Whether you’re a marathon runner, powerlifter, or Zumba-connoisseur, headaches after a workout can be painful and frustrating. And when you’re trying to get fit and healthy, they can be a significant deterrent to working out.

While not as common as a general headache or migraines, exercise-induced headaches aren’t unusual. Some people may feel pain on one side of their head, while others may feel a throbbing pain at the base of the skull or across the forehead.

There are several causes, but in most instances, it’s an easy fix.

If you’re someone who experiences exercise-induced headaches frequently, this article is for you! We’re covering the ins and outs of what causes exercise headaches and how you can treat and prevent them.

Causes Of Post-Workout Headaches

The link between headaches and exercise was first spoken about by Hippocrates, who, in 450 BC, wrote, “… one should be able to recognize those who have headaches from gymnastic exercises or running or walking or hunting or any other reasonable labor or from immoderate venery” 1.

While the exact reasons people get headaches after working out aren’t clear, there are a few potential theories.

1. Exertional Headaches

You likely haven’t heard about exertional headaches, but they’re probably more common than you think. Exertional headaches arise from any form of strenuous activity, be it a non-stop coughing, high-intensity exercise, and yep, even sexual activity.

They are characterized by a sudden-onset headache precipitated by exertion that continues for seconds to hours but is not associated with any abnormalities to the structure of the brain 1.

Depending on their cause, exertional headaches are divided into two categories 2:

  • Primary exertional headache: Headache triggered by physical exertion with no underlying intracranial pathology.
  • Secondary exertional headache: Headache triggered by physical activity but has an underlying pathological condition (tumor, coronary artery disease, hemorrhage, etc.).

Generally speaking, diagnosis is based on five features 1:

  1. Headache specifically arises after physical activity
  2. Headache is bilateral, throbbing in nature, and may develop features of a migraine for people who are susceptible to migraines
  3. Lasts 5 minutes to no more than 24 hours
  4. Prevented by avoiding excessive physical exertion, especially in hot weather or high altitudes
  5. Headache is not associated with any systemic intracranial disorder

As there is no official reason why exertional headaches happen, many researchers suggest that they’re vascular in nature 1. Excessive exertion can increase cerebral arterial pressure, which causes the pain-sensitive venous sinuses at the base of the brain to dilate 3.

Other researchers find that massive increases in blood pressure during maximal lifting can cause pressure and therefore a headache; systolic blood pressure can exceed 400 mmHg, and diastolic pressures can exceed 300 mmHg 4.

2. You’re Dehydrated

Staying properly hydrated during workouts is critical to your performance, but it can also help you avoid post-workout headaches. While there isn’t much science backing the link between dehydration and headaches, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.

Studies show that dehydration isn’t generally the sole cause of a headache, but it can exacerbate medical conditions, including primary headache disorder 5.

Some studies suggest that dehydration can heighten pain sensation, while other research shows that dehydration causes the kidneys to reabsorb water, thereby increasing vasopressin levels and causing blood vessels to constrict 5, 6. This leads to reduced blood flow and increased blood pressure.

To avoid it, watch out for the signs of dehydration:

  • Increased sensation of thirst
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Decreased urine output
  • Dry skin and mouth
  • Constipation

3. Excessive Caffeine

Many people knock back pre-workouts with insane amounts of caffeine, hoping to get the biggest pump at the gym. But unfortunately, more caffeine doesn’t always equate to a better workout.

Not only are you increasing the risk of things like anxiety, jitters, and nervousness, but too much caffeine—the same as caffeine withdrawal—can also cause headaches.

Studies show that too much caffeine is a trigger for people who suffer from chronic migraines. There are two main ways excessive caffeine can have adverse physiological effects 7, 8:

  1. Caffeine can inhibit the absorption of magnesium, which is important for relaxing muscles and reducing pain
  2. Coffee acts as a diuretic in high doses, which can lead to excessive excretion of fluids and dehydration

4. Blood Sugar Imbalances

Low blood sugar after exercise is another reason why you may be getting post-workout headaches. Exercise-induced hypoglycemia generally results from an imbalance between training volume, nutrition, and external influences like chronobiology, temperature, or altitude 9. When blood sugar drops below baseline levels, it can lead to symptoms like:

  • Headaches
  • Shaking
  • Extreme hunger
  • Dizziness
  • Sweating
  • Blurry vision
  • Difficulty concentrating

On top of that, exercise hypoglycemia is one of the major causes of fatigue or exercise cessation, but it also interferes with thermoregulatory adaptation and can cause muscle and tendons to become more fragile.

5. Improper Form

It may not have been your first thought, but poor exercise form can contribute to headaches. It can cause muscle tightness and tension that can quickly escalate to a headache if not dealt with, especially if you’re doing upper body exercises involving the shoulders and traps.

How To Treat And Prevent Post-Workout Headaches

1. Exertional Headaches

How to treat it

If you’re frequently getting headaches after exercise that present with other symptoms like vomiting, blurred or double vision, congestion, and neck stiffness, it’s best to book an appointment with your doctor.

You want to rule out any underlying condition that could contribute to your headaches before writing it off as a workout-induced headache.

If there’s nothing below the surface, a primary exertional headache will generally disappear on its own.

To help reduce the discomfort, a natural anti-inflammatory like curcumin, omega-3s, or herbal supplements like Boswellia and Cat’s Claw are effective. Alternatively, apply heat on your head to help open up the blood vessels.

How to prevent it

Want to avoid exertional headaches in the first place? We’ll talk more about this next, but increasing your fluid intake before training can prevent dehydration-related constriction of blood vessels. Doing a solid warm-up can also help to prevent exertional headaches.

If you find that’s not helping, cut back on the intensity. High-intensity or maximal strength work can exacerbate them, so try to avoid that for a bit and see if it helps.

2. Dehydration

How to treat it

The majority of cases of mild dehydration can be fixed simply by replenishing lost fluids and electrolytes with an electrolyte drink, or water with some natural Himalayan pink salt added.

If you’re reaching for a sports drink, make sure you’re reading the labels. A lot of them are filled with garbage and sugars, which can make the problem worse.

Coconut water is also a great alternative that supplies the nutrients needed to hydrate and rebalance minerals.

How to prevent it

The easiest way to prevent dehydration is to keep your fluid intake up! Just a 2% loss of water can impair cognitive function and cause performance to suffer, so ensure you’re drinking a minimum of 2-3L daily.

If you’re a coffee drinker, add another 20 ounces, and if you’re taking part in vigorous exercise where you’re sweating heavily, add another 20+ ounces.

You should also consume 0.5-1L of water before exercise and sip on fluids during your session to replenish what’s lost through sweat.

If you’re not a fan of plain Jane water, spice it up with some electrolytes (to keep the muscular and nervous system firing properly), citrus fruits, berries, or herbs.

3. Too Much Caffeine

How to treat it

Apart from waiting it out if you’ve consumed too much caffeine at one time, keep an eye on how much caffeine you’re consuming daily.

What are you drinking that has caffeine in it—coffee, energy drinks, pre-workout, fat burners. You could easily knock back 600mg+ of caffeine daily. And because caffeine is a diuretic, you’re losing water and important minerals.

Increasing your water intake can also help to flush your system and naturally facilitate its elimination.

How to prevent it

Keep an eye on how much you’re consuming and replace some caffeinated staples with caffeine-free or low-caffeine alternatives.

If you’re looking to boost your workout performance but are trying to cut back on caffeine, try Pre Lab Pro®. It’s an ultramodern pre-workout supplement designed to turbocharge your workout with natural caffeine 80mg. It’s an ideal dose of caffeine to enhance performance without going overboard.

Also, the moderate dosing and stacking strategies of Pre Lab Pro® unlock all ergogenic caffeine benefits. What’s more, Pre Lab Pro® makes these caffeine benefits even better with complementary formula ingredients, including Suntheanine® L-Theanine, Ajipure® L-Tyrosine, and NutriGenesis® B-Vitamins.

4. Blood Sugar Imbalances

How to treat it

Whether you’re getting headaches from blood sugar imbalances during your workout or after, having a small meal when you feel it coming on can help prevent the onset of a headache and other nasty symptoms.

A high-glycemic snack with 15-20g carbs immediately can help to tide you over until you can get in a larger meal with complex carbohydrates like quinoa, brown rice, or sweet potatoes that will help to slowly release glucose and keep blood sugar stable.

How to prevent it

Most times, exercise hypoglycemia can be prevented by consuming a pre-exercise meal high in carbohydrates to prevent depletion of glucose stores.

High glycemic carbohydrates like white rice or potatoes are typically the most ideal if you’re dealing with exercise-induced hypoglycemia. But be careful to avoid sugar and refined carbs, as they can exacerbate the problem.

As well, adequate training can help to resist against hypoglycemia by shifting the balance of oxidized substrates and marked hormonal adaptations 9. However, overtraining can partially reverse this adaptation and can increase the incidence of hypoglycemia.

5. Improper Form

How to treat it

If you find you’re getting headaches after doing upper body exercises or running, it could be because your form is off. Gentle stretches and rolling may help to release muscle tension and ease the pain or discomfort.

How to prevent it

Rather than pushing the weight up, knock it back and focus on your form. If possible, perform your exercises in front of a mirror so you can check yourself.

If a mirror isn’t available, record yourself on your phone and analyze the video to see where you need to adjust your form. If you’re unsure about proper form, consult with a personal trainer for a session or two!

Final Thoughts

When you’ve just finished a tough workout, the last thing you want to deal with—on top of muscle soreness—is a headache.

We’ve just given you five of the most common reasons why people get post-workout headaches and the best ways to treat and prevent them. Use this as a guideline to help you figure out what’s causing yours and how to avoid them.


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