Running asks a great deal of your body. There are times where every muscle aches and you wonder why you’ve subjected yourself to these workouts…but we know that, it’s the endorphins, the pride, the sweat. Unfortunately, a running headache can quickly make you forget all the good stuff.
It’s NOT common to have an exercise induced headache, but it absolutely can happen.
They are rarely dangerous, though if it’s happening to you constantly and turning in to migraines you should talk with your Dr.
This post is dedicated to help you understand the causes of a headache after running and the tips to avoid it in the future.
What Causes A Headache After Running
There are a ton of nerves and blood vessels surrounding your brain, which need to remain in balance to prevent headaches.
While it could feel like your brain is simply telling you not to run, it’s really your body just asking for a little extra planning around your sweat session.
Anytime you are pushing your body beyond it’s current limits the body is going to respond with different aches and one you might find as a new runner is a headache.
The longer or harder you are running, the higher your heart rate and the higher your oxygen consumption rate. Often the body can’t meet the two needs and the result is the blood vessels around your brain become wider or more open (dilated) to help increase circulation.
That dilation stretches the surrounding nerves and triggers one that will start to send out a pain signal.
You may have heard this called primary exertional headaches or primary exercise headaches.
Great visual from St Luke’s about what makes a migraine so much more than a headache.
Did you know your brain is 80% water?
As you sweat and don’t drink enough, your brain literally shrinks inside your skull! HOLY WHAT?!
Yup, as it shrinks that pulls on all the nerves around the brain and creates that running headache. You’ll notice this type of headache definitely gets worse if you continue to exercise.
Dehydration headaches take a bit to resolve, so make a plan to stay on top of your water needs.
Running at Altitude
High altitudes can make all of the issues listed above worse.
You’ll need to be drinking more water due to increased chances of dehydration and the lack of oxygen in the air.
“At 6000 feet above sea level, you exhale and perspire twice as much moisture as you do at sea level.” – From High Altitude Life.
- At higher altitudes you’ll pee more often
- You’ll breathe faster
- Your blood will thicken
All of that means you MUST hydrate!
I’ve found that it’s much easier to drink enough when it’s just a bit sweet. So enjoy your electrolyte powder or throw some fruit in your water. The electrolytes will often help with altitude as well.
Over half of people are dehydrated according to a number of studies on Study Finds.
So this is an easy place to start if you’re having running headaches.
Sun Exposure (overheating)
Bright sunlight on it’s own can be a trigger for many people, which is yet another GREAT reason for running sunglasses. Additionally, when it’s bright you being to squint and that is creating tension in your face and skull for the duration of your run.
But secondarily is overheating.
Running in the summer the body is working very hard to keep you cool, but will hit a point where it can’t achieve that and you’re likely getting dehydrated. The headache followed by feeling weak or dizzy is a sign that you need to stop running immediately and find some cool air.
Low Blood Sugar
We talk a TON in the nutrition course about the need for carbohydrates to fuel your run. If you’ve been resisting the pre-run meal or not fueling well as your runs get longer and longer, then suddenly getting a headache after running… we may have found the culprit.
Your brain runs on glucose and your muscles need carbohydrates to continue performing.
When your levels get low it’s called hypoglycemia and one of the first symptoms is a headache.
Tension headaches can happen due to stress as we tend to tense up our shoulders, which leads to neck tension and right on up to the scalp.
What does that immediately make you think of? How about all the times that your shoulders are pulled up to your ears while running or you finish with sore shoulders?
It’s very easy to fall in to poor posture as we fatigue, which can cause both tension in your neck and shoulders, pulling on muscles that lead to head pain.
How to Treat a Headache
Our goal is to prevent a headache when working out by taking the potential causes above and looking at the solutions.
- Stop running to allow the blood vessels to relax and the headache should start to subside
- Take an anti-inflammatory to speed up relief and then apply these techniques to prevent future running headaches
- Pay attention to effort levels, not pushing too far beyond your current fitness level
- Start runs properly hydrated and sip electrolytes from a sports drink throughout the run
- Maintain good blood sugar levels by learning how to fuel your runs
- While running think about standing tall (not hunching over) and relaxing your shoulders – check in a few times throughout the run
As always let me repeat you should seek medical advice if you’re consistently having headaches and you know you’ve been hydrating well and fueling well.
The things that could trigger a headache from running are vast, but these are some of the most common.
Looking for more training tips?
- Prevent marathon training burnout
- How to train through summer running
- Best hydration packs for running
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