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Running vertically along the outside of the thigh from the hip to just below the knee, the iliotibial (IT) band is a tract of fibrous connective tissue that connects several bones of the leg, stabilizes the knee joint, and acts as a site of muscle attachment. It serves as a point of insertion for the tensor fasciae latae (TFL) and glute medius and minimus muscles of the lateral hip, and then continues longitudinally until it inserts along the outside of the upper part of the tibia bone, the lateral condyle. Because painful inflammation of this tissue is so common, especially in runners and cyclists, an IT band stretch is an essential component of many fitness routines. Any exercise designed to increase flexibility in the lateral hip muscles attached to the IT band and/or reduce inflammation in the band itself may be considered an IT band stretch.
IT band inflammation, known as iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS), is typically most pronounced just above the knee joint, where the IT band crosses a protrusion of the femur bone called the lateral epicondyle. ITBS is typically a symptom of muscle imbalance, a combination of under and overused muscle groups that may throw off gait and alignment of the leg to the point of injury. Weak muscles that contribute to ITBS include the TFL and glutes, both of which are used to abduct the hip, or lift the leg to the outside. Since activities such as running and cycling require little to no lateral movement, these muscles may become underused and therefore weakened, leading to a slightly knock-kneed leg position that can aggravate the IT band with repetitive movement. Strengthening these muscles coupled with an IT band stretch can help to relieve ITBS.
To most effectively stretch the IT band region, experts recommend a combination of foam rolling, known as self-myofascial release (SMR), and static stretching. When performing SMR on the IT band, the exerciser should lie on her side with her outer thigh positioned perpendicularly over a foam roll, a dense cylinder of molded foam found in health clubs, physical therapy centers, and at fitness retailers. Supporting her weight on her arm and her free leg, she should slowly roll her outer thigh over the roll, placing as much weight on the IT band as is tolerable. The idea is to seek out tender or painful spots and then put weight on those spots and hold until the pain begins to release, usually after 30 seconds or longer. This should be done after a light cardio warm-up but before static stretching, at the start of each workout.
A recommended IT band stretch for endurance athletes and casual exercisers alike is the following lateral hip stretch. The exerciser should stand next to a door frame or vertical pole so that she can reach her hand out to the side for stability and to intensify the stretch. With her left side toward the doorframe and her left arm straight out and hanging onto the frame, she should cross her left foot in front of her right foot so that legs form an X. Keeping the soles of both feet planted firmly on the floor, she should push her hips over to the right and curl her spine to the left, bringing her right arm above her head and holding the stretch statically for 30 seconds. The stretch should then be repeated on the other side and performed twice before each workout.
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