We’ve all had aches and pains after an intense workout (rest, ice, heat, and ibuprofen!). Our knees in particular take quite a beating during physical activity like running or biking, and are especially taxed on the hilly streets of SF. But what if your knee pain is constant? What happens when your knee pain is affecting your everyday life?
Let’s talk anatomy for a moment. Although the knee joint is in the center of your leg, it does not exist in a vacuum. It may sound painfully obvious, but it is important to realize that all of the muscles and tissues in your leg affect your knee. That is, the cause of your knee pain may not be your knee.
If you’ve ever rolled out with a foam roller, you’ve probably encountered your IT band. IT stands for iliotibial, which refers to the ilium, your hip bone, and the tibia, your shin bone. This long stretch of tissue runs on the outside of your leg from the hip to just below the knee. Because it covers so much surface area, the IT band attaches to several muscles in your leg, especially in the thigh. During a long run or bike ride, the IT band is in full gear as the surrounding muscles work. Think about how much your thighs are burning. The IT band has to support several muscles through all of that strain, and it has to keep the knee in place. Understandably, when we do intense work outs often, the IT band collects that strain and ges very tight. If we do too much exercising and not enough recovering, the tight IT band can pull on the attached muscles and the outside of the knee, causing serious pain. If you’re feeling pain on the outside of your knee, or feeling a pulling sensation, it’s likely your IT band is the culprit.
If the pain you’re feeling is more in the back of the knee, we’re probably dealing with a strained popliteus muscle. This tiny muscle behind the knee is known as the key to the knee (how cute is that?!), and when the hamstrings and calves are tight, it takes the brunt of the stress.
So how can we ease this pain, or prevent it in the first place? Time to grab your foam roller!
Calf: Sit tall with the roller in front of you. Bring one leg onto the roller, placing the belly of your calf muscle on top, and stack the other leg on top. Gently roll back and forth. If you find a particularly tender spot, hold the roller in place for 30 seconds and breathe. If this is too painful, uncross your legs and place one foot on the floor. Repeat with the other leg on top.
IT-Band: Lay the outside of your thigh (your IT band!) on the roller. Support yourself with your forearm as if in a side plank. You can either bend the top leg, placing that foot on the floor in front of you, or for more resistance, stack the leg on top. Slowly roll the roller down to just above the knee and back up to the hip. Don’t roll on your knee! Try rotating your leg out and in. Again, if you find a tight spot, hold the roller in place for 30 seconds and breathe.
Calf stretch: Stand facing a wall with your hands in front of you on it. Step your right leg back a bit, allowing the left knee to bend. Keep your right heel reaching towards the floor as you lean forward. Hold for 30 seconds, breathe, and repeat on the other side.
IT/Band Stretch: Laying on your back, extend your right leg straight into the air and rest your left leg down on the floor. Hold onto the back of your right thigh— but not the back of the knee! Maintain your neutral spine as you slowly draw your leg across your center line towards your left ear. Your to will probably not touch your ear (unless you are a prima ballerina), but it is a good landmark. Hold for 30 seconds and switch to the other side.
Give these exercises a try before you head out for a long run. If you notice one side feels tighter than the other, repeat the exercises on that side. See your doctor if you are experiencing pain that is growing consistently worse or that sends a tingling sensation down your leg. Let us know how you feel! We want to help you build your knees, and build yourself, OnPointe.
Author: Kaitlyn Rhoades