The iliotibial band, also known as the IT band, can become injured and painful for a number of reasons. You can do some weight training, stretching and cardio exercises with an IT band injury, but it's important to be careful. Gradually getting back to exercise can help your recovery.
If you have an IT band injury, you can still do hip strengthening and stretching exercises. Single-leg balancing exercises also help.
IT Band Anatomy
You can find the IT band on the side of your thigh. This thick band of tissue runs from your hip down to your knee. If you have ever tried foam rolling, you know that massage this area can be particularly painful.
The IT band is responsible for extending, abducting and laterally rotating the hip, according to a February 2017 review published in Skeletal Radiology. To be clear, the IT band is not actually a muscle but a long band of tissue that connects to a hip muscle called the tensor fascia latae.
The tensor fascia latae, or TFL, begins at the anterior superior iliac crest of your pelvis, which is the front of your hip bone. From there, the muscle extends down into the IT band and joints. The IT band runs down your leg. When your TFL contracts, it pulls on the IT band and can act on the knee.
If you're in pain, the IT band might seem like a nuisance. However, this thick band of tissue is actually extremely important for runners. According to an article published in the August 2015 issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology, it can store 15 to 20 times more energy than the equivalent body part in chimpanzees.
Your IT band appears to be made for energy storage while you run. It stores elastic energy as your leg kicks back and then uses that energy to help you spring forward. In other words, it's recycling energy from your stride to make you more energy efficient as you run.
Read more: Best IT Band Exercises for Runners
What Is IT Band Syndrome?
Iliotibial band syndrome is one of the most common injuries to the IT band. According to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, IT band syndrome could be caused by friction from rubbing against the knee. Friction leads to inflammation of the tendons, ligaments or bones of the knee. When this happens, you can have pain on the outside of your knee.
You should see your doctor if symptoms don't get better within a few weeks, according to an article from Intermountain Healthcare. IT band syndrome can be caused by a lack of flexibility, by overuse or by bad form when exercising.
Avoid some cardio activities with an IT band injury. Sports like running or cycling, which involve a lot of flexion at the knee, are particularly risky, states Emory Healthcare. If you're going to do cardio exercises with an IT band injury, you can prevent further damage by going through a proper warm-up.
Exercises for IT Band Injury
According to trainer certification company International Sports Sciences Association, strengthening the muscles of the hip can help you avoid or recover from IT band syndrome. One exercise they recommend is the clamshell.
Move 1: Clamshell
This exercise targets your gluteus medius, which is a hip muscle. One of the goals of IT band syndrome rehab is to strengthen weak hip muscles. Weakness is one of the causes of this injury, according to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
- Lie on one side.
- Bend your knees to 90 degrees and stack your feet on top of each other.
- Lift your top knee off your bottom knee.
- Raise the top knee as high as you can; then slowly lower it back down.
Read more: Knee Pain on the Outside of the Knee
Move 2: Single-Leg Stance
Instability while standing on one leg is another cause of IT band syndrome. You can try unilateral exercises like the single-leg stance to work on this problem.
- Stand in a corner with plenty of space around you.
- Put your hands on your hips. Stand tall with your hips level.
- Stand on one leg. Try to hold this position for 30 seconds before switching.
Move 3: Wall Squat With Ball
Rehab exercises are helpful, but you might want something that feels more like a workout. To strengthen your legs, you can do something similar to a squat. The Orthopaedic Institute for Children has a hybrid squat exercise that gives you some support while working your legs.
- Stand with your back, head and shoulders flat against a wall. Look straight ahead.
- Step your feet forward one foot in front of the wall.
- Place a rolled-up pillow or ball between your legs.
- Keeping your back flat against the wall, slide down until your hips and knees are at 90 degrees.
- Hold this position for 10 seconds; then stand back up.
Move 4: Lateral Band Walk
The National Academy of Sports Medicine recommends this exercise because it's functional. You'll use a resistance band to strengthen your hip abductor muscles, which can help alleviate IT band pain. Since you're standing up and walking as opposed to lying down, this exercise is considered more advanced than the clamshell.
- Put a resistance band around your knees.
- Slightly bend your knees.
- Step to the side with your right foot; then step in with your left.
- Take big steps and keep your feet at least shoulder-width apart the entire time.
- Walk in both directions to work both legs.
Move 5: Supine IT Band Stretch
Most rehab exercises have you strengthening the muscles in the hip or the IT band itself, but sometimes it feels good to stretch. While it might not solve all your problems, stretching the IT band can make you feel more comfortable and reduce pain. This stretch from the American Council on Exercise is gentle because you're lying on your back.
- Lie on the ground on your back with your legs straight out and arms out to the side.
- Take your left heel and put it on top of your right toes.
- Gently roll your hips to the right until your feet are close to the ground.
- Keep your shoulders flat against the ground.
- Hold for 15 to 30 seconds; then switch sides.
- Orthopaedic Institute for Children: "Iliotibial Band Syndrome"
- Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center: "Strengthening Exercises"
- International Sports Sciences Association: "Exercises for IT Band Syndrome"
- Emory Healthcare: "IT Band Syndrome"
- Intermountain Healthcare: "Iliotibial Band Syndrome"
- Cedars-Sinai: "Iliotibial Band Syndrome"
- Skeletal Radiology: "The Iliotibial Tract: Imaging, Anatomy, Injuries, and Other Pathology"
- American Council on Exercise: "Supine IT Band Stretch"
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: "It Band Syndrome: Symptoms, Risk Factors, Exercises"
- Journal of Experimental Biology: "The Human Iliotibial Band Is Specialized for Elastic Energy Storage Compared With the Chimp Fascia Lata"