How to Foam Roll Your IT Band
Written by Nic Bartolotta
Muscle soreness is a natural part of an athletic career or fitness lifestyle. And when your legs are sore from an intense workout or long training session, even sitting down can be painful. But your IT band never seems to loosen, right?
The IT band is a difficult body part to treat, especially since it isn’t a muscle. And most people who foam roll their IT bands do it wrong. Most athletes continue to train on it anyways, completely unaware of how to manage the tightness; not to mention, the injuries that it can cause.
That’s why we’re going to show you how to properly foam roll your IT band to alleviate pain, optimize recovery, and prevent injuries. You’ll never have to worry if you’re doing it right or about that cable-like tension in your outer thigh ever again – this sequence is going to make you a better athlete.
What is your IT band?
The iliotibial (IT) band is a thick band of fascia (connective tissue) that runs vertically along the outside of your leg, between your knee and thigh. Structurally, it attaches to the hip & glute muscles at the top and the anterolateral part (front & side) of the tibia. It’s made of stiff collagen fibers that don’t stretch, providing rigid protection and support to the adjacent joints, muscles, nerves, and tendons.
Physiologically, it plays a role in your everyday life. It enables you to rotate your hips, extend your legs, run, jump, and turn sideways. But unlike the muscles that you train in the gym, the track, or out on the field, the IT band cannot be stretched. But the pain & tension can be foam rolled away with the Rolflex.
Why is my IT band so tight?
There’s no such thing as a “tight” IT band. The tightness is caused by the surrounding muscles in your hips and outer thigh squeezing on the IT band. These muscles put pressure on the band when they're overused and/or fatigued, causing iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS).
Overused & fatigued muscles
After an intense match, workout, or training session, it’s common to experience muscle cramps, especially in your thigh muscles. Even once the initial pain subsides, the fatigued muscles tighten and remain tender for hours. As they tighten, they squeeze the IT band, causing pain on the outer part of the thigh. This leads you to believe that your IT band is to blame – this isn’t the case.
Even if your thigh muscles don’t cramp, an exhausting leg day at the gym or 10 mile run will fatigue your legs to the point of exhaustion. Over the next few days, your muscles will tense up, no matter how much you stretch afterwards.
If you’ve just begun training or recently increased your training load, your IT band will likely stiffen for the first few days as your body adjusts to the new workload. Relatively speaking, your muscles are weak; and the intense, repetitive movements will cause tightness around your hip, thigh, and knee, straining the IT band.
Iliotibial Band Syndrome (ITBS)
Iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) occurs when the IT band becomes irritated from rubbing against the hip or knee joint. And in rare cases, it can rub against both joints. It’s common in athletes who run, jump, and change direction regularly in their sport. According to Gary Vitti, ex-NBA trainer for the Los Angeles Lakers, “basketball, volleyball, long-distance running, and cycling athletes are the most likely to be affected by ITBS.”
And if the condition isn’t treated and managed properly, it will worsen, causing runner’s knee and other lower leg injuries. Once it progresses to this point, the road to rehabilitation becomes significantly longer.
In each of these cases, foam rolling is the best way to relieve tension and reduce pain around your IT band. I'm going to walk you through the exact foam rolling routine I use to keep MLB, NFL, NBA, and NHL athletes in shape and injury-free.
How to foam roll the IT band
Most people who try to foam roll their IT bands lay sideways on the ground, resting their outer thigh on the roller. Not only is this method painful due to the lack of fat and thin skin, but it’s an ineffective way to foam roll. It doesn’t address the tightness around the connective tissue, but instead tries to target the area directly.
This foam rolling technique will release pressure from your IT band by working the TFL and lateral quad muscles, the two muscles that are most responsible for your pain & tightness.
1. TFL Rotations
Sit on the edge of a chair and adjust the Rolflex so that it fits over your thigh. Position the contoured foam roller over the TFL muscle, located on the front of your hip just a few inches below the waist. Work the TFL for a few seconds, moving the roller back & forth over the muscle.
After that, squeeze the Rolflex handles and hold the roller in place on the TFL. While maintaining the roller’s position, rotate your hip slightly inward, leaving your foot in place while your knee rotates inward towards the center of your body.
Then, rotate your hip outwards, past neutral, leaving your foot in place as your knee rotates outwards & away from your body.
Repeat this for a total of 10 repetitions, the equivalent of 10 inward rotations and 10 outward rotations.
As you rotate your hips and apply pressure to the TFL, the Rolflex will initiate myofascial release. It strips down the scar tissue on the TFL muscle, relieving tension in the muscle and the IT band which lies just below it.
2. TFL Extensions
Similar to the method above, place the Rolflex near your TFL, ideally on a high-pressure (trigger) point. Squeeze the handles to keep it in place, then slowly raise your leg off the ground by engaging your hip muscles. You’ll feel the pressure start to release from just above the TFL and surrounding muscles.
Repeat this for a total of 10 leg raise repetitions.
3. Massage the Lateral Quad
Now it’s time to move onto the lateral quad. But the focus isn’t to apply a ton of pressure to the part of your IT band that hurts the most. Instead, we’re going to track the path of the band with the Rolflex.
Push and pull the contoured foam roller along the outside of your thigh, working deep into the IT band and lateral quad muscles. Some points will be more tender than others – that’s normal. As you pass over these points, rotate and twist the foam roller to break up and release the tension from the area.
Continue this process until you reach the lower quad, just below the knee. Spend at least 60 seconds massaging the entire outer thigh from top to bottom. When you near the bottom, avoid foam rolling directly on the outside of the knee joint, you will aggravate the tendons and cause serious structural damage.
If you’re experiencing tightness in your IT band, outer thigh, or upper quad regions, this foam rolling sequence needs to be a part of your daily fitness & recovery routine. Perform the entire sequence at least 1-2x per day, especially before and after training sessions. You should notice significant improvement in just a few days.
And even if your IT band feels great, you should add this to your daily routine to keep it and your surrounding muscles healthy, loose, and ready to go.