Running is one of the most accessible and safest sports/activities a person can do. It’s not a contact sport, so you don’t have to worry about literally bumping heads with other people. It’s not something that requires years of personalized and technical instruction, nor is it an activity that requires a ton of expensive gear. Provided you have the interest to do it, and a good pair of shoes, you’re ready to go. Running is something that we’ve all done since shortly after we learned to walk as small children, and for that reason alone, it’s something that all of us are born able to do.
However -- and this is a big however -- tons of runners each year get sidelined due to injury. For not being a contact sport, there sure are tons of runners out on the periphery each year, and some unfortunate souls seem ever-trapped in the injury cycle year in and year out. Many injuries are season-ending or at least season-diminishing, and at the very least, injuries are annoying as hell. An injured runner is someone whose path you most definitely do not want to cross.
One of the most common ailments that plagues runners of all different shapes, sizes, and experience levels is iliotibial band syndrome, or IT band syndrome for short. Many runners -- and in fact, I’d arguemostor all runners, at one point or another -- will be beset with ITB pain or tenderness; it’s almost like a rite of passage within the running community.
Fortunately, in the big scale of running injuries and maladies, IT band syndrome, while annoying, is fairly benign. It doesn’t carry with it the same level of magnitude as, say, a stress fracture or a broken bone, but it remains nonetheless frustrating. Below, we’ll talk in more detail about the iliotibial band, what it is, and how you can deal with (and hopefully skirt around) this super-common running-related injury.
The IT band: what is it?
First things first: what the heck is an iliotibial band? It’s a piece of fascia that starts near your hips, on the outside of your leg, that more or less wraps around your leg and connects to your knee. It feels like one big muscle but is technically fascia. This picture provides a good side-angle view of the IT band and can help you further locate exactly where it is on your body.
Why is the IT band important to runners?
Now that we know where the IT band is located and what, exactly, it is, it’s worth knowing why this piece of bodily equipment is so important to runners. In a nutshell, your IT band is implicated in every running stride you take. The old children’s song that recants that “the foot bone is connected to the leg bone; the leg bone is connected to the hip bone,” and so on illustrates this reality perfectly. Your IT band connects your hips to your knee, and you only need to take one stride while running to notice that you use your hips and your knees -- among a whole host of other bodily parts -- as you make the running motion. It would be very challenging, if not altogether impossible, to run in the absence of an iliotibial band.
Why is the IT band so often injured?
When runners first begin running, many of us tend to build up our mileage rather quickly and rather drastically, and most of us do so in the absence of strength work. More often than not, we become really strong and quite adept at running in one plane of motion, and as a consequence, those muscles we use most in that particular plane of motion get incredibly strong -- but to the detriment of our other muscles. In running, many times runners’ quads -- already big, strong muscles in their own rite -- become especially strong, but it’s to the detriment of their complementary muscle, the hamstring, that more or less suffers from neglect.
With the IT band in particular, most of the time, when runners have IT band-related injuries, it’s due to overuse. Anatomically speaking, some of the runners’ muscles have gotten so strong -- or so weak, as it may be -- that muscles begin to overcompensate for these imbalances. The imbalances can lead to a cascade of further imbalances that then implicate other muscles to work in ways that they are not accustomed -- or designed -- to work.
As it is with the IT band, oftentimes runners’ poor strength, agility, and/or mobility forces runners to use their IT bands more frequently than how the IT bands were designed for, and it’s then that an overuse injury creeps in: sometimes slowly but always noticeably. Weak hips, weak glute muscles, or a misfiring of muscles can all lead the IT bands to work harder and more often than they should be, which can then make a runner’s injury risk and propensity that much higher.
How can I deal with or avoid this injury?
Prevention is the best way to deal with injury, and for runners, in particular, that means getting sufficiently strong so as to skirt around any possibility of muscle imbalances. Runners often only want to pack on the mileage volume each week, but they need to also do the attendant strength work, such as lifting weights and performing compound movements like squats, deadlifts, and lunges. It’s important for runners to remember to work their body in all planes of motion to help offset their injury risk.
Another way runners can deal with IT band overuse is by consistently and regularly foam rolling their IT bands. There seems to have been an explosion on the roller market in the past five years, but realistically, even a simple $20 foam roller will do the job. There are tons of videos available online (for free) that can help walk you through a foam rolling program for IT bands, and even just 5-10 minutes a day can go a long way. Be prepared, though: the first time you foam roll your IT band, particularly if you’re especially tight, may hurt like hell. You might cry. That’s ok.
If you are having continued problems, irritation, or pain with your IT band, don’t take a chance on it; instead, go talk to a sports medicine physician or a physical therapist. These qualified sports medicine professionals will be able to diagnose your malady and give you a personalized rehab plan.
While IT band syndrome can be incredibly painful and exceedingly annoying, it’s fairly common with runners and something that can be avoided. Staying on top of regular and consistent strength work, as well as gingerly building up mileage each week, can help mitigate runners’ injury risks for IT band syndrome. When in doubt, if you have concerns about how your body feels during a run or afterward, take the time to talk to a licensed medical sports professional so you can hopefully nip the problem in the bud, before it becomes season-ending (or season-diminishing).
AUTHOR’S BIO: JANE GRATES
A cyclist and a fitness enthusiast. Performing at the sweet spot between minimalism and purpose to develop visual solutions that inform and persuade. I prefer clear logic to decoration. She also writes reviews and recommendations on Runnerclick, ThatSweetGift, NicerShoes and GearWeAre.