The Cure for Exercise Headaches [Help a Reader Out]

by Charlotte on November 24, 2009 · 34 comments

If this is how you hydrate, then I think we found the problem…

Seeing as you all did such a great job with Laura’s question last week regarding buying cardio equipment for a home gym, I thought I’d throw a bit tougher question your way this week. (Yeah, yeah, you can take the teacher out of the classroom…) In this week’s installment of Help a Reader Out, the feature where you guys help answer questions that I don’t know the answer to, Sunny writes:

“Lately, after my runs, I have been getting these massive headaches, even though I drink a ton of water before and after. A colleague suggested I start drinking some Gatorade (G2, w/ less sugar) to replace lost electrolytes, but I am not a fan of drinking those dealios, even the less sugar variety. I have also read they aren’t all that great at replacing electrolytes anyway. Any suggestions? I don’t want to keep taking Advil after I run and nothing else seems to work. “

First, Sunny, I love that you used the word “dealios.” Since reading your e-mail I have resolved that I must find more occasions in my life to work that one in. (Although the only ones that come immediately to mind are naughty. Stop that!)

Second, my completely uneducated guess would be to wonder if you are suffering from hypoglycemia or low blood sugar. You don’t say how long your runs are or what your pre- or post- workout nutrition is like but for me – and everything is about me, right? – I get the sugar shakes and a headache pretty easily if a) my workout is intense and goes longer than an hour or b) I didn’t eat beforehand.

If you’ve ruled out both dehydration and hypoglycemia, other common sources of headaches include hormones (seeing as this is the Internet and all, I will refrain from asking where you are in your girly cycle), neck/back strain, and stress.

Lastly, there is such a thing as exercise-induced headaches/migraines. I know about them because Gym Buddy Candice suffers from them and has had to severely curtail her workouts because of them. Unfortunately, that is pretty much all I know about them. But I’m guessing at least some of my readers know lots about headaches and exercise. What do you guys say? Anyone have some tips for Sunny?

Well, they’re a vegetarian’s nightmare but who knows – they might help with your electrolytes. Or with your mid-run cravings for Peking Duck. PS> Why is “beef stroganoff” blue??

{ 34 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous November 24, 2009 at 3:55 am

If you don't like gatorade, try OJ – it has electrolytes and fruit sugar, but with less chemicals and added sugar (I always get my -oses mixed up, but the fruit sugar is supposed to be less bad than added sugar and HFCS, right?)

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Janice @ Lazy Mama Fitness November 24, 2009 at 4:35 am

Hmmm maybe she's getting minor concussions from her brain moving in her skull while running?

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Carla September 11, 2013 at 4:33 pm

I used to get immobilizing headaches and fatigue after running in the heat. But this summer I felt great, until I gave up salting my meals since I had upped my salt shaking over the past 6 months and everyone told me to stop salting! As soon as I stopped adding salt to everything, my headaches and fatigue returned. As soon as I suspected salt was the cute, I salted again and am having great runs. SALT!

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Susan November 24, 2009 at 4:37 am

I too suffer from these headaches. I believe some post exercise headaches are caused by release of nitric acid into the bloodstream which works as a vasodilator within the brain. Suggestions that are normally given are to break up the workout, and/or exercise less intensely but I have also been told to eat a high GI fruit (like banana or melon) within 15mins of finishing exercising helps particularly if blood sugar is an issue. This helps me but doesnt completely stop them especially if I overdo it.

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grrlpup November 24, 2009 at 4:58 am

If you're really pushing the water, you might be overdoing it and tipping into electrolyte imbalance. Symptoms that sometimes go with this are your fingers swelling up or a "sloshy" tummy (because the water's sitting there and can't get into your tissues where it's needed). I find I can rely on salty food like Chex mix to taste wonderful when I need the salt and just -eh- if I don't. Hyponatremia can be serious (the headache is actually cerebral edema, i.e. swelling brain), so it's worth keeping the balance right.

I have no medical credentials, so this is just a thought. Hope you solve it!

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Devon November 24, 2009 at 5:31 am

This totally used to happen to me, and two things fixed it. First, I have to do several minutes of neck and shoulder stretches following my runs. I also got the Chi Running book (highly recommend it!)and realized I was jutting out my neck/chin some while I was running. Fosusing on keeping my ears over my shoulders helped too. You might be holding your head or neck a little funny and the running compunds it. It helps to really focus on relaxing your neck and shoulders while running, and checking your posture. I don't get headaches anymore from running after making these adjustments.

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Sara November 24, 2009 at 5:35 am

Agreed…too much water IS a bad thing.

Coconut water (not coconut milk)is a great electrolyte replacement, as well as a good source of potassium. It tastes really good too.

If changing your electrolyte balance doesn't work, I highly recommend talking to a neurologist about the headaches. Best to get this stuff checked out, especially as it's a new thing.

I get exercise migraines after extreme exercise, especially if I get particularly overheated or am in direct sunlight. Heck, direct sunlight is a trigger even w/o the exercise. We determined that my blood pressure was rising in those instances mentioned above, whereas it was otherwise normal. I'm on preventative meds, and I've learned a few natural methods to lessen the effect of the migraine through both Dr. Google and my neurologist.

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Anonymous November 24, 2009 at 7:10 am

Coconut water!

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Kuri November 24, 2009 at 7:50 am

The phenomenon seems to be new, and I don't know if you can suddenly need more or less water or sugar or electrolytes for the same exercise. But it's so easy to try changing the intake.
Are her teeth OK ? At some time I needed to go to the dentist. I'd feel nothing when I was walking or doing most exercises, but my jaw was "waking up" whenever I ran.

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Nicole November 24, 2009 at 8:02 am

Sometimes after high intensity anaerobic workouts, I get headaches. I've gotten smart, and if I know that I'm doing speedwork, I'll pop an Ibuprofen right after…

This also goes for a very high intensity spin class where my MHR is 85-92%…

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Jay November 24, 2009 at 9:42 am

They could be exertion headaches, depending on how long and how intense the run is. These can be brought on by intense exercise such as running, weight lifting, shovelling snow or sex. I don't know if there is any real way to avoid them, except resting from intense exercise for a week or 10 days and then easing back.

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Jay November 24, 2009 at 9:42 am

They could be exertion headaches, depending on how long and how intense the run is. These can be brought on by intense exercise such as running, weight lifting, shovelling snow or sex. I don't know if there is any real way to avoid them, except resting from intense exercise for a week or 10 days and then easing back.

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dragonmamma/naomi November 24, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Does she use earbuds? Those give me a headache; maybe it cuts off the air flow to my brain.

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Anonymous November 24, 2009 at 12:36 pm

I agree with the coconut water. Electrolyte tablets like Nuun are also an easy, portable way to get a good electrolyte balance. . When I was doing long distance stuff I always alternated water with electrolyte drinks. I chose not to get any calories from sugar based drinks or Gu and instead carried any kind of food that I could stomach, like avocado and goldfish!

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Joshua November 24, 2009 at 1:22 pm

As gross as it sounds, I heard someone say pickle juice. Honestly, I'd throw up if I'd just worked out and then drank something like that. Each to his or her own, I guess.

-Joshua

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VaMomof2 November 24, 2009 at 1:25 pm

I have no solution (for me, running or fast walking can help me break through a bad headache). If it is a sugar thing, I know that my husband likes FRS – he drinks it before his long bike rides.

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Jody - Fit at 52 November 24, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Charlotte, I was on your thought process so I got nothing.. sorry! I hope she figures it out!

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JavaChick November 24, 2009 at 1:53 pm

I have no suggestions but that Meat Water picture grossed me out. Ugh.

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sarah November 24, 2009 at 3:01 pm

I vote for eating more protein after a long run.

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azusmom November 24, 2009 at 3:49 pm

There are also some brands of water that add electrolytes without any taste, sugar or calories. Smartwater is one, and now Trader Joe's makes one. I use them when I do hot yoga, and they seem to make a difference.

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Shelly November 24, 2009 at 3:58 pm

Try adding electrolyte powder (I use the power bar brand), or drinking OJ or Coconut water. If you don't like plain coconut water try adding a little lime juice or getting the flavored ones.
Also, be sure to take some form of Gu on runs longer than an hour.

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Randi November 24, 2009 at 4:36 pm

I would always get headaches after the gym or a run. But hours afterward. (took me a long time to connect that). I also thought it was dehydration (since it was the same type of headache). But then I figured out that I was overheating. Cold water on the head immediately following workout helped me a lot. As did getting in better shape, but that's tricky to do without the headaches…

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Miz November 24, 2009 at 4:37 pm

LOL @ Janice. and sadly (actually thankfully!) Im no help here at all.

In here for the insights of your faithful headach'y readers.

*proffers advil*

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Geosomin November 24, 2009 at 7:13 pm

I've been told those electroyte punch bite sizes things are great for stopping headaches and muscle cramps. They've got all the stuff in them you'd need. For me gatorade is the magic thing for long runs, altho I've resorted to fruit juice after a run when I feel a headache coming on and it seems to do the trick…

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T November 24, 2009 at 9:50 pm

well, since she says it's only "lately," has anything changed in diet? i know that if i run without having eaten decent/substantial that day (hydrated or not), i occasionally get headaches after running/working out.

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Dr. J November 24, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Usually these headaches are benign. With our wonderful health care system, they will extract plenty of money from you, and then tell you that :-(
Usually gradual increase of intensity with the workout, and getting used to the activity will help, I think. Not my area of expertise.

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Quix November 25, 2009 at 12:11 am

I don't get headaches often so I can't really contribute to that, but my optimal pre-workout routine is staying hydrated through the day, eating fruit 30-60 mins before, and eating a snack right after unless I come home to dinner. If it's the morning, I make sure to drink a BIG glass of water and eat breakfast as soon as I get to work.

And while I will say I'm not an expert, I will say I think Gatorade-type drinks are WAY overused. I NEVER ever used it training for my half, and I was running up to 2 hours+ on my long runs. I ate sport beans and drank water, but ONLY after my runs got to 8 miles or more.

I do get a headache when I haven't eaten in a while (say I ate breakfast and found myself at dinner time sans food). Are you running on that empty of a stomach? If so, try snacking? I know, I'm so no help…

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Beth November 29, 2009 at 2:48 pm

I don't think anyone else has mentioned this possibility: allergies? Here in central Texas, it is the beginning of cedar season, and many of us feel lousy and get headaches often. If you are running outside, perhaps you are reacting to something in the air. You could try Claritin or Zyrtec (1 lasts 24 hours) and see if it helps.

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Shannon December 4, 2009 at 5:16 pm

A couple things:

If you run outside, it might be enviromental, like a mild sun allergy or photosensitivity. (Sunshine and I don't get along, personally.)

Also, try adjusting your diet: I know several people have suggested fruits, but complex carbs like whole grains will do more to balance the blood sugar. Just make sure you consume them enough ahead of time that they don't interfere with your workout.

Plus, get ahead of the pain. If you know you're going to get a headache after running, take a pill before running, not after. Generally, you can use less if you use it preventatively.

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Alissa December 14, 2009 at 10:41 pm

I had to chime in on this. I almost always get a killer headache after a hot run or a long run. I discovered that if I take Hammer Endurolytes during or after my run I almost always avoid the headache. I don't work for hammer or anything, I'm just saying this because it works for me! Hopefully it will help someone else.

http://www.hammernutrition.com/za/HNT?PAGE=PRODUCT&PROD.ID=4037

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Anonymous January 10, 2010 at 4:57 pm

I'm with Alissa. I'm currently training for a marathon. Any run over 45 minutes usually results in a nasty headache a couple of hours later (even if I'm sleeping). I started taking Endurolytes (2 per hour of running – spaced out before, during and after the run), and it's worked like a miracle. It both prevents and relieves headaches for me. I'm not sure if it's the salt, the potassium or the magnesium in it that does the trick. Without the endurolytes, I'm not sure I would be able to do the training. In fact, I did a 14 mile run yesterday and had no problems.

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Anonymous April 17, 2010 at 11:55 pm

I used to suffer from terrible headaches after running. It was my posture. I was tense, running with my chin jutting forward and my shoulders up to my ears. Once I straightened up and relaxed, voila, my headaches disappeared! (And my running improved considerably…)

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Roxanne February 21, 2013 at 1:05 pm

I used to get the headaches after spinning or really long bike rides. Personally, I think it is the angle you hold your head, that restricts blood flow to the brain. Try hold the handlebars from underneath, which keeps the elbows in and the shoulder blades down. This helps elongate the neck.

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Darcy May 10, 2014 at 8:12 am

I do suffer from these as well. Especially when it’s hot outside. Coconut water has done wonders for me. I have a can before I run and another after. I carry it with me on long runs and bring along something salty. My headaches have also decreased as my fitness has increased slowly over time. I do take Tylenol during my long runs as well.

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