How to Avoid Headaches After Your Run

Discover why your head is pounding, then find out how to fix it.

Melanie asks: I get headaches after many of my runs. It seems to happen most often after runs of 20 kilometres or more. They last anywhere from a few hours to as long as two days. I think I’m staying well hydrated, so I don’t think it’s that. Do you have any suggestions?

First and foremost, please consult with your health care professional. While post-exercise headaches are not uncommon and most are found to be benign, it’s very important for you to be seen by your doctor to rule out any serious underlying medical issues.

That being said, postrun headaches can be triggered by various reasons. Some may be classified as vascular in nature, similar to a migraine, and can be caused by changes in blood flow to the brain during exercise. Exercise dilates blood vessels, and this creates pressure that may be enough to cause a headache in some individuals.

Another cause for headaches after running may be an imbalance of electrolytes, which can easily happen when running long or in hot weather. Simply adding an electrolyte supplement before, during, or after a run may alleviate these headaches. It’s even more vital if you are running longer than one hour, sweat heavily, or it’s hot and humid.

Your blood sugar is another factor to consider if it’s low. Try having a small prerun meal one to two hours before running to help. This meal should contain a mix of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. For example, try half a bagel with peanut butter and wash it down with water and some sports drink. Eating within 20 minutes of finishing your run is also very important. If you are not hungry after running, try drinking a protein shake, low-fat chocolate milk, or other recovery drink for immediate refueling.

Dehydration can also be a cause of headaches, too. Even though you feel you are adequately hydrated, be sure you are consuming enough fluids, as well as fruits and vegetables throughout the day.

Some headaches can also be caused by muscular tension stemming from poor running form. You may be able to have your running form evaluated by a sports medicine professional or a physical therapist. A professional can recommend specific stretching and strengthening exercises to improve your running form, and improving the strength and flexibility of specific postural muscles—like the neck, shoulders, and upper back—can help relieve tension below your neck that could trigger pulsating headaches.

Sunlight can also trigger headaches. If you are running in the daylight, try wearing sunglasses and see if they help keep you from squinting too much. A hat or visor with a wide brim may also help reduce glare.

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