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What is the IT band and can you stretch it?

a photo of a woman doing a standing leg stretch
(Image credit: Getty/Inti St Clair)

You’ve probably heard someone talk about their troublesome IT band (or ITB for those really in the know) while looking rueful and rubbing the outside of their knee. And you’ve probably nodded and said something like, “Oh yeah, that’ll get you every time”, although you have no idea what they are babbling about. If this is the case, your troubles are over: here’s all you need to know about the ITB (see, you already understand the shorthand!), what it does, how to look after it, and what it has to do with knee pain.

Talking of knee pain here are four reasons why you might get knee pain when running, and the best exercises to strengthen your knees

What is an IT band? 

Your iliotibial (IT) band is a strip of thick fibrous tissue — known as fascia — that runs along the outside of each thigh from your hip to just below your knee. It stems from your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and tensor fasciae latae muscles, and attaches at the top of your tibia. Fascia is connective tissue that it is mostly made from collagen, and is found throughout the body, supporting, connecting, protecting and nourishing the body’s structures. In the mood to truly bore your friends? Your ITB is also known as Maissiat’s band, though not very often.  

a diagram of the muscles in the leg

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

What does it do?

The main functions of the IT band are stabilizing the knee and facilitating hip movement (extension, rotation and abduction — moving your leg out to the side of your body, and nothing to do with kidnapping). It may also play a role in helping us to run better.

When it is not behaving itself, the ITB can lead to a range of problems, the most common of which is probably ITB syndrome (ITBS), which tends to affect runners, cyclists, basketball players and, um, US Marine Corp recruits, accounting for 12 percent of injuries sustained during training. It’s an overuse injury that develops when the ITB becomes inflamed or tight. This leads to friction on the outside of the knee, though the exact nature of this abrading is a matter of debate. What is not in question is the pain it causes. This is usually felt on the outside of the knee, just above the joint, but it can also manifest as pain along the outside of the thigh. You may notice a clicking, or popping, in your knee, which is as delightful as it sounds. ITBS can also cause referred hip pain.

You can usually treat it by resting, icing the affected area a few times a day, and, if needed, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. Of course, prevention is preferable to cure.

Can I stretch my IT band?

Your IT band is thick and stubborn and does not stretch easily, which is exactly how it should be. But you can target it and, more importantly, work the surrounding muscles at the same time to stretch the entire area, reducing the stress placed on the IT band and increasing overall mobility.

Standing IT band stretch with bend

If you already have an ITB problem, you may feel a stretch in your hip or at the knee when you do this move.

- Stand tall and cross your right leg behind your left leg.

- With your right arm raised, lean to the left, bending the left knee slightly

- Hold for 20-30 seconds and return to start position

- Do the move three times on each side

- If you want to make it a little easier, don’t raise your arm

Figure-4 stretch

You can do a version of this from a standing position, but the supine option is easier.

- Lie on your back, knees bent and feet on the floor

- Cross your left ankle over your right thigh, letting your left knee fall away as much as you can without causing discomfort

- Raise your right leg, grab the back of your right thigh with both hands and slowly bring your thigh into your body

- When you feel a deep stretch in your hip and glutes on the left side, hold for 10 seconds, breathing slowly

- Repeat twice more and then switch sides

Clamshell 

This exercise targets your gluteus medius, in particular. The gluteus maximus is the show-off of the glutes, while the medius and minimus muscles just get on with the job of stabilizing the pelvis and aiding outward rotation. No biggie.

- Lie on your left side, knees bent at 45 degrees, legs and feet stacked

- Bend your left arm and rest your head in your palm. Engage your abs to steady your body. Don’t allow yourself to tilt forward or back

- Raise your right knee as high as you can without moving your hips; keep your feet touching at the heels. Do not raise your left leg off the floor

- Pause and return to start. Do 20 on each side

- To make this move a little harder, place a resistance band around your legs, slightly above your knees

Foam roller stretch

This stretch may cause some discomfort, but if you yelp or start to cry, put the roller away for now. (If you're looking for a foam roller, we've found the best foam rollers on the market here). Do the exercise slowly and resist the urge to press down for an extra jolt of pain.

- Lie on your left side, upper thigh on the foam roller. Keep your left leg straight.

- Cross your right leg over your left and plant your foot, or keep your legs stacked (this will add considerably the pressure on your thigh: your choice)

- Place both hands on the floor and roll the side of your upper thigh along the foam roller from just above your knee to your hip, and back down. If you find a tight spot, roll slowly here a few times

-Do this for 30 seconds, then switch sides

John is a writer and editor based in London. He was worked for magazines such as Runner’s World, Men’s Health, Women’s Health and Cosmopolitan. A keen runner, what he lacks in ability he makes up for with enthusiasm and excuses.