How to Avoid a Headache After Running

Headaches during or after running are common complaints. Still, many athletes struggle to understand exactly what is causing their discomfort and how to alleviate it. If you are experiencing headaches associated with exercise, it is imperative you address your concerns with a healthcare professional. In the meantime, read along to find out what may be contributing to your discomfort as well some helpful preventative pointers. 

Cause of Headaches After Running


Dehydration

According to the Journal of Head and Face Pain, water deprivation is a common source of two different types of headaches (Blau). Researchers have determined that the type of cerebral pain associated with dehydration is actually caused by the brain pulling away from the skull as the body's water stores begin to diminish. To avoid this unpleasant side effect, be sure to carefully regulate your water intake before, during, and after you run. As a rule of thumb, you should also make it a habit to drink between one and two cups of water as early as an hour before race time. After that, fortify your body's water stores by consuming another six to eight ounces of water every 15 minutes or so throughout the entirety of your run. Finally, consider alternating water with an electrolyte-enriched beverage. 

Low Blood Sugar

If the pain is radiating in the temporal region of your skull, the cause of your headache may be low blood sugar. Hypoglycaemia, a condition of having lower than usual blood sugar, is commonly known to cause migraines. The Migraine Trust, a nonprofit dedicated to serving those who suffer from debilitating headaches, reinforces the importance of individuals, especially athletes, maintaining their blood-glucose (Migraine Trust). For runners, a diet plan consisting of protein, carbohydrates, and fat-rich pre and post run meals can reduce the burden of blood sugar related headaches. 

Electrolyte Imbalance

Electrolytes have a profound impact on a number of bodily functions, but sweat-inducing activities such as running can cause us to rapidly deplete our stores. This can cause a number of unfavorable side effects, including fatigue, cramping, nausea, and headaches. A recent study by the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology documents the positive impact of several electrolyte-enhanced fluid replacement drinks (Powers). Nevertheless, runners exploring electrolyte replacement products should be mindful that many standard sports drinks contain unfavorable additives and an abundance of refined sugar. 

Vascular Issues

If your electrolytes are in check, your urine is definitely clear, and your eating enough calories, the source of your headache may, alternatively, be vascular in origin. According to Stanford Health, abnormal constriction of blood vessels is a common source of the migraines and cluster headaches that commonly affect athletes(Stanford). The good news is that regular exercise can boost your body's blood circulation and moderated training may resolve this issue. 


Muscular Issues

Occasionally, runners suffer from muscle related tension headaches. While frequent exercise can help alleviate the pain and stress related to muscle tension, if your form is bad or you aren't stretching enough, your noggin might suffer. A recent neurological study describes excercise-related tension headaches as being bilateral sensations of pressure, tightness, and pain(Chowdhury). 

Tips for Preventing Headaches During and After Running

As a runner, there are several steps you can take to minimize or eliminate exercise-related headaches. For starters, monitor your fluid and electrolyte intakes. This can be done by practicing an acute awareness of your thirst and bodily reactions to fluid loss, such as mouth, dryness sweating, dizziness, lack of mental clarity, and thirst(Christensen). Furthermore, pay close attention to the color and smell of your urine. Yellow, odorous urine is a natural indicator you should be drinking more water. 

Regulating your electrolytes can be a bit more complicated but that should not discourage you from taking control of your body. There is a wide range of electrolyte-boosting products geared toward runners, including sports drinks, powders, sprays, and supplements. With that being said, it may take some trial and effort to find a product that is effective and sustainable. Doctors can also perform a number of tests to help accurately determine if you are suffering from an electrolyte deficiency. 

Eating right is another way to prevent dehydration, low blood sugar, and otherwise poor nutrition and, subsequently, put an end to running-related head pain. A look at Colorado State University's nutritional guidelines for athletes tells us that runners should get between 40 to 50 percent of their daily caloric intake from carbohydrates while abstaining from foods that consist of refined sugar and grains. Meanwhile, the guidelines also suggest that 60 to 70 percent of an athlete's daily energy intake should come from healthy fats. Runners should make sure they are consuming enough lean proteins. Which, according to federal nutrition guidelines, ranges between one and two grams(Clifford). 

If you suspect your diet and hydration aren't the issues, you might want to seek the advice of a qualified physical therapist. The reason being, it is not uncommon for athletes, especially runners, to suffer from tension headaches related to poor form or overexerted muscles. Working with a qualified sports medicine doctor can help you improve your gait in order to eliminate pesky headaches and, if you are lucky enough, increase your speed and performance statistics too. In the meantime, take the steps to assure you are properly stretching, wearing adequate footwear, and achieving realistic personal fitness goals. Furthermore, track your stats with running metric systems and utilize that data to determine your "running economy," which Sports Medicine - Open describes as a telling physiological characteristic of distance runners (Barnes). 

Last but not least, if you suspect your cranial agony is the work of vascular shortcomings, we've got a number of small steps you can take to improve your circulation. First off, continue to engage in moderate levels of aerobic activity but remind yourself that it takes time to develop strength and endurance. If possible, get a reading of your resting heart rate, which should be no more than 70 beats per minute. The U.S. Center for Disease Control recommends using the Borg Rating of Perceived Exertion, or RPE, as a gauge for how much your heart rate reading should fluctuate during different levels of exercise, such as sitting to running a marathon. What's more, utilize an accurate heart rate monitor to help personalize your running distance and time goals. 

If numbers aren't your thing, you may want to take a more organic approach to regulating your circulation. This can be as luxurious as scheduling a midweek full-body massage or as minimal as adding a dash of turmeric, an ages-old inflammation cure, to your morning coffee. 


Final Thoughts

It can be frustrating or even scary to experience running-related headaches. The good news is there are a number of simple, effective preventative measures you can take to prevent recurring lapses of pain. In all accounts, it is best to speak with your primary care provider to rule out any serious underlying conditions. From there, we hope our guide helps you spend less time nursing a hurt head and more time running!

About the Author James

Hey there, my name is James and I am the creator and editor of this site. I have been doing Triathlons for a while now and am competing in 70.3 Ironman's as well come this year. I created this site to help those new to the sport and to share my journey with other athletes.

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