Migraines in Athletes: Causes & Management

Rate this Article:
an in-depth review of the causes of migraines and the management of them for athletes. Migraines in Athletes: Causes & Management www.runnerclick.com

No one likes to run with pain. Whether it is from nagging soreness or an unresolved injury, it is possible to run through pain, but it will end up taking a toll on other areas in the body and affecting your pace and running form. Headaches are probably one of the most annoying types of pain to run with. We require exceptional focus when running, especially through busy streets or bumpy trails, and a headache most definitely gets in the way of this concentration. The worst kind of headache to have if you are a runner is a migraine. If you have ever suffered from migraines, you can probably agree that the symptoms that come along are debilitating and can limit almost any activity.


A migraine is not just any kind of headache. It involves a larger group of symptoms that may be present with or without a headache at all. Common complaints that occur before the headache strikes are lethargy, irritability, neck stiffness, and depression. These signs may arise several days before getting a headache. Problems with vision such as sensitivity or seeing bright spots are also common before, during, and after experiencing a migraine episode. Once the migraine hits, which is considered the “attack phase”, hampering symptoms occur, such as nausea, dizziness, vomiting, and a throbbing headache. All of these sensations may linger on for days, which can definitely get in the way of your training program.

Running as a Cause

For those who are chronically affected by migraines, running and other forms of exercise can often trigger the development of an episode. Since the physiological causes are different for everyone, it is unclear why exercise may be a cause and why it exacerbates the symptoms. Some believe it may be due to a shift in hormones as the body is working at a higher intensity or exposure to heat for prolonged periods of time. It is best to evaluate the intensity, duration, and environmental factors as you are exercising with every migraine experience to truly understand the cause.

Prevention & Management

Since migraines are related to the blood vessels in the head that may dilate and impinge on nerves, it is advisable to always incorporate a proper warm-up before running. This way you can ease yourself into this blood vessel pump that will increase in intensity during your run without suddenly causing pain from nerve impingement. Since headaches are a part of the migraine list of symptoms, it is best to do what you can to prevent one. Dehydration can be a cause of intense headaches and possibly cause nausea and other symptoms that may induce a migraine. Hydrating with proper daily fluid intake and electrolytes before and during your runs is ideal.

While it is not advisable to take anti-inflammatory medications on a daily basis or anywhere near regularly, it may be helpful to have a low dose before heading out for a run. The absolute best advice is to consult your doctor about the best dosage for you in this case as there are prescription migraine medications available. Any amount of inflammation can trigger a migraine especially those related to stress and anxiety so a good idea would be to incorporate a relaxing activity before runs such as light yoga or meditation.

Lack of sleep and high-stress levels are a known trigger of migraines and other headaches, which can all be relieved by exercise. The reason exercise may also decrease the frequency of migraines is due to the release of endorphins that help relax the mind and body and relieve pain. The important thing to note is that high-intensity exercise can have the opposite affect—making it more difficult to fall and stay asleep. It is best to practice lighter intensity exercise a few hours before bedtimes such as easy runs, light weight lifting, yoga, or other recovery cross training where you are not spiking your heart rate too high. Leave the harder sessions for morning workouts. This will help improve sleep quality and decrease the risk of developing migraines at any time, including during runs.

If you find that exercise is causing your migraines at times, it is important to make sure you are properly hydrated and warmed up before working out, especially at higher intensities and in the heat. If your migraines are frequent, it is best to take time off of exercise and speak with your doctor. You may be prescribed home remedies initially and possibly prescription medication. Migraines are caused by several different factors in everyone and present with varying symptoms. Some may tolerate these symptoms more than others. It is possible to be a runner if you suffer from migraines, but you may have to develop a specific schedule that works for you such as running at a different time of the day or changing up your pre-run routine.


  1. Andrew H. Ahn, MD PhD, Why Does Increased Exercise Decrease Migraine?, Journal