What a pain in the IT band (how I erased it with PT exercises)

Tal Kopan stretches her IT band after a January run outside.

[Editor's note: Today's post comes to you from guest blogger Tal Kopan. If you'd like to write an injury-related post, message me on Twitter. Thanks!]

Hi. My name is Tal. I’m an athlete, and I have trouble accepting my weaknesses.

I recently learned one of my weaknesses is my IT band.

By way of introduction, I’m a medium distance runner and am working toward a first triathlon, but I consider that my off season. First and foremost, I am an ultimate frisbee player.

I played ultimate all four years of college and have continued playing on competitive co-ed club teams during the summer, as well as casual leagues in the spring and fall. This past summer, after taking up swimming and upping my workout level to 5-6 days a week, I had the best athletic season of my life. I shaved a full minute off my mile time, got a lot faster on the field, and for the first time, felt like a possible starter instead of a last-resort bench warmer.

So imagine my frustration when, a couple months into the season, my IT bands started to act up.

I had a bout of IT band tendonitis the first year I played ultimate, but with rest it went away. I figured I’d play through the pain and hope that it would go away, since being a chronic use injury, I couldn’t really make it worse. Short story: it didn’t get better.

Since I had the least pain when I was moving, I told myself I’d suffer through sore knees at work until I got through regionals, the apex of my season. I iced, stretched, IBUed, rolled out the muscles, added some low impact days, and after the end of the season, I planned to rest a lot and let my knees heal. Short story: they didn’t.

Despite dropping my workload to one swim and one game a week, icing, IBUing, stretching and whining, my knees were in the same amount of pain as they were July-October. I thought it was likely time to go the doctor, although the prospect of expensive tests to confirm what I had already guessed was not appealing.

At the beginning of November, I had the final tournament of fall league, my more casual season. Accelerated Rehab (I’ve done PT there before, good company) had a couple athletic trainers on hand in case of injuries and for anyone who needed them. I struck up a conversation about my IT band and told them what I’d been doing, stretching, resting, etc. I asked if they thought I just needed more rest.

“Do you know why your IT bands hurt?” the trainer asked. “Because what’s the point of resting if as soon as you are active again, you cause the same problem?

The thought had never occurred to me that there might be injuries that copious rest wouldn’t fix.

She had me do a squat and instantly had an idea of the problem — weak muscles on the outside and rear of my hips (gluteus medius? I forgot the name she gave me).

I had done some reading online about IT band pain and saw that weak muscles could be a source of the problem, but I thought that couldn’t apply to me. I was in great shape, did tons of strength and cross training, and this was just an issue of my body failling me somehow.

I listened to the trainer though, and we talked for 30 minutes about various things I could do to improve, including breathing from my core and leading squats with my hips vs. my knees, and she gave me a couple exercises to do everyday.

I gave the exercises a try the next day. Within a week, the pain that I had been suffering from for four months was GONE.

Read that again: gone! donezo, finished, erased — all with a few days of exercises.

I realized that my arrogance in my athletic ability had blinded me to the fact that, with all the muscles in the human body, it’s too easy to miss some groups in strength training. When you have disproportionate muscle strength ratios, you put yourself at risk for injury. I had known this before — as a female ultimate frisbee player, I know that overly strong quadriceps in proportion to weaker hamstrings is a serious risk factor for ACL tears, of which I have seen too many.

Many of the motions I had been strengthening for frisbee and running were working every muscle around my weak glutes, putting unnecessary stress on my poor IT band, which runs from the hip all the way through the knee. By giving these muscles a little TLC, the pressure was relieved and the tendon was happy again.

And as an athlete, the best part was dreaded rest wasn’t even part of the cure!

I learned an important lesson from the experience. First of all, I learned no matter how many times I’ve been injured as an athlete, trained professionals are still better than I am at fixing injuries. Second, I learned that it doesn’t mean you’re a bad athlete if you have a weak muscle — and targeting the problem only makes you stronger. Fix the weakness, fix the pain.

The exercises:

  1. Clams:
    Lie on your side with your knees forward and bent, feet stacked on top of each other. Lift your upper knee upward to open the clam, then lower it to close the clam. Do 50 on each side, each day (way harder than it seems). When it gets too easy, add a resistance band around your knees (haven’t gotten there yet).
  2. Bridge-ups:
    Lie on your back with your legs bent, feet under your knees about hip width apart. Raise your pelvis off the ground to make your body like a “bridge,” then lower to the ground. Concentrate on contracting your side-butt muscles for the exercise. Do 50 each day. When it gets too easy (takes less time) wrap an exercise bend around your knees and push against it for added resistance.
  3. Spread kicks:
    (Optional) If you’re a swimmer, you can prop yourself against the side of the pool and do spread kicks. Move feet from out behind you and together to straight out to both sides. I’ve done these for a minute or so, rest, then go again.

If you’d like more info on the exercises, my experience, or ultimate frisbee (best sport ever and always looking for new players!), hit me up on twitter @talkopan.

Tal doing what she loves most.

About Tal Kopan: Tal is a web producer for a local news website and an avid athlete.  Her priority is Ultimate Frisbee, which she has been playing competitively for 7 years (casually before that).  When she isn’t training for frisbee (which involves mostly sprint/agility work, strength training and endurance building), she is a medium-distance runner and aspiring triathlete.  Her goal is to complete an Olympic distance tri next summer before frisbee gets into full swing.  With legs that one sports doctor has certified “terrible” for running, she’s always looking for ways to push her legs to run longer and faster.

3 Comments

Filed under Injuries, IT band, Tips & Tricks, Your injuries

3 responses to “What a pain in the IT band (how I erased it with PT exercises)

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  2. Tal

    Thanks Kirsten!

  3. Thanks for sharing this fantastic post today, Tal. It’s definitely worth reminding people that just because we’re athletes who are strong at some things — it doesn’t mean we’re immune from imbalances and weaknesses that can lead to injury.

    Glad you’re feeling better!!!