Do you ever feel tightness on your outer thigh, down into your knee? The Iliotibial (IT) band is a tendon that runs from the side of the upper femur down to the knee joint. (see image) When it gets tight, pain refers down into the knee. This is very common amongst runners. The IT Band often gets accused as being the problem, but it’s hard to blame something that’s job is to be tight. Tendons keep muscle attached to bone by staying tight. What would happen if it got loose?
IT Band Muscles
Two muscles are connected from the IT Band into bone. The gluteus maximus (glute) and the tensor fasciae latae (TFL). It sounds like a coffee drink doesn’t it? Both of these muscles are found in the upper thigh. The gluteus maximus is the bulk of your butt. The tensor fasciae latae (TFL) is in the front of your hip, slightly over to the outside from the crease. See the image and try to find them on your own body. If you bring your leg out to the side slightly and then up toward your chest you might feel the TFL. Finding the gluteus maximus (glute) is really easy, it’s your butt!
Why does this matter?
Most advice about a tight IT Band, otherwise known as IT Band syndrome will say to foam roll and massage for relief. Unfortunately, you can’t loosen the IT band, because it’s job is to connect the muscles to the bone, not to get loose. If it was loose it couldn’t connect the muscles to the bone. It’s main job is to stretch and send a signal to the muscle to contract when it’s being stretched. For example, when you are running, the IT Band feels tension from being stretched and signals the TFL and glute to contract. This happens really fast.
To loosen the IT Band, you have to loosen up the glute and tensor fasciae latae muscles. So, if you’re going to foam roll, switch your focus from the side of your leg to the upper parts. Here are some ways to relax and loosen up the TFL and gluteus maximus muscles.
- Foam roll the gluteus maximus and tensor fascia latae muscles. This can be done by lying on the foam roller on your stomach and putting the roller in your upper hip. Open your body up slightly to get the tensor fasciae latae muscle on the roller. You’ll know when you hit it! Then lay on your back and roll on your gluteus or butt muscles. It’s helpful to roll on the side of your hip a little bit also.
- Take a hot bath to relax the muscles. This will also relax the rest of your body reducing tension all over.
- Place a heating pad on the muscles before bed time to facilitate relaxation before bed.
- Get a massage at least once a month. Having a specialist work to reduce tension in the area of the gluteus maximus and tensor fascia latae will help the muscles to relax.
- Stay hydrated and eat nutritious meals to facilitate repair work by the muscles. Sometimes they are tight from being over-worked and haven’t had time to repair from lack of rest. Other times it’s lack of nutrients and sometimes there is something more serious going on.
- Make sure you are getting enough time off from running and other activities that require hip motion. Cross-training means doing other activities like swimming to change the movement pattern of the body.
Visit with a health practitioner like a chiropractor or physical therapist if nothing above seems to be working. You don’t want this tightness to get worse. It can cause bigger problems if you keep exercising. The IT Band could be tight because of a muscle imbalance and this should be evaluated by someone with good bio-mechanics knowledge.