Given that women suffer twice as many severe headaches as men, and that physical exertion can contribute to flare-ups, it’s no wonder many female runners are headache prone. And while there is evidence that exercise can reduce the frequency someone may experience headaches, it can be disheartening when running acts as a trigger. Dealing with a painful headache after running is enough to make you want to quit.
“Most headaches triggered by running or other exercise occur in women who are prone to headaches, like migraines, in general,” says Carrie Dougherty, M.D., a neurologist and headache specialist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. In these cases, Dougherty says it’s typically not one factor that causes head pain, but rather a combination of changes to the body.
Fortunately, we can take simple steps to limit these factors’ effects on our nervous system and prevent headaches from interfering with our goals. Here are a few simple tricks you can use to hopefully avoid the pain in your head.
4 Ways to Limit Exercise-Induced Headaches
Ease Into Physical Activity
“Often women are trying to make the most of their time, so they just walk out the door and start running,” Dougherty says. “But individuals who are prone to migraines [and other headache disorders] are sensitive to changes in their body’s environment, including increases in heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure.”
Migraines happen because the blood vessels in our heads are dilating and stretching nerve endings, which causes intense pain.
According to Dougherty, one of the best things headache sufferers (migraines or otherwise) can do to reduce the onset of symptoms is to ease into physical activity. Taking the time for a deliberate warm-up gives the nervous system a chance to adjust to a state of exertion. Make sure to warm up for a minimum of 10 to 15 minutes, or more if the workout will be particularly intense or long.
Likewise, cooling down and stretching after a workout allows our heart and blood vessels to return to rest in a slow and controlled manner.
Prioritize Nutrition and Hydration
Low blood sugar can contribute to the onset of a headache, so aim to eat small, frequent meals throughout the day to avoid fluctuations in blood sugar levels, suggests Dougherty. Try having a small meal one to two hours before running and a snack within 20 minutes of finishing your run.
Electrolyte imbalances can also upset your nervous system, so if you’re running for longer than an hour and especially in hot weather, consider taking an electrolyte supplement.
While this may seem like a no-brainer, it really is important to drink lots of water before, during and after your run. It can be easy to forget your bottle or assume that just drinking something after you get back will prevent exercise from having a negative effect. Don’t leave home without your bottle. Proper hydration often means the difference between debilitating pain and a healthy workout.
Practice Good Alignment
A prolonged forward head position activates the posterior neck muscles, which can aggravate nerves that then transmit pain to the neck and head. Add to this the repetitive pounding of running, and you’ve got a headache in the making.
Pay attention to head and neck alignment throughout your daily routine. If you have a desk job, make sure to set up an ergonomic workstation, take frequent breaks, and look up from your computer.
Runners who mistakenly elevate their chest are more prone to a forward head and shoulder posture, as you then must bring your head down and forward in order to view your surroundings, says physical therapist Biana Smolich of MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. “Faulty forward head and shoulder posture creates tension in muscles around the neck with referral of pain to different areas around the cranium, manifesting as headache pain,” Smolich says.
Practice the following alignment cues from Smolich while running to help keep your head in good alignment.
- First, correct an elevated chest. Relax your belly so your rib cage can come down and sit on top of it. Your ribs should be positioned directly over your hips and not jutting out in front of you. Maintain this rib cage position while bringing your shoulders into a better position so that your shoulder girdle sits upon your rib cage.
- Correct the forward head position. Elongate the back of your neck (like a turtle drawing into its shell) while simultaneously tucking (retracting) your chin back.
Ask Your Doctor How to Prevent a Headache After Running
A specialist like a neurologist can help you dial in on what is causing your headaches and help you return to doing what you love.
“If you experience severe headaches that are exclusively triggered by exercise, you may be experiencing primary exercise headache, and this warrants further evaluation by a neurologist,” says Dougherty. “Primary exercise headache can be just that—a headache triggered by exercise, but rarely it can be due to a secondary cause like an abnormality of the brain or blood vessels.”
Dougherty also recommends seeing a neurologist if you’re experiencing headaches on a weekly basis or if your symptoms include numbness or weakness.
If your symptoms seem to be related to head position, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist to work on correcting your alignment and reducing tension.
Your doctor may also recommend you take an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen before running. While it’s not a good idea to take this medication on a regular basis, a dose before going on a run can aid in preventing migraines. “If you have infrequent headaches, [ibuprofen] acts as a preventative,” says Stephen Silberstein, M.D., a neurologist at Jefferson University Hospital. “As your headaches become more and more frequent, paradoxically, it makes you headaches worse.” Because of that he suggests discontinuing using ibuprofen if you see the number of headaches you’re getting trend upward. “I have no problem with somebody taking ibuprofen before they start their run if it works and it doesn’t make your headache worse.”
If running is causing your headaches to become more severe or frequent, it is definitely time to take a break and prioritize self-care. Keeping track of your headaches, including when you get them, what you’ve eaten, how much water you’ve drank, the temperature and weather, your sleep quality, and your activity level can be extremely helpful in starting to understand them. And taking that time to learn how to manage your headaches can be life changing.
You don’t have to suffer through exercise induced headaches.