Anonymous woman reaching hands to blue sky to stretch

Prehab is the self-care tool your body needs to avoid pain and injury

Posted by for Wellbeing

We talk so much about recovering after a workout, injury or stressful period, but is it possible to avoid the damage they can cause altogether?

Hands up if you tend to deal with an issue once it’s actually happened, and not a second before. We’re with you: it’s easier to remember to stretch your back when it’s already sore, or only start meditating when you feel the stress. Yet, preventative self-care is always better than cure. That’s where the idea of prehab comes in.

Prehab simply means protecting yourself to avoid injury, explains physiotherapist Joy Ogude. “Up until very recently most people worked on the notion of rehab – you have an injury that you treat to get yourself back to where you were before. Prehab is the idea that you can prevent an injury – you can stop pain from getting worse or even from happening altogether,” she says.  

Don’t stress, prehab isn’t just another long practice you need to add to your already long list of things to do. In fact, you’re probably already doing some of it. “The fact that you managed to move around today and haven’t ended up with severe issues means that your body is stopping itself from getting hurt,” Ogude says. But many people aren’t doing the right kind of prehab for them, or simply not paying enough attention to it. And, being honest, how often do we push through, and ignore, pain that we should be acknowledging?

“A small amount of that is good for you. That’s how our bodies work. Being stressed is a sign for you to slow it down a bit before you get to the burnout stage. A little bit of pain is a sign for you to pause and figure out what’s going on,” she says. “What we want to prevent is the prolonged stress or pain where it then becomes a chronic issue because that’s harder to fix.”

A woman touching her shoulder in pain
Some pain is good, but the problems start when it becomes chronic

Mind and body prehab

For Ogude, prehab isn’t just about the physical side of injury. Though that might be what you expect from a physiotherapist, she believes that our minds and bodies are interconnected, and very rarely is an injury an isolated accident.

“Let’s say somebody comes to me with back pain, for example,” she says. “Often, they think that they haven’t injured themselves at all – they just woke up and suddenly it’s become a thing. But really, it could be because they’re stressed at work, which impacts how they sleep, how long they are in bed for and the positions they lie in. If they’re doing that on top of not-so-great pillows, that puts stress on their back and in their neck.

“Then they’re waking up feeling uncomfortable, not eating well, then getting stressed because they’re not performing well at work. That compounds on those original insecurities of work stress. It pretty much trickles into everything – your mental health, your nutrition, your sleep and your physical health. By the time their back pain has become a real issue, they’re in agony.” 

5 ways to include prehab in your routine

Identify your stress

We could continue to go through our workouts or desk job ignoring that little ache in our backs or ringing in our minds. But if you want it to get better, rather than worse, you have to acknowledge it. “We often end up just going through the motions because the only way your brain knows to survive is to put one foot in front of the other,” Ogude says. “Understanding yourself, what your stresses are and what it is that you’re struggling with at the moment is the first step to prehab.”

Common causes of this stress can often be the physical – too much or not enough exercise, both of which make it difficult for your body to thrive. Other times, it’s work or social stress. “Right now, the holidays are often a big stressor for people, whether that’s being around family or changing routine,” says Ogude.

Nail your sleep

You know that you need a good night’s sleep. But in order to injury-proof your body and mind, you need to know what works for you. “The amount of sleep that you need to function is completely different to how much I would need to function,” says Ogude.

It’s not just to eliminate tiredness, but because sleep is when the body heals itself. Cutting short your sleep means those small stresses and pains aren’t ever given a chance to repair, leading to a greater likelihood of injuries. In a 2015 study, participants who reported the worst sleeping patterns had a ​​much higher rate of sickness absence from work, even five years later. And given that sleep improves your motor control, you’re less likely to get injured in the gym the next day thanks to silly mistakes. 

Balance your exercise

“We all know exercise is the one thing that is great for us besides drinking water and eating right. But we need to learn what type of exercise our body needs at that moment,” says Ogude. “For example, the way I work has changed now. I used to be a super busy physio running around London all day. I would get a lot of exercise from walking, so my own training was based on stretches, flexibility and mobility – a lot of recovery stuff. Now I do most of my day virtually, I need more strengthening because I’m sedentary for a portion of the day.”

In the most basic way, your physical prehab work will focus on the things your body is getting the least of in the rest of its time. Getting a ton of steps in and keeping your heart rate high during the day means your body needs some chill sessions to help it avoid injury. If you’re barely moving all day, focus on those muscles that are being sat on and hunched.  

Joy in her home wearing oofos
Prehab is made easier with the right kit

Get the right foundations

Ultimately, your physical environment needs to work for you. Going back to that example of a client with a bad back, Ogude explains that “at no point in that cycle did they stop and think about themselves. To choose the right mattress, to sleep in the right position, to see a physio”.

Whether it’s the chair you’re sitting at or the kit you’re wearing day in, day out, it’s important: “I used to live in trainers when I was running around a lot, and now I wear recovery shoes like Oofos as I spend more time stepping around the house,” Ogude says.

Take your body seriously

“We know that preventing an injury is actually way better than trying to treat it. Many people think ‘my body isn’t that bad’ or ‘I’m not in enough pain to see someone’. But by the time it’s come to your consciousness, by the time you even realise the stress, your body’s already done everything it can to compensate, and there’s probably not a lot else to give,” says Ogude. “Pain doesn’t mean damage. Stress doesn’t mean burnout. But they do when they become chronic.”

Images: Pexels

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Chloe Gray

Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).