Headache After a Workout? 5 Steps You Can Take to Avoid It.

By guardian-elite
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You just finished an intense workout. Sweat is pouring down your face and your struggling to catch your breath. On top of that, you can’t drink enough water to quench your thirst. That’s when the headache comes. Are you sick? No. Why then is there a headache after a workout?

If you’ve ever experienced this, you know a headache after workout isn’t quite the way you would have envisioned spending that post exercise feel good. In fact, it’s ruining things.

We’re going to take a closer look at what causes these headaches after working out and what you can do to prevent a headache after workout.

Why Headache After a Workout?

A headache after a workout is what is called an exertion headache. These types of headaches have nothing to do with your immune system being attacked by a virus or bacteria.

Let’s think about what is happening to the body when you are exercising. Strenuous exercise will put strain on your muscles, especially in the head and neck. As your heart rate increases, the blood flow is increased throughout your body. As this is happening, the blood vessels are dilating to let all that additional blood flow freely, and viola, exertion headache.

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It’s that increase in blood circulation that is increasing the pressure, especially on your brain.

The American Migraine Foundation says that cycling, running or weightlifting can all be triggers for an exertion headache. The AMF also lists these types of headaches as “primary” headaches, because they are not brought on by some other underlying condition.

Don’t confuse these workout headaches, or exertion headaches with what are called “secondary” headaches. The secondary headache is known to be caused by some other condition.

Symptoms of Headache After Physical Exertion

There are some common signs you can look for if you believe your headache after a workout is an exertion headache.

Common exertion headache signs include:

  • Pulsating or throbbing pain, that appears suddenly
  • Pain caused from a headache that lasts anywhere from 5 minutes to 48 hours
  • Neck stiffness
  • Headache after strenuous exercise
  • Pain occurs on both sides of the head

What Causes Headache After Exercise?

Just because we call these exertion headaches “primary” where there are no underlying conditions that cause it, doesn’t mean that they are completely random or without triggers.

You might not even be experiencing these headaches every time you exercise. Here are some possible triggers that can be a culprit in bringing on and facilitating the exertion headache.

Dehydration

As we exercise, especially intense exercise, you are losing lots of fluid. If you aren’t properly hydrating before and during this time, your body will lose so much fluid that it affects even your brain.

Why?

Because there is also fluid surrounding your brain. When you are very dehydrated, even the fluid surrounding the brain can be decreased, causing your brain to literally pull away from your skull, causing a headache.

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Sun Exposure

High humidity, sun glare and heat exhaustion itself can all be triggers for a headache. If you are getting in that 3-mile run in the heat of the day, or out in the direct sunlight smashing a HIIT workout, a heat/sun related headache might be waiting for you.Even worse than the headache, heat exhaustion is a real medical emergency, and the headache brought on by this heat/sun exposure is usually the first sign that things aren’t right.

Low Blood Sugar

We all exercise and workout not only to stay in great physical shape, but also to keep the weight in check. Besides exercise, the other component to staying in shape is your diet. If you are in a weight cutting phase, low calories, a keto diet or other calorie restrictive diet, low blood sugar can be an issue.

Our body needs energy to perform at a high level. Working out hard at the gym is going to require a lot of energy too. The primary way our body gets its energy is to use carbohydrates converted into glucose (glucose is basically sugar).

If your blood sugar is already low from low calories or restricting carbs, this could play a role in a headache after a workout.

Muscle Strains

Another closely related headache to the exertion headache is the tension headache. A tension headache could be caused when exercising, or most likely, lifting weight and straining your muscles.If you strain your calf, that is one thing. But if you strain your neck muscles, that’s when the tension headache can surface. Those muscles in your neck, and especially close to the base of your skull are where the trouble can start, especially if you strain them.

Out of Shape

If you’re out of shape and starting to exercise, you might be more susceptible to an exercise induced headache. Don’t lose motivation though, this might just be your body’s way of telling you to take it slow. It’s possible you are trying to do too much, too soon.

Other possible reasons—High Altitude, Stress

There are other causes of an exertion headache after a workout that can be affecting you. One could be that you are exercising in a high-altitude area. Depending on the altitude, the level of oxygen could be much less than what your body is used too. A very common result of this is a headache.

Stress is another reason for headaches, which does not necessarily need exercise to cause a headache, but definitely a high stress level coupled with intense exercise can be a recipe for a headache.

Treatment Options For Headache After Working Out Hard

Over the Counter Medicine

Standard pain medicine is usually effective at mitigating the pain from an exertion headache, since they are not caused by other secondary underlying issues.

Hydration

We know the effects of dehydration on the body, and how a severe lack of fluid can even affect your brain when causing a headache. It’s very important then, to take the necessary steps of hydrating long before your normal workout, again during the workout and afterwards too.

Electrolyte Replacement

The act of sweating will cause the loss of electrolytes in the body, which is known to trigger an exertion headache. When hydrating, don’t forget to also replace lost electrolytes from your sweat sesh.

Heat Pad

Muscles strains, especially the muscles around your neck and shoulders can play a role in the development of an exertion headache. If you think your neck soreness is also triggering these headaches, consider applying a heat pad directly to the strained area to provide some relief.

Static or Dynamic Stretching Exercises

A thorough warm-up before a hard workout is more important than you think. Just like a high-performance engine, you would not want to start it from cold and rev to 100 mph. Give your body and muscles some time to warm up and get the blood flowing before you start the strain of a hard workout.

Need some ideas, or want to learn more about Dynamic stretching and warm-up? Check out this post for a great tutorial to get you going.

Headache After Workout Prevention

1. Correct form when lifting or exercising

Staying injury free while lifting means that you don’t want to grab the heaviest weight you can get your hands on and start going to town. That is a surefire way to possible injury, or at the very least, an exertion headache.

Lifting without proper form will have the opposite affect of not actually working the muscles you are targeting, but instead pulling and straining muscles that aren’t meant to be used in that way.

Exertion headaches can be caused by muscle strain, especially in the neck and shoulder region. Lifting with proper form all the time is a good way to prevent a whole host of problems.

2. Exercising on a regular basis

If you are aren’t someone who exercises weekly, or maybe you’re just starting out, be careful not to try and do too much too soon. You’ll find that your body can do some pretty amazing things, but it has to become accustomed to new stimulus, and then adapt before you can progress.

If you try and do too much before your body is ready, these exertion headaches, or injury can occur.

One thing to keep in mind about introducing new stimuli to the body is using its adaptive ability to our advantage. Read more about Progressive Overload, and how it can help you reach your goals.

3. Proper warm-up and cool down

Earlier in the options for treatment, we discussed dynamic stretching and warm-ups as a way to treat these headaches. This is a good strategy to ease the stress on your body.

But actually, dynamic warm-ups and stretching work even better as a preventative measure against exertion headaches. This way you can stop them before they even have a chance to start.

4. Hydrating before, during and after exercise

Always make sure to stay hydrated. Drinking the recommended amount of water throughout the day is a must, but on days when you know you’ll be hitting the gym hard, make sure to stay hydrated, especially during the workout.

5. Avoiding extreme heat during workout

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are both serious medical conditions. If you are already overheated because of the workout and you add in extra heat from the sun, you might push yourself into an exertion headache.

Be sure to plan your workout when you aren’t in the very hot sun. At times, a headache because of the heat is a sign that there could be even bigger problems on the way.

Summary

If you have been experiencing headaches after your workout, know there is a reason for them and there are steps you can take to make them less frequent or even go away all together. Usually, the case is your body is trying to tell you something.