The iliotibial band—also known as the IT band—is not only one of the most common culprits of knee pain for cyclists, but it also one of the most commonly misunderstood parts of our athletic bodies. If you’re experiencing pain, your first instinct might be to seek out some IT band stretches to alleviate the discomfort, but it’s not that simple. Understanding why the IT band can become a source of pain first requires an understanding of the anatomy.
What is the Iliotibial Band?
The iliotibial (IT) band is a thick, fibrous band of fascia, a type of connective tissue, that extends from the tensor fascia latae or TFL (no, not a Starbucks drink) and gluteus maximus at the hip down to the knee along the outer portion of the thigh. Along the way, it connects the pelvis (iliac crest) to just below the knee (tibia) as its name suggests.
Contrary to popular belief, this band is a connective tissue—not a muscle—so it can’t really be stretched. Bridget Dungan, D.P.T. and triathlete, says that according to current research, you would need a lot of force to stretch the IT band, more than someone could generate on their own.
If you swear you experience IT band “tightness,” you may be feeling a sensation that’s caused by tightness in the muscles surrounding the hip and IT band. The most common IT band stretch (crossing one leg behind the other and driving the hip out to the side) is more of a tensor fascia latae stretch, which could be helpful if the TFL is tight. Tightness may also result from stiffness of the connective tissue, which can be alleviated by self myofascial release in the form of massage or foam rolling.
If your experience is more painful than the average tight sensation, your IT band may be aggravated, as it crosses over bony prominences, which can cause irritation, pain, or even IT band syndrome.