Headaches When Running are pretty common, especially among beginner runners or those training hard in hot weather.
In fact, exercise-induced headaches plague roughly a third of athletes, including runners, according to research.
You might feel throbbing pain on one side of your head or across your entire head. There can be many culprits behind the pain.
Most cases of exertional headaches are harmless, but some serious headaches require medical attention.
In today’s article, I’ll look into some of the main causes of headaches during or after running and how to treat and prevent them.
Note. I’m not a certified health professional. The measures shared within this post are the results of my research and experience. Consult with your doctor before you make any changes to your workout schedule.
Running Induced Headaches Explained
First things first, let’s explain exercise-induced headaches.
A lot of people suffer from headaches while running or engaging in strenuous exercises such as tennis, lifting weights, rowing, swimming, etc.
Here’s the main reason. When you run, or perform high-intensity exercise, the muscles of your head, scalp, and neck need lots of blood flow. This forces blood vessels to swell, which can result in a condition referred to as exertional headaches.
But other triggers may cause head pain during exercise. These include:
- Excessive sunlight exposure
- Low blood sugar
- Electrolytes imbalances
- Postural deficiencies
- Hot, humid weather
- History of migraines
Primary Vs. Secondary Headache Symptoms
There are two primary exercise-induced categories according to science: primary and secondary.
The most common is Primary exercise headaches. These are often benign and are not linked to any underlying condition. These are often treated with standard headache therapy that includes rest and/or medication (as well as some of the measures shared in today’s post).
Common symptoms include:
- Throbbing pain in one or both sides of the head. Key tip, you can point where the pain site.
- The onset is either during or right after a hard run
- Symptoms sticking for more than 24 hours or lasting up to many days.
Secondary exercise headaches are what poses a danger—often caused by a potentially serious condition or dysfunction with the brain (a tumor, for example), or outside the brain (cardiovascular disease).
Although they mimic primary exercises, headache indications, the symptoms are typically more severe. It might be, in fact, the worst headache of your life. These include:
- Vomiting profusely or projectile vomiting
- Neck rigidity
- Double or sudden blurred vision
- They often last up to several consecutive days, even worsen
- Loss of consciousness
If you’re suffering from any of the above symptoms during or after a run, call your doctor immediately, especially if this is your first time.
How to Prevent Running Induced Headaches
Here are a few measures to help you soothe and prevent headaches during and after running.
Warm-up to Prevent Headaches
As previously stated, a common culprit behind running-induced headaches sis poor circulation. When you exercise, your blood vessels dilate, and this creates pressures that may result in migraines in some runners.
Warming up properly seems to help with this. It sets the tone for the rest of your session, increasing body temperature, and helping your blood vessels to dilate properly.
Here’s how to warm up. Start your session with a 5 to 10 minutes jog. Next, perform a series of running-specific dynamic moves to help fire off your body on all cylinders. Think inchworms, lunges, butt kicks, high knees, pogo hops, and arm windmills.
Ward Off The Sunlight
Bright sunlight can cause headaches for some people, even when they’re not exercising. In fact, as much as 60 percent of headaches are triggered by bright light or glare, according to research. This is especially true in the summer season.
Here’s how to protect yourself for the sun’s harmful rays.
First, protect your eyes from the sun’s radiation by wearing polarized sunglasses. These provide extra protection against reflection from concrete, sidewalks, cars, mirrors, water, and sand. Prosthetic contact lenses also work great. Choose one with medium or high water content.
You should also put on a visor or a hat with a wide brim when exercising under the sun. Try to run in the shade often as possible.
Drink Your Water
Dehydration happens when you start running low on water. The more miles, the more likely you’ll end burning off your fluid stores. Main warning signs include excessive thirst, fatigue, limited urine production, and, most notably, a throbbing headache.
That’s why migraines during a run can be a symptom of dehydration.
Lack of fluids may reduce arteries’ pressure, which can limit the amount of blood that reaches the lining around your brain, causing head pain in the process.
Here’s the golden rule of proper hydration—stay well hydrated before, during, and after your workouts.
Water needs vary from one runner to the next, largely depending on running intensity, temperature, clothes worn, and conditioning level. As a rule, drink enough water until your urine color is clear or almost transparent. If it’s dark yellow, drink more water.
Electrolytes consist of nutrients—or chemicals—that are in charge of many functions such as regulating heart rate, aiding in muscle contractions, etc.
Electrolyte imbalances, which can rack up quickly during hard training, can mess up with your running performance, and cause awful migraines, especially post-run. These deficiencies are often blamed on a diet that’s high in processed foods but low on nutrients.
For example, processed foods tend to be high in sodium but lack other key electrolytes such as magnesium and potassium. This sets the stage for an imbalance.
How does one balance electrolyte intake?
Eat plenty of whole foods, focusing on vegetables and fruits rich in magnesium and potassium. Best choices include broccoli, sweet potatoes, cabbage, avocados, bananas, squash, and leafy greens.
If you have a history of bad migraines following long runs, try having an electrolyte supplement before, during, or after your training.
Manage Low Blood Sugar
I’m a big fan of intermittent fasting, and I love exercising on an empty stomach. But for some runners, fasted-state training may force their blood sugar to plummet.
When this happens, you may start experiencing hypoglycemia symptoms. These include sweating, irritability, tingly around the mouth, and not surprisingly, a throbbing headache.
To keep your blood sugar in check, opt for a well-balanced diet, adding in plenty of healthy sources of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. I’d also recommend eating a snack one to two hours before a run that’s rich on carbs and protein. My favorite choices include half a bagel with peanut butter, a fruit and nut bard, etc.
Practice Good Form
Bad running technique causes tension in the shoulders and neck, which, in turn, can quickly turn into head pain when running.
For example, an excessive forward head position may take a toll on the posterior neck muscles, damaging nerves and diffusing the pain to the neck and head.
Here’s how to fix this problem. Ensure proper alignment throughout your body, paying attention to your neck and head position throughout your runs.
Keep your head held straightforward, and neck in line with the spine—avoid bending it downward or extending it backward. Imagine there’s a balloon attached to the top of your head, pulling your body gently upwards and forward.
Still feel not optimized enough? Resistance training can also help. Aim to build strength and mobility in your postural muscles—that includes the upper back, neck, and shoulder muscles. This helps soothe tension that could be the cause (or a contributor) to your head pain while running.
Here are the three exercises I’d recommend.
Take Anti-inflammatory Pills
Although I won’t recommend this to anyone, popping over-the-counter pills before a run is another measure to consider when trying to prevent and manage migraines, especially during stressful times.
To err on the side of caution, get the green light from your doctor before you proceed. And most importantly, seek the help of a professional if symptoms don’t improve in spite of taking drugs.
Your doctor may recommend a prescription headache medication that helps soothe your symptoms.
Tightness in the muscles of the shoulder and neck can also cause migraines during exercise. We address this as Tension Type Headache. This is likely the cause of your trouble if you never bother stretching your upper body, especially if you feel tight in your upper body following a run. Oh, it can also come from your daily stress.
Here’s how to fix it. Spend at least 10 minutes after your runs stretching out the upper back, shoulder, and neck
Check out the following YouTube Tutorials for the best upper body stretchers.
Behind The Back Stretch
Cervical Extensor Stretch
Neck Rotations Stretch
If you often suffer from headaches during or after a run, the above strategies should be enough to bring relief to what’s ailing you.
If it’s not the case, consult your doctor as soon as possible to rule out any existing (often serious) health conditions.
Please feel free to leave your comments and question in the section below.
Thank you for reading my post and stay healthy!
Keep Running Strong