A tight IT band and TFL can not only be painful but often also play into a variety of more serious conditions, including iliotibial band syndrome and cyclist’s knee. It’s a tricky area to fix with traditional IT band and TFL stretches but yoga has a number of poses that can help to relieve the tightness and pain.
WHAT IS THE IT BAND?
The IT or iliotibial band is fraught with controversy. Well, that might be over-egging the pudding a little. It’s probably more accurate to stay that the IT band is fairly controversial amongst a small coterie of health and fitness professionals. Should we stretch it? Can we stretch it? Is it a muscle? A tendon? Connective tissue? Fascia? In fact, what is fascia and why does everyone keep talking about it?
- The IT band is a thick band of connective tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh, from the hip to just below the knee.
- At the hip, it originates at the gluteus maximus (buttock) and tensor fasciae latae (a small muscle on the outside of the hip).
- At the knee, it attaches to the top of the tibia (shinbone).
- It acts like a spring when you walk, run, jump and ride your bike, storing and releasing elastic energy.
- It also helps to stabilise the hip and knee.
HOW DOES THE IT BAND GET TIGHT?
The two primary reasons are:
- Overuse without release. As a key player in the stabilisation of both the hip and the knee, the IT band is working constantly when you walk, run and ride your bike. Over time, this can lead to tightness, especially if your knee or hip alignment is sub-optimal.
- Compensation, resulting from muscular imbalances. Tight muscles in the surrounding area can pull the IT band out of alignment, causing tension in the band itself. The primary culprits are the:
- Tensor fasciae latae (TFL)
- Glutes (often both weak and tight)
WHAT ARE THE CONSEQUENCES?
As everything in the body is connected, a tight IT band is associated with conditions ranging from:
- Iliotibial band syndrome—inflammation of the outer knee caused by irritation of the iliotibial band.
- Tendonitis in the knee and/or Achilles tendon.
- Patellofemoral syndrome, or cyclist’s knee.
- Pain behind the knee, in the calf, hip or thigh.
WHERE DO THINGS GET SQUIRLY?
As the IT band is not a muscle—it is denser and less elastic, more like a tendon—it is not as receptive to stretching. We can, however, stretch the muscles that it connects to, which will help to relieve some of the pressure and bring it back into a more healthy alignment.
A great style of yoga for this issue is yin yoga, in which we typically hold poses for 3 minutes or more. This allows you to get a more intense stretch than you would with shorter holds. It is also deeply relaxing, which can help to relieve overall muscle tension.
TAKE IT EASY
Despite it’s pace, yin yoga is not a mild practice and can pack quite a punch—so please be careful. You need to be particularly tuned into the difference between sensations of discomfort and those of pain. No pain no gain doesn’t fly in yoga. If you do have a more serious IT band issue, please get the all clear from your doctor or physical therapist before you perform this sequence.
1-HOUR YIN YOGA SEQUENCE OF IT BAND AND TFL STRETCHES
Find a quiet place, put your phone on airplane and commit to an hour of serious relaxation. You may find a block, strap and some cushions make your session more comfortable.
Begin sitting cross-legged seat with your hands resting in your lap and your eyes closed. If you find this position uncomfortable or have difficulty keeping your back straight, you can sit on the edge of a cushion, pillow or block to raise your hips up to the level of your knees.
Seal your lips and take a few deep breaths in and out through your nose. Allow your belly and chest to expand on the inhale, and contract on the exhale. Try to keep your mind on the movement of your chest and ribcage for the full 2 minutes.
2. WIND-RELIEVING (3 minutes on each side)
Come down onto your back for a gentle hip opener and glute stretch. Bring your right leg flat to the mat and hug your left knee into your chest. Slow down your breath and completely relax in the pose for 3 minutes.
Repeat on the other side. Then bring both your feet flat to the mat.
3. DEAD PIGEON (3 minutes on each side)
Next, we’ll come into one of the deeper glute, hamstring and TFL stretches. Cross your right ankle over your left knee, thread your right hand through the triangle between your legs and hold the back of your left thigh with both hands. Gently pull your left leg in towards you and hold the pose for 3 minutes.
Repeat on the other side.
4. HAPPY BABY (3 minutes)
Release the pose for a gentle groin and hamstring stretch. Keep your feet together, open your knees and stretch your hands through to take hold of the outsides of your feet. Bring your feet out over your knees and gently pull them down towards you. If you can’t reach your feet, you can hold onto your ankles or shins. Flex your feet and stay here for 2 minutes—rocking gently from side to side.
Release the pose and hug your knees into your chest.
5. RECLINING HAND-TO-BIG-TOE (4 minutes on each side)
This Reclining Spinal Twist variation is one of the best IT band and TFL stretches. Straighten your left leg up to the sky and press through your heel. Cross your left ankle over your right knee and flex your left foot. Drop the inside of your right ankle to the mat and gently lower your right knee down with the left foot still in place. Look to the right and stay here for 3 minutes—twisting from the base of your spine.
Come back to centre and switch sides. Then hug your knees into your chest.
7. YOGI SQUAT (2 minutes)
Step your left foot in between your hands again, slide your right knee back and release your back foot. Bring your left hand inside your front foot and walk your front foot out to the edge of your mat. You can stay up on your hands or drop down onto your forearms and interlace your fingers. Hold the pose for 3 minutes.
Release the pose, walk your left foot back in and switch sides. Then come back up to all fours.
10. PIGEON (5 minutes on each side)
5 VIDEOS TO STRETCH THE TFL AND IT BAND
- Flexibility 2: Calves + Hamstrings
- Mobility 3: Lunge Flow
- Relaxation 4: Back Pain
- Post-Ride Stretch 2
- All-Rounder 11: Classic Hips
Please share any exercises, tips or tricks you have found helpful for releasing tension in the pesky IT band and TFL.
Cover photo: Daniel Rönnbäck