Getting a Headache After Exercise: What Does It Mean?

Updated 11/21/17
Urban Outfitters

Here's the thing: I like running, even though I'm truly awful at it and it feels kind of torturous while I'm doing it. I guess what I should say is I like running after I've actually completed the run. Maybe it's that runner's high they always talk about or maybe it's just a sense of accomplishment, but I feel great afterward—most of the time. 

On off days, I finish up my run with a headache. Sometimes it's a just faint ache, but other times it's a pounding pain in my skull. I take an aspirin, drink some water, and it fades over the course of an hour or so, but it always left me wondering one question: What gives? Why does it only happen sometimes and why does it vary in severity? According to experts, there could be multiple causes, including what I do (or don't do) before my workout. Keep reading to learn why you get headaches after exercise and how they can be prevented. 

Improper hydration and nutrition

According to Grant Weeditz, Body Architect at Anatomy at 1220 in Miami, my headaches could be caused by lack of nutrition or hydration. "Most of the time, exercise-induced headaches are not caused by exercise at all, but are a byproduct of careless nutrition and hydration," he says. "The physical activity merely exposed that failure." As soon as I heard this, I knew I had to admit I don't drink enough water. There, I said it. Hydration has never been something I excel at for no other reason than I love coffee.

For the first half of the day (and sometimes even the second half) I prioritize coffee over water. It's terrible, I know, and something I'm actively trying to change, seeing as I feel so much better when I'm filling up my water bottle with H2O as opposed to filling up a mug with black coffee.

"The single greatest action you can take to 'feel your best' during training is to eat a small piece of fruit (i.e., apple, banana, peach watermelon, grapes) and drink eight to 16 ounces of water within 30 to 60 minutes before the beginning of your session," Weeditz says. "Try different fruits to test which your body responds most positively to."

In this case, eating healthier food before a workout is way better than counting calories. "The benefit of increased micronutrient, electrolyte, and hydration levels far exceeds any risk of excess caloric intake, especially when training very early in the morning or on an empty stomach. Adding a protein source like Greek yogurt can be beneficial to ignite the metabolic processes, if digestively tolerated."

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Primary Exercise Headache Disorder

According to Elizabeth Seng, PhD, clinical health psychologist and head pain expert, this type of headache was formerly known as an "exertional headache," and occurs "during or after physical activity, typically sustained strenuous exercise," including weight lifting and cardiovascular activity (like, yes, running). Interestingly enough, doctors aren't 100% sure why people regularly experience these headaches. "It is unclear why people experience primary exercise headaches, however, it does appear to occur most often after strenuous physical activity, particularly in hot weather or at high altitudes," Seng says.

In other words, if you're susceptible to exercise headaches, be careful about working too hard when it's particularly hot out. 

Changes in Stress Levels

We all know about the reality of stress headaches (probably from personal experience). Maybe you have too many work deadlines to count, so you get stressed and develop a pounding pain in your head because of it. It's common knowledge—an increase in stress can bring about a headache or a migraine.

What's really interesting though, is that a sharp decrease in stress, like what you may experience from exercise, can also cause headaches. "As many people are already aware, exercise can actually help reduce stress levels, which is another trigger for headaches," Seng says. "Both increases and decreases in stress can trigger migraine headaches—that’s why it’s so important to keep stress levels consistently low."

Seng is quick to point out that even though "exercise can exacerbate the symptoms during an attack," that doesn't mean migraine-sufferers should go without exercise. "Regular physical activity is a key component of a healthy lifestyle recommended to everyone with migraines. Weight management, including eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly, can help reduce the severity of migraines." 

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Prevention Techniques

Preventing a post-workout headache is actually quite straightforward. "Stay hydrated," Seng says. "Ensure that you eat regular meals throughout the day, especially on exercise days. If you have a migraine, avoid fasting. If you experience headache during or after exercise, consider reducing the strenuousness of the physical activity the next time you exercise."

Weeditz agrees that hydration and nutrition are key. He also recommends always warming up before a workout. "First, increase tissue temperature through simple low-impact movement like biking, incline walking, or rowing for a minimum of 10 minutes or until achieving a good sweat. After that, mobilize joints that will primarily be used during the workout," he says. This decreases the risk of injury and stress on your body. "For a lower body day, performing standing leg swings or kneeling hip circles for 30 to 60 seconds each leg would be helpful.

For an upper-body day, scapular (shoulder blade) pushups and slow arm circles are two great examples of movement that help prepare the critical joints to move smoothly during your workout." 

Finally, if you experience severe headaches following physical activity, it's always a good idea to check with your doctor. "There are several serious health conditions related to the blood vessels in your brain that can present as severe headache during or following physical activity," Seng cautions. "If you suddenly start experiencing a headache during or following physical activity, you should tell your doctor so that he or she can rule out more serious causes." 

For me, my greatest preventative measure will be drinking more water (and much less coffee), and not pushing through a strenuous workout on a particularly hot Los Angeles day. Exercise-induced headaches, begone.

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