How to Prevent Headaches When Running

If you’ve just started running (or been a runner for a quite a while) and noticed that you get a terrible headache either during or after your runs, then this post is for you.

Getting a headache from running can be a real buzz kill. But here’s the truth.  Exercise-induced headaches are common, especially when training in hot weather.

Keep on reading to learn how to prevent and treat exercise-induced migraines.

Running Induced Headaches Demystified

If you’re suffering from migraines when you want to be focusing on logging in the miles, there are a few things you need to know—and can do right away—to relieve yourself from the suffering.

The following measures are you need to make the most out of your runs without being sidelined by head pain.

Note. I’d like to set the record straight that I’m not a certified health professional. The tips and guidelines shared within this post are the results of my research and experience. It’s not medical advice. Consult with your doctor before you apply any of the advice shared here. While most exercise-induced migraines can be easily treated and prevented, it’s vital for you to be examined by a certified health care professional to rule out any serious underlying issues.

The Process

First things first, let’s define exercise-induced headaches.

Most people experience headaches while running or engaging in strenuous exercises such as tennis, rowing, weightlifting, swimming, etc.

According to my research, health professionals divide exercise headaches into two distinct categories: primary and secondary.

Primary exercise headaches, the most common type, are usually harmless. In general, these are not linked to any underlying issues and can often be easily treated with rest and/or medication.

Common symptoms of the first category include:

  • Burning pain in one or both sides of the head
  • They begin during and right after a hard workout
  • Symptoms persevering for more than 24 hours or lasting up to several consecutive days.

Secondary exercise headaches is what you should be wary of. Often caused by a potentially fatal underlying issue or dysfunction with the brain, such as a tumor or bleeding, or outside the brain, such as heart disease.

Although the symptoms of the secondary exercise headache are almost identical to those of primary exercise headache, they’re often more severe.

Main symptoms include:

  • Similar symptoms as a primary category but more intense can last up to several consecutive days.
  • Vomiting
  • Neck rigidity
  • Double vision
  • Loss of consciousness

If you’re suffering from any of the above symptoms, call your doctor immediately, especially if you begin to experience them without any history. Think of the second category as the worst headache of your life.

How to Prevent Running Induced Headaches

What follows are some of my best advice on how to prevent experiencing headaches while running and exercising.


Protect Yourself From the Sun

Preventing headaches when running can be as simple as protecting yourself from the harmful rays. In fact, research show that up to 60 percent of headaches are triggered by bright light or glare.

Therefore, this could very well be the cause of your headaches if you usually get headaches when running during the summer when the sun is blazing over you.

To protect your eyes from the sunlight, you may consider wearing polarized sunglasses. These can offer additional protection against glare-causing reflections from concrete, sidewalks, sand, water, and everything else in between. Prosthetic contact lenses are another option.

I’d also encourage you to wear a hat or a visor with a wide brim when running during daylight. Also, to run in the shade as often as possible.

Warm up

According to my research, insufficient blood flow can contribute to exercise-induced headaches is due to blood flow.

Running—and other forms of exercise—dilates blood vessels and this generates enough pressure that may cause migraines in some individuals.

Luckily, a simple warm-up routine may help you sidestep this issue.

The right warm-up sets the tone for the rest of the workout. It raises body temperature and allows the heart and blood vessels to dilate properly.

That’s why one of the best things you can do to reduce the onset of running migraines is to ease into your workouts.

Start yours runs by jogging slowly for 5 to 10 minutes, then, if time allows it (especially if you’re doing any interval running), perform a set of running-specific and dynamic exercises to help fire off your body on all cylinders.

Here are two of my favorite warm-up routines.

Post 1

Post 2

Drink Your Water

Our bodies begin to enter a dehydrated state when we start running low on water. Primary warning signs of the condition (which can be at times life-threatening) include tiredness, drop in urine production, excessive thirst, and most importantly, a throbbing headache.

How’s that even possible?

The lack of fluids in your body may reduce the pressure inside your arteries, which can hinder how much blood reaches the lining around your brain, triggering a headache as a result.

Stay well hydrated before, during, and after your runs. Anytime you exercise, aim to drink enough water to stay well hydrated.

In general, drink at least four to six ounces of water every 15 to 20 minutes during your run.

How much water you should drink to stay well hydrated depends on many factors, such as training intensity, temperature, clothes worn, and fitness level, but all in all, your urine should be clear or almost transparent when you’re correctly hydrated.

Running for more than 90 minutes? Alternate between plain water and a sports drink, so you’re replenishing the electrolytes lost through sweat.

Here’s your complete guide to hydration while running.

Electrolyte Imbalances

Electrolytes are a set of nutrients—or chemicals—present in your body that plays specific roles, such as regulating the heart rate, allowing for muscle contractions, etc.

An imbalance of electrolytes, which can quickly occur when training in hot weather, can throw you off your running game and result in awful migraines, especially post-exercise.

In most cases, electrolytes imbalances can be blamed on a deficient diet that’s high in processed foods. Often, heavily processed foods score high on sodium but are very low in other vital electrolytes such as potassium and magnesium—thus setting the stage for an imbalance.

The good news is, upping your electrolyte intake before, during, or after a workout may alleviate and relieve these headaches.

How do you get your electrolytes then?

Eat plenty of whole and unpackaged foods. Have plenty of vegetables and fruits rich in magnesium and potassium. Best options include broccoli, sweet potatoes, bananas, squash, cabbage, avocados, and leafy greens.

You can also add an electrolyte supplement before, during or after your workout to alleviate these migraines.

Manage Hypoglycemia

In general, exercising on an empty stomach forces blood sugar levels to drop.

When your blood sugar drops too low, you’ll start to experience the symptoms of hypoglycemia. These include irritability, sweating, tingling around the mouth, fatigue, and more importantly, a throbbing headache.

To regulate your blood sugar levels, eat a well-balanced diet, including plenty of sources of carbohydrates, protein, and fat. Have a balanced meal or snack with a little carbohydrate, protein and fat three to four hours before a run.

My favorite options include half a bagel with peanut butter, a fruit and nut bard, etc.

Practice Good Form

Lousy form while running can result in muscle tension in the shoulders and neck, which, in turn, may trigger migraines.

For instance, an excessive forward head position may irritate the posterior neck muscles, which, in turn, can damage nerves that then diffuses the pain to the neck and head.

Here’s how to fix this problem. Start by ensuring proper alignment throughout your body. Pay attention to your head position and neck alignment throughout your workouts.

Opt for a neutral position.

Keep your head held straightforward. Your neck should be in line with the spine—avoid bending it downward or extending it backward. This neutral position is what will protect your upper spine and neck from damage and injury and irritation.

Opt for the right forward head position. Make sure to elongate your neck—think a turtle is drawing into its shell while tucking your chin back at the same time.

You can also work on building strength and mobility of specific postural muscles—like the upper back, shoulders, and neck. This can help relieve tension below your neck that could contribute to the onset of head pain while running.

Take Anti-inflammatory Pills

Although it’s not always the best course of action, medicating before a run can help in preventing and managing headaches—especially during stressful times of your life when migraines are most common.

To err on the side of caution, get the green light from your doctor before you take drugs.

In case the over-the-counter meds don’t improve your symptoms, talk to a certified healthcare professional. They might recommend a prescription headache medication that you can take before running to prevent migraines.

According to my research, trying prescription NSAIDS from a certified physician, such as ergotamine tartrate and indomethacin works very well.

Remember that non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs block certain chemicals in the body that can cause pain and inflammation. That, in turn, provides quick pain relief. But it’s by no means a permanent solution.

Stretch It

Your exercise migraines could very well stem from tightness in the muscles of the shoulders and neck. What makes this worse is that, often than not, most runners do not usually focus on stretching these areas during post-run stretches.

It’s quite simple. Invest enough time after your workout to stretch out the upper back, shoulders, and neck.

Try this yoga routine for extra relief.

Here’s one powerful YouTube tutorial that shows you exactly the kind of stretches you need to help relieve and prevent migraines.

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Although most running migraines are benign, at times the condition may indicate a sign of a serious underlying medical problem.

That’s why in case the above didn’t help, or you’re experiencing secondary exercise headache symptoms; you need to your doctor about it as soon as possible.

Please feel free to leave your comments and question in the section below.

In the meantime, thank you for reading my post.

Keep Running Strong

David D.