In this article, we’ll explain what muscles you should foam roll when your iliotibial band (IT band) feels tight and why foam rolling the IT band itself isn’t that useful. We’ll also point out what areas of the IT band you should best avoid when foam rolling. Remember, if you need more help with an injury, you're welcome to consult one of our physios online via video call.
In this article:
Why foam rolling the IT band itself isn’t that useful
The IT band is a thick fibrous band of tissue that runs down the outside of your leg and attaches to the side of the knee. It is mostly made up of collagen fibres. Unlike muscle fibres, collagen fibres don’t really stretch or contract.
The IT band has no active control over how tight it feels. It’s actually the muscles that attach onto the IT band (the glutes, tensor fascia latae, lateral quads) that can cause it to feel tight when they are in tone and pull it tight.
This is why focusing your foam rolling efforts on the IT band itself won’t really make it feel less tight. Instead, you should aim to relax the muscles that attach onto it.
What muscles should you foam roll if your IT band feels tight?
The muscles to target when you want to reduce the strain on the IT band are the ones that attach onto it. These include glute max, glute med, tensor fascia latae (TFL), and the lateral quad. I prefer to use a massage ball rather than a foam roller when I do my glutes, but this is just personal choice.
I demonstrate how to roll these areas in this video:
How long should you foam roll for?
There is no definitive answer to this yet, but the methods used in the research are as follows:
Longitudinal strokes along the muscle belly - spend about 2 minutes per leg
Point pressure. This is when you sustain pressure on a painful point for between 30 and 60 seconds.
The pressure you apply should be 'comfortably uncomfortable' rather than painful. The whole idea is to get the muscles to relax. If a massage is too painful, it actually has the opposite effect.
Why foam rolling over the IT band is so painful
The IT band itself has lots of little nerve endings in it and not a lot of padding, as that area of your leg naturally has less muscle and fat. The reason it’s so painful to foam roll over your IT band is because you’re basically pinching the poor nerve endings between your thigh bone and the foam roller.
More pain does NOT equal more gain. And if you’re too aggressive with the amount of pressure you place through the foam roller in the area close to the knee, you can actually cause a compression injury or, if you have IT band syndrome, you can make it worse.
How to use a foam roller for IT band syndrome
Foam rolling can help to reduce pain and tightness when you have IT band syndrome, but this relief is transient. To get rid of it permanently and prevent it from coming back, you have to address the underlying cause of your specific case. We’ve written an article dedicated to the different treatments for IT band syndrome.
The areas to focus your foam rolling efforts on when you have IT band syndrome are exactly what we discussed higher up in this article: The glutes, TFL, and lateral quads. Our ultimate guide to foam rolling has more general advice on how to use a foam roller.
DON’T foam roll the painful area on the side of your knee. IT band syndrome is caused by excessive compression between the IT band and the thigh bone in that area and you will just make it worse by squashing it on a foam roller.
How we can help
Need more help with your injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at SIP online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.
We're all UK Chartered Physiotherapists with Master’s Degrees related to Sports & Exercise Medicine. But at Sports Injury Physio we don't just value qualifications; all of us also have a wealth of experience working with athletes across a broad variety of sports, ranging from recreationally active people to professional athletes. You can meet the team here.