An advanced way to stretch the IT band for runners

Posted on August 13, 2019

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(Last Updated On: August 13, 2019)

The iliotibial (IT) band is one of the most commonly complained of areas for runners. We’ve gone over stretching the IT band a lot here-

Why foam rolling isn’t the way to go

The anatomy of the IT band and a great stretch for it

Standing version of the best damn IT band stretch

The anatomy is critical. What we’re usually talking about is not so much the IT band, but the tensor fascia latae (TFL) muscle.

A muscle which connects into the IT band.

I’ve written a whole guide about how to approach stretching it:

6 Exercises to Loosen the IT Band

-> A lot of fitness professors have gotten awfully worked up about “We can’t loosen the IT band!!! It’s too strong!!! All those claiming you can stretch it are ill informed morons!!!”

Calm down. The TFL is what we’re really talking about. I like to use IT band interchangeably because it’s what more people are familiar with.

It IS hard to stretch though, but just because it is hard to target does not mean it cannot be targeted. 

One of the themes of that manual is trying to make targeting the TFL easier. Because the muscle has so many functions, it’s very easy to compensate, no longer effectively targeting the muscle.

Think of it like a rubber band. We try to pull one side to stretch it-

but the other side routinely finds a way to slacken-

Lengthen one side, followed by shortening the other = no net stretch.

Thus, one of the themes of the manual is to be on the ground, so it’s easier to handle gravity (compared to standing).

Running

Of course, running is not done on laying on the ground.

So there can be some transference issues here. You can, say, have effectively loosened your TFL, but still have the habit of it being overactive while running. This is significant- just because a muscle has been stretched to where it is no longer tight does NOT mean it has calmed down. Tightness and activity are not always synonymous. (Lot of people with a loud mouth have a lax jaw, if you get what I mean.) In other words, habits are very specific.

If you’ve been around smokers, many will tell you “I’m great…except when [I get anxiety] or [I have a beer] or [I’m with certain friends]. Habits are quite contextual. How we move is a habit; context is critical.

-> This really is a fundamentally crucial mental shift for many to make. How one moves can lead to something being “tight.” But something being tight much less often leads to someone moving a certain way. After all, how did the area get tight to begin with???

This is why so many have trouble going down the rabbit hole of “what’s tight?” Instead, you want to start with “What could be moving better?”

Let’s quickly recap what the TFL does-

-Abducts the femur

-Flexes the femur

-Internally rotates the femur

hip extension

Femur movements.

-Laterally rotates the tibia

External = lateral.

In layman’s terms, the TFL lifts your thigh up, out to the side, turns it inwards, and rotates your bottom leg out. Kicking a ball is a good scenario of really using the TFL:

An imperfect picture, because the hip hasn’t really flexed yet i.e. the knee hasn’t been brought in front of the hip yet, but hopefully you get the idea. Found on precisionmovement

To stretch it then, or to try to dampen its activity during running, we want to avoid those motions. Not fully, we obviously can’t avoid flexing the hip when we run, but to a large degree, and while stretching it we can.

For example, we don’t need to be abducting the hip when we extend the hip.

We don’t want, or need, to do this (animations below),

(You could also think of that as wasted motion. In other words, you’ll be hard pressed to come up with a theory why, when running, your leg should be flaring side to side. Though you might want to read this if you’re sprinting!)

Instead, we want pure extension,

Extending the hip -bringing our knee behind us- and we’re trying to stretch the TFL. If the hip wants to abduct -flare out to the side- when we extend the hip, we have a solid sign of an overactive TFL i.e. the muscle does not want to be fully stretched. When we pull it one way to stretch it, say backwards,

it pulls another way to lessen that stretch, say laterally-

Another scenario to avoid: when we bend our lower leg, we don’t need to be turning the foot out:

We might as well keep it aligned with everything else.

Practicing this at normal running speed initially is quite hard. But we can break up the running motion.

We can stand in place and work on our running motion, always being cognizant of TFL compensation.

You could break this up in various ways. You could have the knee barely bent,

have the hip barely extended, or, at worst, in neutral,

-> It’s good to remember here normal hip extension range of motion is only 10 to 15 degrees. You’re not going to be getting that knee behind the hip much no matter what, but you’re going to get it even less distance if you have a stiff TFL!

tibia neutral (foot not turned out),

primarily working on adduction (bringing the thigh inwards):

Or you could work knee flexion more, keeping everything else fairly static:

It’s good to play with. Your habits -your TFL overactivity- will be different than his, will be different than her’s. You may have issues with adduction while someone else will struggle more with knee flexion.

No matter how you do it, beware the compensations.

As you, say, flex your knee, don’t let your knee come forward (which would be hip flexion),

(While knee flexion isn’t exactly aimed at the TFL, I’d still very much encourage working the motion, as it will impact the rectus femoris, a muscle which, if there are TFL problems, there are likely RF problems. More about the RF here.)

Or your lower back extend (another form of hip flexion):

-> If you let your back extend, you’ll notice you can get a lot more hip extension i.e. the knee more behind the hip, but we don’t want that since it’s not motion purely coming from hip extension.

This can be counterintuitive, but think about it as the hip can flex by the thigh being brought more closely to the hip OR the hip coming closer to the thigh. When the lower back extends, the back of the hips go up, but the front of the hips go down (notice the front of the hips angling downwards above), which means the front of the hip has come closer to the knee = hip flexion.

Also, don’t let your hip pull down laterally:

Similar to above. ABduction can happen by the thigh moving outward, closer to the pelvis OR the pelvis coming closer to the thigh.

Or your foot turn out!

This is not easy. Again, it IS a hard area to target. It’s why there is so much confusion around this topic. And remember, this is an advanced way of going at it. I would never have a client do this unless they’d been doing easier variations for at least a month, likely at least two months.

For many who find it easy, they’re compensating. (And of course you might not have TFL problems to begin with!) You won’t be able to fly through this movement. It will need to be slow and deliberate, but you could go faster as you got better, to be more analogous to running.

Note you’re unlikely to feel some huge stretch anywhere during this. You’re much more likely to feel some resistance and a significant need to concentrate. For many, the correction that needs to happen is not so much a traditional loosening up of the musculature, but a new way of moving needs to be formed. You won’t be able to just stretch and hold for 30 seconds. It’s more work to change than that.

Remember, master ground work first…

6 Exercises to Loosen the IT Band

Finally, while this is much more similar to running than nearly every other way of stretching the TFL or IT band, it is still not running. You may get very good at this movement, but once you get to running speeds, or once you get fatigued while running, start falling into old TFL compensation patterns.

That’s where another pair of eyes can be quite helpful: The remote client process

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