In recent years it’s become common to see people at the gym rolling about on what look like enlarged swimming pool noodles. These are foam rollers and you’re probably familiar with the supposed benefits. Essentially it’s a form of poor man’s massage.
Often, you’ll see people focussing on the outer thigh, or the IT band. The thinking behind this seems pretty logical. Lateral knee pain (that’s pain on the outside of the knee) is very common and can be caused by the kneecap being pulled off track by over-tight muscles on the other thigh. Rolling the IT band, then, seems like a logical way of “releasing” or freeing up the structures that are tugging the knee out of line.
Well, we suggest you stop doing it.
First of all, the IT band isn’t a muscle, it’s a tendon which is acted upon the Tensor Fascia Latae (TFL), a muscle at the front of the hip. Tendons themselves do not contract, and have enormous tensile strength to cope with the forces we put through them. The ITB in particular is very thick and strong like steel. The point we’re making here is that mashing it into your leg is at best futile and at worst damaging.
“But it feels good” you say. Yeah, well so does cracking your knuckles. But fair enough, maybe you’ve felt better after rolling your outer thigh. But remember you’re not just rolling your ITB, you’re also rolling your outer quad muscles. So maybe you’re “releasing” those muscles (releasing is a pretty vague and unscientific way of talking about this stuff but let’s stick with it for now) and deriving some benefit from it. Now that you know that, you can steer clear of directly working the ITB by keeping your pressure toward the front of the thigh.
But why not go further? If the problem is really related to the ITB, but you can’t work on that directly, what do you do?
Work on the TFL, that muscle we mentioned earlier which the IT band originates from. It’s located at the crease of the hip, just below the prominent bony bit at the top of your pelvis. Think of where the front pocket of a pair of jeans sits, it’s just above that.
So roll to hearts content on the TFL, but leave that poor abused IT band alone.