If you've ever tried self-myofascial release (SMR) to reduce pain in a sore area of your body, chances are you've tried out a little tool called a foam roller, and that you've used them to "roll out" your oh-so-sore IT-bands. Yes? At least this is my experience, that many of us LOVE to "release" this commonly sore and banged up area. I used to think foam rolling did wonders for me too, until something hit me. If it was so good for my IT-bands, then why wasn't the issue ever solved? I mean, why would I still feel tension and soreness pretty much every time I rolled my IT-bands if this method of reducing soreness was efficient?
Fast forward a few years, and a greater understanding on my end of kinesiology. Turns out, the issue isn't the IT-bands (for most of us at least). On the sides of our hips we have a few muscles that are responsible for hip abduction (moving your leg away from the midline of your body). This movement should allow for dynamic stabilization of your knee during movement, in particular while walking or running (hands up runners who regularly foam rolls your IT-bands?). Say hi to your glute medius. This glute muscle is the prime mover in hip abduction, and it has an assistant called the TFL (tensor fascia latae), which is supposed to help out with stabilization of your knee in this motion. Your IT-band is attached to your TFL and since the body is an integrated unit, when one part becomes dysfunctional, a whole lot of other dysfunction and problems will arise as a consequence. For most of us people living a modern western lifestyle, pretty much completely free of our natural movement patterns, this means most of us have what I like to refer to as butt amnesia. Simply put, because of our lifestyle we've lost a lot of the fundamental, natural muscular functions in the body, and for most of us this include the glute medius.
With a glute medius that has checked out, it becomes pretty useless in terms of stabilizing your pelvis, and further down the kinetic chain your knee and ankle, so the TFL has to kick in and do more than it's supposed to. However, since it's a pretty small and humble muscle compared to your glute medius, a thick band of connective tissue tightens up to help out and stabilizes the knee statically, aka your IT-band. This is an issue, because now your body is statically using a structure in the quest for dynamic stabilization, and as a result way too much unnatural stress is put on the IT-band, and it becomes real grumpy and inflamed as a consequence. If it still doesn't make sense why foam rolling the IT-band isn't a good solution, here's a quick breakdown:
1.) Your IT-band tightness is caused by your glute medius not firing properly, or not firing at all.
2.) Your IT-band responds with inflammtion, and to foam roll on an already inflamed area makes about as much sense as taking sand paper and rubbing it on an irritated patch of skin in hopes that it will heal.
So instead of furthering irritating you IT-bands through foam rolling, you are better off addressing the root cause; glute medius weakness. I'll make sure I post some exercises and tips and tricks on how to wake these little suckers up. But, in terms of foam rolling, releasing the overworked and overactive TFL in your body is a good option. This can be done by simply placing the foam roller right underneath it and "resting into it" until you feel a decrease in pain. Try doing that prior to the glute exercise to optimize your chances of firing up your glute medius!