After a particularly grueling run, soreness in your legs is pretty much a given, but every once in a while when I’m pounding the pavement, my head starts pounding too, and I wind up with a headache after running. A quick Google search confirms that I’m not the only one who this happens to. But…why?
While there are a number of reasons your head might start hurting while you’re logging miles, you first need to understand what’s going on at a biological level. “The blood pressure will increase as you exercise and the tension within the narrowed blood vessels and arterial walls can cause headaches,” explains Rich Velazquez, COO and Coach at Mile High Run Club. And generally, it’s NBD, aside from the fact that a headache can really kill your post-run endorphins.
“Acute headaches without any other symptoms are generally okay,” he says, “However if they consistently happen or are often accompanied with nausea, vomiting, blurred vision, or even congestion, a physician should be consulted.” Here, the pros lay out why you may have a headache after running, and what you can do to prevent it, and how you can keep it from totally killing your runner’s high.
The cause: low blood sugar
When you run, your body burns a lot of sugar—which is why carbo-loading before a marathon is such a common practice. But if your blood sugar levels get too low, you’ll start to feel the effects in your head. “Any time the body detects low levels of sugar in the brain, it releases adrenaline to raise glucose levels via a process called gluconeogenesis,” explains Michael E. Platt, MD, author of Adrenaline Dominance and The Miracle of Bio-identical Hormones. “The release of adrenaline, the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone causes muscles to tense up, which includes the neck muscles.” He notes that almost all headaches are derived from some sort of tension in the neck, which is why you’ll start to ultimately feel the effects of this chain of reactions in your head.
The solution: Carb up before you lace up. “Post-running headaches, if caused by excess adrenaline, would be easy to prevent by providing fuel to the brain prior to running,” says Dr. Platt.
The cause: extreme conditions
If you’re running a 5K on, say, the top of Mt. Washington or the middle of the Palm Desert, you may start to feel it in your head. Velazquez points to exercise at high elevation or in extremely high and low temperatures as possible triggers.
The solution: Start slow. “Easing into your run can help the body adapt to workload or specific environmental factors,” he explains. “Try a quick-paced walk or slow jog 5 to 10 minutes before your full on run.” If you’re in hot temperatures or in the sun, use a hat and sunglasses to protect your face, and if you’re in an extremely cold environment be sure to layer properly.
The cause: dehydration
As anyone who’s ever had a hangover knows, dehydration headaches are real and they can happen anywhere. Including on a run.
The solution: Drink more water before you start your run. “Advanced hydration will keep the blood a bit thinner as opposed to being in a dehydrated state which will help the blood flow easier as the vessel walls restrict,” says Velazquez. But be sure not to drink too much water, which may leave you with a whole other laundry list of issues. On extra-long runs, it isn’t a bad idea to travel with electrolyte fuel like gels or sports drinks to keep your body as hydrated as possible.
The cause: Uhhhh, none of these fit
If you’ve taken all of the proper precautions and still have no idea why your head has started to hurt, first and foremost you need to take a break. And with any sort of headache, no matter the cause, there are a few things you can do post-run to keep your head (and the rest of your body) happy. “Rehydration is key,” says Velazquez. “So is staying in a cool environment and avoiding strenuous activity. Let the body return to normal heart-rate and blood pressure.” And when you’re ready, treat yourself to a proper meal to refuel and massage or foam roll to help relax any muscles that have tensed up.
To take your (now headache-free) run to the next level, try one of these runner-approved pairs of minimalist running shoes. And find out why one W+G staffer now swears by CBD oil to treat her post-run muscle soreness.
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