You might not be familiar with your IT (or iliotibial) band—the thick cord of connective tissue that runs down the outside of your thighs from your hip to your knee. Your IT band does an important job of stabilizing the hips and knees, especially during high-impact exercises like running or jumping. And if it gets tight and irritated, you’ll know it very quickly.
That tightness can lead IT band syndrome (ITBS), a condition when you might feel pain along the outside of your thighs, your hips, or your knees. In fact, if you’ve ever experienced knee pain, there’s a chance it’s a tight IT band—and not an issue with your knee itself. You’ll often feel aches during lateral movements or when you’re putting more weight on the affected leg, during running, or other high-impact activities. For that reason, ITBS is common among runners, cyclists, and people who walk for long distances.
How to stretch your IT band
To ease the aches, people often do stretches, where they lean side to side to get the band to loosen. But it turns out, these common stretches don’t do much at all. “Studies of the structure of the IT band suggests that it’s highly unlikely it can be stretched because it’s too strong,” says Jeff Gaudette, a certified run coach and owner of RunnersConnect, an online training resource for runners. Along the same lines, foam rolling the area won’t offer much relief either, he adds.
“Those typical stretches might feel good, but they don’t do much because they’re not curing the problem—you’re not getting to why you have IT band pain in the first place,” says Brian Gurney, DPT, CSCS, a trainer, board-certified sports clinical specialist, and physical therapist at BeFit Therapy in New York City. A better strategy for easing the pressure on your IT band: stretching the muscles around it.
“People usually come in with IT band syndrome when they lack hip extension, and when you lose that hip extension, it’s a chain reaction of events that happen,” Gurney explains. “It’s harder for your glutes to engage. You start to push more weight to the outside of your leg to compensate. The IT band and calves get tight, and your whole leg mechanics change.”
To target the right muscles that will help fix your mobility and movement patterns, and relieve your IT band pain, give these stretches a go. Hold each one for at least 10 seconds.
1 Glutes stretch
This stretch helps release tension in the glutes, which can lead to IT band issues. On an exercise mat, lie face up with your knees bent and feet flat. Raise left foot to the ceiling and hold the grasp just below the knee to hold it up. Then, pull the foot toward your chest, turning the shin to the side so it’s almost perpendicular to your body. Hold the stretch, then repeat on opposite leg. For a deeper stretch, keep non-stretching leg extended on the floor as you stretch.
2 Abductor stretch
If your IT band is being overused, it’s normal to feel pain in the outer thighs, since it’s what connects them to your knees and glutes. Sit on an exercise mat with your knees bent and the soles of your feet pressed together on the floor in front of you. Place your hands on the floor behind you for balance. Sit up straight, tilting your pelvis forward and leaning into the hands, as you let the legs sink toward the floor, then relax and let knees come up slightly.
3 Deep lumbar rotation
Lie faceup on an exercise mat with a yoga strap or resistance band wrapped outside your left ankle. Holding both ends of the band in your right hand, pull up to raise your left leg so the foot is pointing toward ceiling. Keeping leg straight, pull the band to the right to extend your left leg across your body, keeping the left hip on floor. Hold, then repeat on opposite side.
4 Quad Stretch
Lie on your left side, curling body into fetal position with legs stacked directly over each other. Hold left leg at shin with left hand and right ankle with right hand. Keeping body in tucked position, pull right leg behind you. (The tucked position helps isolate your quads.) Hold, then repeat on opposite side.
5 Quad and hip wall stretch
Kneel in front of a wall, facing away from it. Keeping your left knee on floor, raise your left foot behind you and let rest it against the wall. Step your right leg out with the foot flat on the floor and the knee bent, thigh parallel to floor. Hold, then repeat on opposite side.
6 Quad stretch with yoga strap
Stand to the right of a bench. Keeping your right foot on floor, rest left knee on the bench. Lift your left foot behind you and wrap a long yoga strap or resistance band around it. Bend the right knee and lean forward until you feel the stretch in your left quads and hip flexors. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on opposite side. If you don’t have access to a bench, you can also do this stretch on the floor.
7 Spinal rotation
Sit on floor with your knees bent and feet flat on floor. Twist your torso to the right, pressing against the outside of your left knee with your left arm and looking behind you. Hold, then repeat on opposite side.
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