Have you been experiencing a headache after running?
Running asks a great deal of your body. There are times when every muscle aches and you wonder why you’ve subjected yourself to these workouts…but we know that it’s the endorphins, the pride, and the sweat.
Unfortunately, a running headache can quickly make you forget all the good stuff.
It’s not too 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 into migraines you should talk with your doctor.
This guide is dedicated to helping 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.
There are many reasons that can cause a headache after running, ranging from physical exertion to dehydration to something more serious.
8 Main Types and Reasons for Headache After Running
Understanding the reasons and causes can make all the difference in the world. Read on to fully understand the factors that can contribute to a post-run headache and what you can do about it.
1. Physical Exertion
Physical exertion is one of the primary causes of headaches after running and is known as exertional headaches, and occur after doing strenuous physical activities (running definitely counts as one!).
Anytime you are pushing your body beyond its 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. Most people describe this type of headache as a throbbing pain on both sides of the head.
You may have heard this called primary exertional headaches or primary exercise headaches.
But one thing to note is that it’s incredibly important to differentiate between primary exercise headaches and secondary exertional headaches, since the latter may call for a visit to the doctor.
Symptoms of primary exertional headaches include:
- Pain sensation that can be described as throbbing
- Headache starts after a high intensity workout session (such as running)
- Pain can be felt on both sides of the head
On the other hand, symptoms of secondary exertional headaches include:
- Double vision
- Neck stiffness
Secondary exertional headaches may be a symptom of an underlying condition (ranging from a simple cold or sinus infection to a tumor). So, if your symptoms match those of this kind of headache, it’s highly recommended to inform your doctor and get a check-up done.
How to Prevent It
Some people can avoid getting headaches from running if they warm up slowly first. In other instances, reducing your running speed and duration can be beneficial.
But if these don’t work or you can’t lessen the pain, take indomethacin or naproxen by getting a prescription. It’s important to consult with a doctor about this first. Some people may have stomach irritation from either of these. If you can’t take them, your doctor might recommend that you try beta-blockers instead.
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?!
This happens because when you’re dehydrated, your body is losing more fluid than you’re consuming, which then decreases your blood volume. And so, the amount of blood that’s flowing through your brain decreases, and in turn, this also reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to your brain.
But that’s not all, as it shrinks it pulls on all the nerves around the brain and further adds to all the factors that lead to that running headache. You’ll notice this type of headache definitely gets worse if you continue to exercise.
Some of the top symptoms of this type of headache include decreased urine output, heightened sense of thirst, fatigue, dry skin, and mouth, as well as constipation.
Furthermore, this can all lead to an electrolyte imbalance in your balance, which is another contributing factor to headaches for runners and is most commonly caused by low sodium levels in the body.
Dehydration headaches take a bit to resolve, so make a plan to stay on top of your water needs. Increasing your fluid intake and reading up on hydration for runners can make a world of difference.
How to Prevent It
As a general rule, if you’re planning on running or cross-training for more than 45 minutes to an hour, it’s important to not only consume electrolytes an hour beforehand but every 15 to 20 minutes during the run as well.
Always remember that proper hydration is one of the keys to being able to run safely and efficiently. A sports drink or a electrolyte powder can do wonders in preventing headaches after running.
3. 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 tablets 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.
How to Prevent It
If you’ve quickly moved to a high altitude location, then you can’t exactly prevent these. But what you can do is acclimate yourself slowly. Or if you’re traveling from sea level to say Denver, stay on top of your hydration and slow down on your runs to start.
4. Sun Exposure (Overheating)
Bright sunlight on its own can be a trigger for many people, which is yet another GREAT reason for running sunglasses or a wide-brimmed running hat. You can also consider wrapping a damp towel or bandana around your neck.
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.
How to Prevent It
Before you go running outside, grab a pair of running sunglasses or a hat with a wide brim to protect your eyes and face.
If it’s extremely hot outside, consider tying a moist bandana around your neck. A small spray bottle of cold water can also come in handy. Spray it on your face from time to time.
Checkout these additional tips for running in the heat.
5. 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.
Other symptoms of this type of headache caused by hypoglycemia include shaking, dizziness, sweating, blurry vision, disorientation, and even personality changes.
Insulin regulates blood sugar levels in your body, and low insulin levels can cause changes in catecholamines, which are hormones like dopamine, epinephrine (adrenaline), and norepinephrine.
These hormones are produced by the adrenal glands and have the ability to influence how the brain functions. In other words, less blood sugar means less fuel for the brain and can lead to post-run headaches.
How to Prevent It
Eat a healthy, balanced meal or snack within two hours of working out. Aim for foods that contain protein, enough carbohydrates, and a little fat to help maintain a healthy blood sugar level. Right around workouts you can ignore the advice to avoid processed, refined carbs and sugar because those are the quick fuels we need during a hard workout.
6. Poor Posture
Tension headaches can happen due to stress as we tend to tense up our shoulders, which leads to neck tension 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 into poor form as we fatigue, which can cause both tensions in your neck and shoulders, pulling on muscles that lead to head pain.
Foam rolling or regular massage can help ease the tension we hold in these parts of the body, but you should also make sure you are fully aware of the different factors that go into a good running form.
Additionally I know that my posture gets worse the longer I’m on my phone or computer. So these posture correction exercises can help with headaches!
How to Prevent It
Schedule some time to do some running in front of a mirror. You can also set your phone up so that it records you. Check whether there are any flaws in your form by watching a replay. Have you rounded your shoulders forward? Or getting close to your ears?
Another great way to prevent it is to sign up for my 30-Day Running Techniques program that’ll walk you through different drills you can do to improve your running form by spending only 10 minutes a week on them!
7. Tendency for Migraines
There’s another factor that many runners and people in general overlook, and that’s the tendency for migraines. If you’re naturally prone to migraines, you’re more likely to be affected by all the factors above.
Triggers for migraines differ from person to person, and maybe it runs in your family or you’ve just unfortunately suffered from them on and off for some time now.
If that sounds like you, then prevention is always better than cure. In the next section, we’ll discuss ways you can prevent a post-run headache.
How to Prevent It
If you have a tendency for migraines, you should speak to your doctor. He or she will check for any other underlying conditions that could be contributing to it and then be able to prescribe you with prescription medication that will reduce the migraines.
I’ve actually talked a lot about how to run through allergy season, so I’m not fully diving in to that here. Just remember it’s not about only the run, it’s the particles you bring in with you afterwards in hair, shoes, etc.
How to Prevent a Post-Run Headache
There are many ways that you can prevent a post-run headache. Let’s take a look at what these are:
- Avoid temperature extremes: Avoid running in weather that’s too cold or too hot.
- Accilimate to higher altitudes: If you’ve recently moved to a higher altitude, or plan on running in one, slowly acclimate yourself to it.
- Prioritize hydration: Hydration should be your top priority as a runner, which includes not just drinking water but also paying attention to your electrolyte levels.
- Warm up and cool down: Warm up and cool down properly after a run, and build up your mileage slowly making sure not to increase it more than 10 percent from one week to another.
- Wear sunglasses/hat: Wear sunglasses and/or a running hat when it’s bright outside. Moisture-wicking running gear is also incredibly important.
- Have a proper diet: Eat a well-balanced diet, and pay special attention to pre-workout snacks and meals.
- Rest: Don’t neglect your rest days! And get enough sleep every single night.
How to Treat a Headache After Running
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 over-the-counter medication such as naproxen to speed up relief and then apply these techniques to prevent future running headaches
- If OTC medications don’t work, your doctor may prescribe indomethacin. It’s a prescription medication that works well for many people but can cause stomach issues in some.
- Pay attention to effort levels, not pushing too far beyond your current fitness level. Always remember the 10-percent rule (10PR) which means that you should never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent from one week to another
- 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. Proper alignment can be the difference between a smooth run and one which causes a throbbing headache.
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.
Signs You Need to Visit a Doctor for Headaches After Running
If you’ve been experiencing headaches after running that are increasing in frequency, and have noticed symptoms of secondary exertional headaches, it’s time to head to the doctor for a check-up.
It could be something as benign as a simple cold, or something much more serious that requires medical attention.
And there you have it folks; these are the 8 main causes and reasons for headaches after running. Come back to this guide from time to time to make sure headaches are never part of your running journey!
Looking for more training tips?
- Prevent marathon training burnout
- How to train through summer running
- Best hydration packs for running
- Best Carbs for Runners
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