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Headache After Running: Causes, Prevention, Treatment

Running provides many challenges. You may have a bucket list of marathons that you want to run. Or you may be running to achieve some other goal. Whatever your reason for running, you will likely have some bumps along the way. Running is stressful on the body, and your body doesn’t always react the way you want it to.

One of the more uncomfortable and painful bumps you could experience is developing headaches at the end of your runs. It’s not uncommon for runners to experience these pulsating pains after a run. But it can be enough to make you want to stop running. And that’s no good, neither in the short term nor the long run.

If you’ve been experiencing headaches after your run, keep reading. We’ve taken a look at some of the possible causes, how to prevent them, and how you can treat headaches effectively.

The Main Cause of a Headache After Running

When you run, your body adjusts blood flow, increasing the amount of blood to working muscles. Interestingly, there’s also an increase of blood flow to the neck muscles and the scalp. Your body makes up the difference by decreasing blood flow to places like the digestive system.

These increased blood flow requirements naturally raise your blood pressure. Blood vessels dilate in response, creating tension. This tension is what causes the headache, which is known as an exertional headache. They only happens with exercise.

After your run, you’ll notice a pulsating pain on both sides of your head. It can last for a few minutes, or for several hours.

If you develop this type of headache during your run, don’t try to push through the pain. Even if you’re close to home, pushing through can make the headache worse. The best thing to do is to slow down and let your blood pressure and heart rate return to normal.

Aside from blood flow creating pain in your head, there are a number of other reasons why you could be experiencing a headache.

Other Possible Causes

Dehydration

Another possible cause for a headache, either during your run or after, is that your body has lost more fluid than what you’ve been drinking.

We lose fluid just by breathing. When we sweat, we accelerate fluid (and electrolyte) loss. Runners need to pay attention to how much they sweat while running, as the energy you put into running is converted into heat.

When you don’t drink enough fluids, you lose blood volume. This causes your blood to thicken, which has a knock-on effect: your heart has to work harder to supply the body with oxygen-rich blood.

It also increases your heart rate, and it can reduce the amount of oxygen that’s delivered to your brain.

Prevention

First off, hydrate well, all the time. Even on your off days, drink plenty of water.

Hydration is doubly important on days you run. Start drinking fluids a couple of hours before your run, as this will help you to stay hydrated throughout. Monitor your sweat rate while you run, as the more you sweat, the more fluids you’ll need to replace.

If you’re planning on going for a run that will last more than an hour, consume an electrolyte drink before you run. While you’re running, you should have something to drink at least every 15 to 20 minutes.

One of the best ways to tell if your hydration levels are good is to check the color of your urine. If your urine is transparent, then you’re over-hydrated. Not to potentially ruin two delicious things for you, but color of lemonade or light beer is just about right for urine if you’re properly hydrated. Darker yellow, or even into the orange range, means you need to drink more fluid and replace electrolytes.

Treatment

After your run, you need to replace electrolytes and replenish sodium levels.

One of the best ways to do this is with a recovery drink that contains a combination of vitamins, electrolytes, protein, and some carbs.

While water is very good for the body, drinking plain water after a run can further dilute your sodium levels. This can create an imbalance in sodium and potassium levels, which can lead to hyponatremia.

Most recovery drinks contain sodium, which helps your body retain water. The carbohydrates will help to replenish glycogen levels, the protein will help to repair the muscle, and the vitamins will help boost your immune system. The electrolytes will help to rehydrate your body and prevent muscle cramps.

Low Blood Sugar Level

Our bodies use insulin to convert blood sugar levels to glucose, which our body then uses as a fuel source. As you run, your body burns through that fuel.  If you’re on a long run, your body can use its glucose stores at a faster rate than normal. The average person has enough glucose stores to sustain about 90 minutes of moderately strenuous activity.

When your blood sugar levels are very low, you’ll start to experience the symptoms of hypoglycemia, one of which is a pulsating headache. Aside from the headache, you may find that you sweat more, experience heart palpitations or even tremble.

Prevention

Eating regular, healthy, balanced meals throughout the day will help to stabilize and maintain your blood sugar levels. But you should make sure that you eat a light meal at least two hours before a run, like a bagel with peanut butter. This can do wonders for your run!

Regardless of how well you eat throughout the day, your body is going to start needing fuel about an hour into your run. While you have about 90 minutes-worth of glucose, your energy level will start to dip long before that. Pack some energy gels into your running belt, especially if you’re going to be running for longer than 60 minutes.

As they contain easily-digestible carbohydrates, having an energy gel while you’re on the run will help to prevent glycogen depletion, and you won’t hit that wall.

Treatment

Eating within 60 minutes after your run is just as important as replacing fluids.

Runners should get into the habit of replenishing their glycogen levels as well as their fluids. The best way to do this is to eat four grams of carbohydrates for every gram of protein that you have. Not only will this help with your recovery, but it will help to prepare your body for its next run.

Tightness in neck and shoulders

We often don’t realize the amount of tension we hold in our neck and shoulders from the stress of our daily lives. Poor posture when we sit at our laptops or at the table in board meetings can also cause tightness in our neck and shoulders.

While running is great for stress relief, having tightness in the neck and shoulders can lead to poor running form.

The same can be said the other way around – if you have poor running form, it can lead to tension in the neck and shoulders. This is especially true if your body is hunched forwards and your shoulders and arms aren’t relaxed.

This tension can lead to runners experiencing pulsating headaches at any point in a run. If your blood sugar levels drop, then your body will stimulate the adrenal glands to release more adrenaline.

This stimulates your liver to produce more glucose. With adrenaline pumping through you, your body is preparing for action, which increases blood pressure and heart rate. The result? Your muscles tense up, making a headache more likely.

Prevention

Before you run, take a few minutes to stretch and warm up. This will help to release tension in the neck and shoulders. Invest in a foam roller, as this will provide easy access to those hard to reach spots.

Remember to stretch after your run as well. And if you make use of a foam roller, this will help to relax the muscles and aid in recovery. While you’re running, be aware of your running form.

Keep your head up and back straight, with shoulders relaxed and under your ears. Make sure that your pelvis isn’t too far forward or backwards. As you fatigue during your run, resist the temptation to lean forwards or backwards from your waist.

When you wake up in the morning, take a moment to see how your neck and shoulders feel. Is there any tightness or any aches and pains when you wake up? If there’s tightness, then you may need to look at getting a pillow that offers better neck support.

Treatment

It can’t be stressed enough that you need to stretch after a run!

Even better is if you can massage your muscles with either a foam roller or massage gun after a run. This will help to release the tension in the muscles, as well as relax them, which will help with your range of movement.

You can also take a warm bath with epsom salts for about 15 minutes, as this will help to relax the muscles.

Running at high elevation or in extreme temperatures

If you’ve recently moved to a higher elevation or to a hotter place, or you’re going to take part in a race where you’ll be running at a high elevation, you’ll find that your body is going to work a bit harder.

The higher you go, the thinner the air gets, and your body has to exert more energy. Until your body adapts to the environment, you can experience headaches from exerting yourself.

If you’re going to be running in extreme temperatures, start out slowly and wear a heart rate monitor. This will allow you to keep track of your exertion level so you can adjust as you go.

What constitutes “warm” temperatures when running might shock some people. Even when the temp is as low as 70F, your running performance will start to deteriorate. If the temperature gets above 85F, it’s time to take additional precautions. 

Prevention

Choose the routes that you’re going to run in advance, and make sure that you have a few routes to choose from in case you need to adjust your run. Extend your warm-up period, and then jog for about 15 minutes before going into your normal or faster pace.

If it’s hot outside, avoid running on cement or asphalt if you can. Both absorb, the reflect, heat and you’ll feel the heat being transferred to you as you run.

Make sure to choose the right running gear for the conditions, and make sure that they protect your skin from UV rays. On extremely hot days, run in clothing that has a loose fit, as this will prevent hot air from being trapped against your body. Choose materials that draw moisture away from your skin and dry quickly.

If you’re running in extremely cold conditions, make sure that you wear clothes that help insulate your body heat, while absorbing moisture from the skin. Wear a neck gaiter so that you won’t be breathing in colder air.

Treatment

If you’re running at high elevation and you start to get a headache, make your way down to a lower elevation as soon as you can.

Don’t try to push on through the pain, as this could make you feel worse. If you’re going to be running a race that’s at a higher elevation, then try to get to the destination at least a week before the race. This will allow your body some time to acclimate to the altitude. Some higher-end running watches have functions that track altitude acclimatization.

When it comes to running in extreme temperatures, be it hot or cold, remember to stay hydrated! Be aware of the humidity in the air, as it could prevent the evaporation of sweat from your skin. This can lead to you over-heating. The best thing to do here would be to stop running and either decrease or increase your body temperature.

If the temperature is 85 degrees Fahrenheit—30 degrees Celsius—then try and run in shaded areas. If you become dizzy or nauseated, stop running immediately and drink recovery fluids.

Sun is too bright

At one time or another, every runner will experience a headache from running in bright sunlight. While some days you may find running in bright sunlight to be fine, you may be sensitive to sunlight on another run.

You may experience a headache if you’ve gone for a long run, as this will expose you to bright sunlight for a longer duration.

Prevention

To prevent headaches that are triggered by bright sunlight, you may have to change your running routine.

Try running in the later afternoon or early morning before there’s too much glare and where the sunlight will be gentler on the eyes.

Treatment

Get yourself a pair of polarized sunglasses if you don’t already have a pair, and wear them when you run. Polarized sunglasses help to protect your eyes by reducing the amount of reflection and glare you’re exposed to.

Even if your sunglasses have a wraparound frame that helps to block out peripheral light, you still want to shield your face from the sun by wearing a cap or visor.

Once you’ve finished your run, move into a room that has low light or that’s darker. This will help your eyes rest and recover for a few minutes from the bright light.

What if there are no changes after prevention and treatment?

If you’re experiencing headaches more frequently, you may have to change your diet, the time that you run, or even start using gels. It’s also important that your body gets the rest it needs, as sometimes overexertion can trigger headaches.

Put a running schedule together and start off with shorter distances, until you feel like you can run your normal distance again. Include rest days, especially if your body is stressed. If you know what’s causing your headaches and you can’t change it, then you can try using a light over-the-counter medication for the headache, like ibuprofen—also called Advil.

While headaches commonly occur once you’ve finished running, if there are any other symptoms like vomiting, nausea, congestion or even blurred vision, then see your doctor.

You should also see your doctor if your headache lasts for longer than a day, happens on a consistent basis, if you have developed a rigid neck, or if you only have the headache on one side of the head.

The Wired Runner