This article first appeared on Women’s Running.
Since I was a child, I’ve always suffered from migraines. I used to lie awake most nights with a cold rag over my head and the room darkened to its blackest point. When I got older, the issue worsened to the point of vomiting. As I grew into my teens, I began to look for more activities that would help to keep me in shape—and I discovered running.
Unfortunately, I also discovered that about 3 hours after runs, my head would begin to throb, my ears would begin to ring, and I would begin to cry in pain and fear, unsure of what was going on. I had always drank plenty of water—more than eight cups a day—and I wore a hat during my trips to keep the sun off my face. Even still, I thought it was heat stroke.
I tried running earlier and later in the day and continued to experience the same thing. I worried that it might be because I was simply not in good enough shape; cardio had never been my biggest strength, but during my runs I felt totally energized. I felt that I could keep going for miles without becoming too tired, only taking breaks when I needed water or to catch my breath.
I continued to feel terrible hours after a seemingly good run. It wasn’t until I did research that I discovered the link between exercise and migraines—and I realized that I’m not alone with my running migraines, otherwise known as exertional headaches. Each run or workout was already an attempt to get fit without setting off some type of head pain, and the problem became especially difficult during the day. The bright sunlight and afternoon heat can shock the system into overwhelming pain even hours after working out.
According to the Migraine Trust, a medical research charity in the United Kingdom, athletes who are prone to experiencing chronic migraines are more likely to suffer from running migraines than runners who are not. This is because intense exercise can be a trigger for people who get chronic migraines. There are many possibilities for the cause of such headaches—here are a few simple tricks you can use to hopefully avoid the pain in your head:
1. Drink lots of water before, during and after your run. While this may seem like a no-brainer, it’s 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.
2. Ease into the run. Migraines happen because the blood vessels in our heads are dilating and stretching nerve endings, which causes intense pain. Stretching before and after a workout, as well as beginning your run slowly and allowing your body to warm up, can help prevent that from happening. It allows our heart and blood vessels to dilate without painful stretching.
3. Take an anti-inflammatory like Ibuprofen. 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 do feel the need to take medication prior to each workout, consult your doctor; he or she can help to prescribe the proper dose as a preventative measure and test to see what else might be a trigger.
I’ve learned that following the above tips enables me to take runs early in the day and late in the evenings without suffering from any adverse effects. I still can’t go for a jog in the middle of the day, but since I burn pretty easily, I don’t actually miss it. I’m simply happy to have finally discovered what has been going wrong and how to fix it.