Working out can be really rewarding when you’re doing something you enjoy and you’re properly hydrated. Some people love to exercise all the time, while others struggle to find the motivation. In either case, no one enjoys working out when they’re not feeling well, specifically with headaches. Commonly referred to as “exercise headaches” or exertional headaches, they develop while working out and there are several reasons why you might be getting them.
The Science of Headaches
Your brain requires more blood sugar and oxygen than any other organ and during strenuous activity like working out, your brain will burn more fuel than normal. This extra pumping of blood into your head can cause your blood vessels to dilate, which can lead to a headache.
If you are experiencing three or more headaches a week, the pain is getting worse or will not go away, you feel confused or are having a difficult time with normal movement during or after the headache, or have any fainting, fever, nausea, or vomiting, you should consult a physician to confirm that there are no underlying conditions causing your headaches, during workouts or otherwise. Depending on the situation, medication may be needed and you don’t want to ignore a concern that’s impacting your lifestyle.
Why Do We Get Headaches While Working Out?
Why do we get these headaches during workouts specifically? There are a number of potential reasons, including:
- Low blood sugar
- Muscle fatigue
- Other imbalances, like changes in blood pressure
- Lack of electrolytes
Hunger or Tiredness
Since the brain uses the most sugar out of all your organs, one factor to consider is whether you have been eating. If you exercise after skipping meals or a pre-workout snack, it’s easy to see why your head may be in a fog.
Another possible cause could be tension and/or muscle fatigue. If you have not stretched your neck and other muscles around your head well enough before your workout, the extra stress on your body could be enough to cause a headache.
If you have high blood pressure, your body may feel that extra pressure in your head during activity. Working out makes your heart pump harder than while resting, and already having higher blood pressure at baseline can lead to an intense pressure headache.
One of the most important questions to ask when working out is: are you dehydrated? Drinking enough water throughout the day is one thing but depending on the length and intensity of your workout, you may need to step up your hydration before, during, and after. Remember—it doesn’t have to be a hot, humid day to become dehydrated!
Loss of Electrolytes
Because electrolytes like sodium and potassium help the body retain water, too few of these electrolytes can lead to dehydration and a post-workout headache. As we work out and sweat, our body loses electrolytes through our skin, which is why sweat tastes salty. Electrolytes help keep us hydrated and losing too many creates a perfect storm for dehydration, leading to a headache.
Why Are Electrolytes Important?
In order to perform at your best and avoid workout headaches, you need to maintain the right balance of electrolytes in your body with proper hydration. Electrolytes help carry out many of the body’s essential day-to-day cell functions, while also helping your body retain the water you intake.
Once you start noticing early signs of dehydration while working out, look for ways to replenish both your body’s water and electrolytes.
Tips for Helping Your Workout Headache
Now that the potential causes have been established, what can be done to stop or even prevent these types of headaches?
- Warm up your body – Your muscles need to be stretched before going right into an intense activity. The same way you stretch your legs before a run to hopefully prevent injury and cramping, be sure to stretch your neck to support your head!
- Eat a snack – Give your brain the same treatment you would give your stomach when hungry. Eat the right kinds of foods before your workout to have enough energy to get through and enough glucose for your brain.
- Consider your surroundings – Another thing to consider is where you are working out. Are there any strong smells or loud noises? If you are normally sensitive to triggers, then it may be the environment and not the physical activity leading to your headache.
- Drink up – Water is a vital part of any workout, just as it is with every other aspect in life. When water doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, try an oral rehydration solution (ORS)—a clinical electrolyte drink—to rapidly rehydrate and keep you focused. Hydralyte’s ORS have 75% less sugar and 4x the electrolytes of leading sports drinks so you can rehydrate quickly and effectively (and without a lot of sugar!).
- Electrolytes for exercise – Electrolytes ensure that your muscles are functioning properly, that you remain hydrated, and that you can finish your workout strong and then continue with your day. Normally, electrolytes come from the food we eat but it that’s not enough when working out if, be sure to use an ORS like Hydralyte to keep your muscles and your brain going.
Dehydration, Exercise, and Avoiding Workout Headaches with Electrolytes
Hydration and electrolytes are key. When working out for any length of time, make sure that you are drinking plenty of water leading up to a workout and afterwards too. It’s hard for many of us to drink enough water during the day and when strenuous exercise dehydrates you further and you lose too many electrolytes, workout headaches can occur. Know how to manage your own dehydration and drink the right electrolytes so that you can have fun during your next workout!
Written by Lauren Motto, PharmD | Medical Science Liaison for Hydralyte
Hydralyte is a global leader in delivering clinical hydration. With up to 75% less sugar and 4X the electrolytes compared to the leading sports drinks, Hydralyte’s formulation provides rapid and effective rehydration.