspiring me to write a little blog about how ineffective it is. Next time you go to grab that foam roller for your tight IT Band issues, use it to work out your TFL and Gluteus Maximus muscles. Remember, foam rollers are great for muscles, not your IT Band. You will have a much greater effect and results by relaxing and stretching those muscles than on your fibrous band of connective tissues.
Courtney Truax, LMT is a graduate of East West College of the Healing Arts in Portland, Oregon. She is licensed through the Oregon Board of Massage Therapy and a member of the American Massage Therapy Association. She has her own studio massage practice in the heart of downtown Lake Oswego, Oregon.