IT Band syndrome is a common running injury that can really get in our way. We talk to sports scientist and footwear specialist Emma Kirk-Odunubi to find out more about it, and how we can prevent and treat it
Quick IT band syndrome facts
- Area affected: hip/knee.
- Recovery time: 2-4 weeks, depending on severity. More time may be needed in some cases.
- Time off running: 2-4 weeks, depending on severity.
What is IT band syndrome?
First things first, IT band stands for iliotibial band. Despite common perception, it’s not a muscle. It’s a band of fibrous tissue that originates at the hip near the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and TFL (tensor fasciae latae). It then inserts at the lateral side of the tibia (the outer side of your knee).
IT band syndrome originates from increased friction of the band to the outside of the knee, usually through movement such as running.
What causes IT band syndrome?
IT band syndrome is a complex injury. Many things can cause it, from gluteal tightness to misaligned running form. Here are some of the key causes:
- Cadence / overstride
Overstride is often the cause of running injuries. It happens when your lead leg (the one that makes contact with the ground first) lands ahead of your body. This leg acts as a brake, and therefore increases the ground reaction forces being driven up into the leg. Those extra forces can increase stress and torque at the joints, and the energy you expend gets greater when you have to find the strength and power to push back off that leg.
- Knee varus or valgus
Valgus is medial (inwards) movement of the knee, while varus is lateral. Due to women having naturally wider hips for childbirth, we are far more prone to knee valgus. If you run with valgus (or knocked) knees, you’ll cause increased stress on the hips, glutes and knee joints.
- Poor footwear
Running in a shoe that is old or not supportive can affect knee function and cause iliotibial band discomfort.
How can I prevent IT band syndrome?
There are some easy solutions to the most common causes of iliotibial band syndrome listed above:
- Fix your cadence
By focusing on landing your foot underneath your hips when you run, you will be able to drastically reduce the stresses that come from over-striding. Do this by focusing on your cadence (how quickly you change foot as your run). A high cadence of between 170-180 steps per minute is ideal for many. You can increase your cadence by finding high BPM playlists, or by using a metronome app and running on the beat.
- Look after your knees
Making sure that you have the right footwear can be key to preventing knee valgus. Strength work is also important to stabilise the knee.
- Make sure your footwear is up to scratch
Most running shoes last between 400-500 miles because the cushioning of the shoe loses its responsiveness and shock absorbency over time. Replace your shoes once you hit that mark. You also need to make sure that you have the right shoe for your feet and stride, so book a gait analysis to see how your current shoes are doing or when you’re ready to invest in new ones.
What strength exercises help prevent IT band syndrome?
- Hip lifts
In a side plank position, either resting on both feet or knees, raise your hips as high as possible, then lower both hips down to tap the floor. Control is key here. Look to complete 12-15 reps each side for three sets.
- Copenhagen plank
For this adductor-targeting plank, begin in the side plank position. Place your upper leg on a small box/chair with your lower leg on the floor to begin. There are two variations: keep your bottom leg bent and your knee kissing the floor; or lift your bottom leg up to meet the chair/ bench. This second one is harder so begin by only holding for 10-15 seconds for three sets and build the time on each side from there.
How do I treat IT band syndrome?
As mentioned, the iliotibial band is a fibrous tissue which is impacted greatly by dysfunction around it. This means that having tight/weak hips, quads or hamstrings will worsen the problem and cause more pain. Head to a professional for a deep tissue massage or sports massage around the affected areas.
You can also supplement treatment with key stretches and strength exercises that you can do at home:
- Glute trigger point work
Use a small lacrosse ball up against a wall, and roll the ball around your glutes.
- Psoas march
Attach a band around your feet while lying on your back. Start by alternating your legs one at a time and pulling your knees towards your chest. Activate your hip flexors, while pushing your lower back into the ground. Look to complete 10-12 reps total starting with a light band and building weight.
- Elevated pigeon stretch
You may have heard of the pigeon stretch and performed it on the floor. However, performing it on an elevated bench/ box will help those of you who are pressed together, raise your top knee to open the clam. Keep focused on your pelvis staying a stable as possible and then slowly return to start position. Start by doing as many reps as you can and look to build toward 10-15 reps on each side.
About Emma Kirk-Odunubi
Emma is a sports scientist & strength coach who has been in the running industry for over 15 years. Along with her partner, she set up Bulletproof Athletic to empower runners to achieve their goals.