4 Reasons You Have a Headache After Working Out and How to Prevent Them, According to a Sports Dietitian

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Nothing feels as cathartic as a great workout—whether it’s a quick jog around the block, a 30-minute HIIT sesh in your living room or an extensive weightlifting routine at the gym. However, if you’re finding that your workout high is being overshadowed by a throbbing headache, there may be some things you’re overlooking during your routine. Here are four reasons you may get a headache after working out—and how you can prevent them, according to Beth McCall, MS, RD, LD, CSSD and Director of Sports Nutrition at Duke University.

1. You may not be drinking enough water

It cannot be said enough, but water truly is your friend. It replaces all the fluid you lose as you break a sweat and keeps your energy up. Pushing your body to do extra work when it’s dehydrated is the perfect recipe for not only a post-workout headache, but muscle cramps, dizziness and even nausea and vomiting.    

Try: Upping your water intake and drinking fluids like tart cherry juice

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that adequate fluid intake for women is 2.7 liters per day (11.5 cups) and for men, it’s 3.7 liters (15.5 cups) per day, so you should at least be hitting those benchmarks. But water is not the only drink that can help you avoid a post-workout headache. “Drinks like Cherribundi’s tart cherry juice have added coconut water to help with electrolytes, as well as natural sugars to help keep glycogen levels up,” McCall advises (more on the glycogen level in #2).

2. Your blood sugar may be low

Poor or inadequate nutrition may also be one of the reasons your head won’t stop throbbing after you hit the gym. As you pump that iron or break a new personal record on that elliptical, your body burns a ton of calories, so if you don’t have enough food in your system to keep the sugar levels adequate, you may get a headache.

Try: Eating some carbs before your workout

“Make sure you have some simple carbohydrates before your workout to help keep that blood sugar high,” states McCall. A smoothie, some oatmeal or a peanut butter and jelly sandwich will not only keep you full, but they’ll provide the fuel your body needs to keep your sugar levels high. A banana or trail mix also make for perfect pre-workout snacks if you’re not looking for something heavy.

3. You may be overexerting yourself.

If you’ve recently started a new routine and have been putting in extra work to look your best, you may be triggering what’s known as an exertional headache. This type of headache occurs when somebody exerts (get it?) a lot of physical effort.  Says McCall: “It comes from low oxygen flow in the brain, [because] the body is sending more oxygen to the working muscle. That could be a headache that lasts for quite some time, until the person has had adequate time to recover.”

Try: Pacing yourself and resting between sets

It’s easy to hop from one exercise to the next when you get into a workout flow, but pacing yourself and taking a mini rest break in-between sets can go a long way. Also, drinking the right beverage post-workout can help matters. “Tart cherry juice is also helpful in decreasing the inflammation and oxidated stress that leads to exertional headaches,” McCall stated. Drinks like coconut or watermelon water are great too. 

4. You might not be getting enough sleep

 “You’re more prone to have increased headaches the more fatigued you are, and if you had low quality sleep the night before,” McCall advised. Translation: That late-night Instagram stalking habit and love for a before-bed Netflix binge must go.

Try: Getting at least eight hours of quality sleep each night

The Sleep Foundation recommends that adults get anywhere between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. The Foundation also advises you tuck away all electronic devices at least 30 minutes ahead of your bedtime in order to get that deep sleep that aids in not only resting your body and building muscles, but keeps the headaches at bay.

Bonus Tip: If you’re an avid gym rat, it’s easy to overlook the onset of headaches and attribute them to the new workout routine you just adopted. However, sometimes persistent headaches are indicative of underlying conditions. If you find that you’re experiencing headaches more than normal, get to a physician as soon as possible.

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Steph is a native of Zimbabwe who is both enamored and genuinely baffled by the concept of silent letters. From 2020 to 2022, she served as Associate Editor at PureWow covering...