Migraines and Running: Yep, It’s A Thing.

migrainesCutting off my own head is not something I normally fantasize about, but last week in the grip of a migraine, decapitation seemed like the only logical way forward. It has been about a year since my last migraine and last week I had two. I hope it’s not going to become a trend.

This throbbing, intense, one-sided pain behind one eye is often accompanied by nausea, vomiting and extreme fatigue. When I have one I can’t do anything other than lie in bed for the rest of the day, and there is an intense hangover-feeling the next morning. And it always comes on during or immediately after a run: exercise-induced migraine.

It starts when I least expect it. I’ll be out in the woods on an easy run, thinking about nothing in particular, when suddenly I notice a blind spot like a hole in my vision. If I look at a person, they may have only one eye, or be missing the whole right side of their face. The surroundings may start to look like this:

Uh oh.
Uh oh. (Photo of Berlin Schlachtensee by Caraway. Hole by Photoshop.)

The blind spot lasts for 10-15 minutes and is followed by a flickering curlicue line across my vision, which slowly expands to become a blurry patch with colorful edges that takes up almost my entire field of sight. This is a full-blown migraine aura, and it’s so unpleasant that I get nauseous even just writing about it! By this point, I can hardly see anything. If I don’t do anything to stop it, the aura will last for about an hour. Then the pain and nausea start. All I can do is take ibuprofen and sleep.

I had the aura/migraine problem on and off for years, but only very occasionally, maybe once or twice a year, and often just the aura with no pain. Every time it happened I would vaguely think I should go to the doctor, but naps made it go away so it didn’t seem like medical intervention was necessary. Then during the first year after I had my son it got really bad. I had phases during which I’d get a migraine aura every time I ran, either during or after. Sometimes these developed into bad headaches, sometimes not. I even had a couple episodes, complete with vomiting and pain, that were so bad I seriously wondered if I was dying.

After weaning my son and regaining my period, I realized the migraines, or sometimes just the auras, always happened during the week before my period. Womanhood! Truly the gift that never stops giving! Awesome, right? But why?

Some scientists believe progesterone works a little differently than what this dude says.
When estrogen levels drop, Evil Progesterone likes to wreak havoc on your body like whoa.

Well, I’m no doctor, but it turns out that right before your period starts, your estrogen levels drop dramatically. Clove has explored all the ways in which this affects running (spoiler: none of them are good), and we can add one more to the list, because the change in estrogen levels is also associated with migraine pain. And although I didn’t even menstruate for most of my son’s first year, birth, breastfeeding and weaning all involve hormone shifts, which likely explains why it was so bad.

So what can we do about it?

When I went to the doctor she was phlegmatic, prescribed a triptan-family migraine medication and suggested not running if that was what brought it on. Not running! Ha! Very funny. But she was essentially following two standard plans of attack for migraines:

Medication: Unfortunately the prescription medication never worked for me (though it may for you); it was all side effects and no pain relief. I went back to ibuprofen, which at least makes it bearable, and I started surfing to research on my own. Although studies remain inconclusive on whether or not hormonal supplements definitely help, recent articles like this one still harken back to a 1984 study that lead its authors to believe estrogen can take over sympathetic control of blood flow to your brain, which means that controlling your estrogen could very well help control your migraines.

Avoiding Triggers: Some people have migraines when they’re stressed, or exposed to bright light, or when they’ve eaten a certain food. If your trigger is running with PMS, should you just not run or exercise for 7-10 days a month? That’s a question only you can answer. For me, the benefits of running (ie, mood therapy) are enough that the chance of having a migraine isn’t enough to deter me. Instead, I focus on…

Sensible precautions:

  • Eating or drinking something sweet can make the aura disappear, so try to have a gel with you during PMS week in case the aura starts mid-run. No gel? Take along some change to buy a cola or some chocolate (it’s the perfect excuse).
  • If you use medication, stash a couple doses anywhere you might need it, like your car, your gym bag, or at work.
  • Run close to home so you don’t get stuck in the middle of the woods, six miles from anything, in case a migraine sets in.
  • If you feel a migraine coming on, stop running. Turn around and head home as soon as possible.

Some say caffeine can also help. Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it restricts blood vessels, which may help ease migraine pain, and it also can help make pain medication more effective¹. But as you know if you drink coffee and have ever skipped a day, caffeine overuse or caffeine withdrawal can also ², so it’s important to be careful using it and to know your boundaries. Personally I’m not convinced, but I’ll try anything if it might work, so sometimes I’ll have a coffee along with my migraine.

The key to minimizing my migraine pain is to drop everything as soon as it starts, get some sugar in me, take my ibuprofen, and lie down. If I do this, I’m still out of it for the rest of the day, but at least I won’t end up wishing fervently for decapitation. If I don’t and stubbornly continue my run or try to keep up with daily life activities because strong women don’t ask for help…well, let’s just say it’s not worth it.

Do you get migraines while running, or do you have different triggers? Which treatment options work for you? Share your experiences in the comments!

I'm a 43-year-old living in Berlin, Germany and currently training for the 2020 Berlin Marathon.

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  1. This is interesting. I’m the opposite in that I will get migraines when I’m NOT running. I got migraines a lot as a child and then when I started running around the age of 13 they pretty much became non-existent. The only times I have gotten them in the past decade are when I was pregnant and whenever I’ve taken down time from running. It’s those planned weeks off of running where I am most susceptible to getting a migraine.

  2. I’m so glad you wrote about this – I get these too, and they will start during a run! I didn’t know they were migraines though, but I get the aura and almost immediately feel like I can’t run (I just thought it was low blood sugar, or something wacky with my body). I’m so glad you posted this – I’m sorry that you get them too, but I am REALLY glad to know what they are (and that I’m not the only one)!

    1. Eat sugar and nap. It’s honestly the only way to cope.

      Though – obviously – I’m not a doctor and ymmv etc. Have you ever seen a doctor about the auras? In retrospect it’s weird I was so blasé about mine. “Oh, yeah it’s that thing where I can’t see again. Guess I’ll go lie down.”

  3. I get exactly what you describe, but so far have never had one happen on a run. One of my triggers is weather – can’t really do anything about the barometric pressure – the other is hormonal. Glad you’ve found something to prevent wishing decapitation. I haven’t gotten there yet but am going to try what works for you.

    1. The auras didn’t start until after I had my daughter – prior to that it was just straight up migraines – and the first time that happened I thought I was having a stroke!

      1. Ugh. Sorry you have to deal with these too. hope you find a way to get relief (that doesn’t involve decapitation, of course!)

  4. I’ve had migraine with aura since I was 12. I’m 33 now. At my peak I averaged 20 migraine days a month and had FMLA paperwork filed for my migraine problems. I’ve been through EVERYTHING possible to deal with them. If I can find any way to exercise through them, it does help a little, I think it’s the blood flow but I’m not a doctor (I’m obviously not doing anything intense though). For the hormone based migraines, I found switching to Mirena (IUD) for birth control has been a life saver. Now that’s just me, but it’s eliminating headaches triggered by hormone changes as I’m much more level with my hormones than I used to be and don’t have a period with it. I still have plenty of other triggers to manage in my life, weather being a particularly bad one for me — so season changing is not fun. Anti-inflammatories have worked best for controlling pain for me. I TOTALLY get wanting to remove your head though .. it’s the worst!!!

  5. Yes, I get them too! I am among the very lucky ones bc my migraine is not debilitating but instead just a nasty headache that hurts like an average headache but also make my head feel extremely buzzy, if that makes any sense. I get nauseous right before the aura starts and mine last 20-25 minutes. The first time I had one (about 8 yrs ago) I was so freaked out! I thought I as having a stroke. I did go to the doc to get checked out (I am super sensitive about strokes bc they run on both sides of my family) and while my brain was a-ok, the migraines continued. I realized that my triggers are too much coffee (yup, the opposite of everyone else it seems!) and too many almonds (weird — but the period I went through drinking almond milk,almond butter and raw almonds daily was very high on the migraine frequency!) and stress. I was also on oral birth control and now that I am over 35 with my family history, my ob/gyn suggested I get off it bc folks in my situation have higher rate of stroke. I switched to a progestin only pill and that has def helped. The other thing that works for me, for headache pain, is marijuana used medicinally. One puff and almost before I can exhale, there is pain relief. It is extremely odd bc I never have actually gotten high from pot and thought I was “immune”. But I learned that it does apparently affect me, just in this very helpful way. Good luck with yours, they sound rough!

  6. This totally speaks to me this week as I’ve had two migraines with aura within four days – both after running. I know hormones are the cause and probably stress and not sleeping well lately; maybe dehydration? I’m training for a marathon and the migraines are such a frustrating set back. It takes me two, sometimes three days to feel myself again. I’m thirty-five years old and my mother went through menopause early. The increase in migraines and some other symptoms have me wondering if I’m already going through peri-menopause. Ugh. But, anyway, when I have a migraine I nap and take ibuprofen, too. I also found that ginger tea helps with nausea, and putting a wrapped ice pack on the back of my neck helps with the pain. Thanks so much for writing about this.

    1. Oh man 🙁 I feel you on this. So frustrating. It takes me at least a full day to feel normal again and it’s just like….isn’t life too short for this?

      Ice pack and ginger: noted. Good luck!

  7. I’ve found that ice cream (or anything frozen really) can help my migraines. I induce a “brain freeze” and that helps more often than not, kind of like the caffeine idea.
    For me, running can help a migraine, the only time it triggers one for me is if I get dehydrated.

    1. Hmm! That’s really interesting about the brain freeze. It reminds me in the cartoons when a character gets hit on the head and suddenly recovers from amnesia. Ha!

  8. I get regular migraines, mostly triggered by a drop in blood sugar. I know I have a very unhealthy diet (too much sugar), and when I cut down I always have to endure a sugar withdrawal migraine. If I stay low carb, I then usually feel great for a while.

    I think the post running migraine for me (like the one I had today) is my body going through that carb wall – entering into ketosis.

    I could probably avoid it by eating something sugary after the run, but that feels like a vicious circle of unhealthy eating.

  9. Hmm….I have had his twice now, only since I started running. I have looked in my diary and it’s a week before my period starts, coup,e with a change in emotional state, increased stress and anxiety.

    For me it’s the zig zag kaleidoscope bunting in both eyes, and depersonalisation. Also think I had low blood sugar, and a bit of dehydration. Once I ate it disappeared. Defiantly hormonal related.

  10. I get them occasionally usually about 10-15 mins after starting my run. I haven’t figured out the trigger. I used to think it was heat, but I had one just today and it was mid 40s and it was long run pace, so not pushing it hard.

    Mine starts as a bright spot that spreads to a crescent, then to a U shape, the completes itself into a kind of bright light donut. It fills itself in, the area makes everything look foggy (when I close my eye it’s like I’m looking at a flashlight bulb in a dark room.) From start of spot to donut to resolution back to normal vision takes about 5 mins. I don’t get headaches with these.

    Anyway, that’s my experience. I have no idea what to do about them.

    1. I had something similar in the years before I started getting full-blown migraines. Honestly, I should have gone to to a doctor about it! So that’s what I’d recommend 🙂

  11. I have the same problem with aura migraines during or after runs that are long or physically intense. My neurologist has prescribed 25_50 mg indomethacin 15 min before starting run. This is an nsaid similar to ibuprofen that has shown effectiveness in reducing inflammation in exercise induced migraine. A daily dose of.magnesium supplement during periods of.high training has also shown to be effective. If I still get a migraine after a run it usually is reduced and I have imitrex to take if I meed it

    1. So glad you found a treatment that works for you. Really interesting that you mention magnesium – I’m convinced it works for me, too, though I have to go knock on wood now….