Running Update and Exertion Headaches


Nope, I don’t look like that yet. But I had to put some kind of photo into the post, ya know.

I just realized I haven’t posted an update on my running since my marathon obsession post back in the first part of the year. It’s not because it was short-lived; in fact, I’m up to 6 miles on my weekend long runs, and that includes having to take a 3-week break in April when I tore a muscle in my left calf.

That means I’m almost halfway to a half-marathon…which I’m scheduled to run in November. A couple of months ago, I signed up for the Epcot Wine and Dine half marathon at Disney World. And I signed up for a series of shorter races, mostly 5k distances, over the next year. The first one is in just a week and a half.

I have discovered that I love running. Once I got past the side-cramp, can’t breathe phase, my body started to adjust and I could feel it working my muscles and not just giving me pseudo-heart attacks. I don’t have a very fast pace yet, so a nice 5-mile run takes me about an hour. That’s a blissful hour with no husband, no kids, no customers, no laundry, no errands…in fact, there’s nothing but me, my iPod, the road, and my thoughts. Running is “me time” at its best.

I’ve happily also figured out (mostly) how to avoid exertion headaches. I’ve found that as I exercise more, I get the headaches less-often, even as I add time and/or mileage to a workout. It used to be that I got a headache after every 2-mile run, as well as after every Zumba class. If you’ve ever experienced exertion headaches, you know how frustrating they are. You feel like you have to choose between exercising and feeling good. Those shouldn’t be mutually exclusive!

Here are the things I do that I believe help prevent exertion headaches:

  1. Stay hydrated – I used to run on a completely empty stomach. Now I make sure I have a small glass of water before a run, and I stop twice on my 5- and 6-mile runs to rehydrate. After my run, I try to immediately have an 8-oz glass of water.
  2. Fuel up – To avoid running on an empty stomach, even early in the morning, I’ve started setting my alarm for 3:30am (the night before a long run) to eat half of a banana. It should be digested by my 6:30 run, but helps me have fuel for burning.
  3. Breathe – When running, I try to stay aerobic as much as possible. When teaching a Zumba class, I really focus on breathing well between songs. It’s hard to think about the routine and breathing at the same time, but between songs it’s easy.
  4. Caffeine – I’m addicted, but just to a little amount. I need one cup of coffee in the mornings to avoid a caffeine-withdrawal headache. If I run first thing, I’ll often forget the coffee because I’m drinking water to slake my thirst and fixing a post-workout smoothie. I have to make sure I get the coffee in me, though, to avoid the double effect of caffeine withdrawal and exertion.
  5. NSAIDs – If I am going through a phase where I get exertion headaches more often, I’ll take an NSAID pain reliever right before or right after my run, depending on the length. If I wait until the headache starts, it won’t do much good – but if I can prevent it from beginning, all is well. So either one Rx-strength pill that I have, or 200mg of Advil. (DO NOT TAKE THIS AS MEDICAL ADVICE! THIS IS JUST MY OWN EXPERIENCE!) I only do this on occasional long runs now; while I used to need them for shorter runs, I don’t seem to anymore.
  6. Healthy Eating – Throughout the rest of the day, I watch what I eat to avoid the other headache triggers I know affect me, such as MSG and sodium nitrates. Those are in lots of processed snack foods and meats, so I avoid most of those…and the by-product is that I make healthier food choices overall.

Hopefully if you’re a runner or other fitness enthusiast, you don’t suffer from those and this entire post seems foreign to you. But if my experiences can help someone, all the better. Best of luck in your own workouts!

PS – Nike+ says I’m up to 47 runs and 96 total miles. There are a couple of runs not in there because I was trying out other running apps on my iPhone, but they were short runs so it’s close. Feels good.


  1. Great tips, thanks. Susan. I’ve just finished a 7.4 mile run on a sunny morning & my head is pounding. Time to drink up.

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