The Best Strategy for Foam Rolling your IT Band

The best strategy for foam rolling your IT band?

Don't do it. Just stop.

Man, that was easy! But enough of this negative talk - let's move on to HOW you might be able to address IT band problems better with a foam roll and WHY smashing your IT band directly isn't a good idea.

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The iliotibial band ("IT band") is a dense piece of connective tissue that spans from the tendons of gluteus maximus (everyone's favorite anatomical word) and tensor fasciae lata (TFL) muscles down past the knee to the lateral condyle of the tibia. It is a combination of both tendon and fasciae - and it is strong. Really strong.

This study by Chaundry et al. states that, to create just a 1% change in IT band length/form, a force of over 9,000 Newtons (over 900 kilograms/2000 pounds) would be needed.

Over 2,000 pounds of pressure. To create just a small 1% change.

That's about the same amount of pressure it would take to have a large bull stand on the side of your leg...

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The IT band is an innervated structure (has a healthy supply of nerves in charge of sensation) like many tissues in our body, and smashing it with a foam roll WILL NOT deform, soften, loosen, or lengthen it like you think it will.

That means 2 things:

  1. When you smash it with a foam roll, it's probably going to hurt really bad.

  2. Smashing it with a foam roll isn't going to change anything about the IT band.

I'm not the only one who is saying this by the way. If you want to check out what others are saying, here are a couple of fantastic articles about this same stuff:
Breaking Muscle Article on Foam Rolling ITB
Greg Lehman's Article

While research is still developing on the topic, foam rolling has been extremely helpful for many people. It probably benefits us in different ways than we think it does, most likely through facilitating neurophysiological change (providing a bunch of non-threatening information to your nervous system through foam roll pressure into the tissue- essentially telling your brain and your body that the targeted area is HEALTHY and that it's okay for this area to take a chill pill and RELAX).

The IT Band is not pliable, and won't benefit from foam rolling. But fortunately,  understanding the area's surrounding anatomy- we can still wield the benefits of the foam roll. If you're having trouble with your IT band, or have been told you need to address "IT band syndrome", it would be a great idea to set up an appointment with a good local physio/physical therapist to get some help putting together a plan of action. Until then, or if you've been managing it on your own anyways, try replacing your foam rolling routine by going after these areas instead:

(1) Gluteus Maximus: our favorite word and the biggest glute muscle in your behind
(2) Tensor Fasciae Lata: 'TFL' for short - another direct tendinous attachment to the top end of the IT band)
(3) Vastus Lateralis: the outermost portion of your quadriceps muscle, closest to the IT band
(4) Biceps Femoris: the guns of the leg-the outermost portion of your hamstring.

Targeting these muscles that have various connections to the IT band is your best ticket to reducing tone/tension in the lateral part of your leg. We know that muscles are much more pliable and more likely to respond to pressure, and they are actually the driving force putting tension into this system anyways. I can't guarantee this area won't hurt, but I can tell you it will be a lot more pleasant than having a bull come sit on your leg.

As always, make sure you see a good physio in your area if you are struggling with knee pain.
If you're anywhere near Rochester Hills, Michigan - I just so happen to know a guy...

[hint: it's me...I'm the guy]

Now go enjoy the freedom to feel okay with NOT foam rolling your IT band! Cheers,

-Dr. King-