Why Does CrossFit Give Me a Headache? (Extreme Headaches After WODs Explained) 

Yesterday was a rest day, and you were all pumped today for your CrossFit workout. You actually smashed the workout, didn’t you? But then you’re hit with this overwhelming throbbing pain, either on one side of your head or across your entire head. 

10 Reasons CrossFit Gives You a Headache 

You can get a headache after your WOD or CrossFit workout for various reasons

1. Exercise 

You can get a primary exertional headache (also called an exercise headache) just because you exercised. When you exert yourself physically, more blood needs to circulate, and your blood vessels need to expand as a result. 

Exercise headaches are relatively rare. They feel like a migraine, and can last for a short five minutes to two days

A primary exertional headache is more common when you exercise at a high altitude or when it’s hot

Plus, doing certain exercises place more strain on your neck and head, such as handstand pushups, can give you a headache.    

2. Dehydration 

You lose a lot of electrolytes and water when you sweat. If you don’t drink enough water prior to exercising and during your workout, your body dehydrates

A study published in 2016 states your body loses up to 2% of your body weight in fluid during aerobic exercise. The same study found that proper hydration improves your physical and cognitive performance during your WOD.   

3. Incorrect Exercise Form and Muscle Tension  

You may suffer from a tension headache (also called a cervicogenic or stress headache) after WOD. 

A tension headache occurs if your form during exercises was incorrect; that is, your posture caused the muscles in your neck, shoulders, and back of your head to stiffen or squeeze, resulting in a headache. Plus, if your neck is in a poor posture position, the carotid arteries constrict, and less blood is delivered to the brain. 

Crunches, weightlifting, and push-ups are examples of exercises that can cause headaches if your form isn’t spot-on.   

4. Low Blood Sugar  

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can cause a headache after your WOD. If your nutrition prior to working out is poor, your body burns through its glucose stores too fast, leading to low blood sugar and, consequently, a headache. 

5. A Migraine 

While The Migraine Trust states exercise can both help a migraine attack, working out can also trigger a migraine. The underlying causes could be hypoglycemia, dehydration, a lifestyle or diet change, or starting your WOD too suddenly.    

6. Holding Your Breath  

When you are doing core exercises, you may be prone to unconsciously holding your breath. Or you may be practicing the Valsalva maneuver to give you more core strength and protect your spine. 

You may also hold your breath (knowingly or unknowingly) during other types of exercises too. 

But not breathing while you work out has numerous effects on your body: it increases intrapleural pressure, compressing important blood vessels (like the vena cava and aorta) and your heart chambers. With the aorta compressed, your blood pressure dramatically spikes, resulting in a headache

7. Stress 

If you are feeling stressed, your cortisol levels are high. Cortisol is the stress hormone that helps you cope with stressful situations. And yes, exercise, especially high-intensity workouts like CrossFit, is stressful on your body

When you exercise while you are stressed, your body simply produces even more of the stress hormone, so already high cortisol levels simply increase even more. High cortisol can trigger a headache during or after your WOD.    

8. Exhaustion 

Research has uncovered a definite relationship between exhaustion (or fatigue) and headaches. Experiencing exhaustion while also suffering from headaches is double whammy that often occurs together, or tiredness may cause a headache. 

Add a headache trigger like stress (aka your CrossFit WOD), and you’ve got the reasons for why does CrossFit give you a headache.   

9. Caffeine 

If you haven’t had your caffeine fix (whether from coffee or an energy drink before you WOD), you may get a headache. Caffeine constricts the brain’s blood vessels, and when you haven’t had your fix, the blood vessels expand, increasing blood flow and triggering a headache. 

The opposite is, unfortunately, also true. Too much caffeine can also cause headaches because it makes you urinate more, which potentially leads to dehydration (which causes a headache).   

10. Alcohol  

Consuming alcohol before your WOD causes your blood vessels to dilate, thus increasing blood flow to your brain. Alcohol also increases the production of cortisol. All of these factors trigger a headache.   

What Can You Do to Treat a WOD-Induced Headache?  

Follow these treatment options if you are suffering from a headache after a CrossFit workout: 

Cause of CrossFit Headache Treatment of Headache 
Exercise Take ibuprofen or another anti-inflammatory pain reliever of your choice Apply a heating pad to your head Go see your healthcare professional for a checkup to rule out any underlying causes, or to get a diagnosis and treatment 
Dehydration Replenish your electrolytes by drinking a sports drink Drink lots of water Try unsweetened coconut water 
Incorrect Form Do gentle stretches Take some ibuprofen or a muscle relaxant to help relieve tension 
Low Blood Sugar Eat or drink something that has at last 15 grams of carbs (small piece of fruit) when you experience this type of headache Then eat some complex carbs (slice of whole-grain toast) 
A Migraine Use a cold pack or a heating pad Rest in a darkened room Stay hydrated Meditate and relax Take pain relievers or your prescription medication as per instruction from your doctor Massage your scalp 
Holding Your Breath Take an over-the-counter pain reliever Relax Breathe 
Stress Take a hot bath to relax your tense muscles Try aromatherapy Relax by going for a massage, acupuncture, or do some yoga Apply a hot or cold compress to your head for 5-10 minutes at a time Do deep breathing exercises 
Exhaustion Take some pain relievers, like Advil or Tylenol Rest Get a massage Go for an acupuncture treatment Place a hot or cold compress on your head for 5-10 minutes 
Caffeine Take an over-the-counter pain reliever, like Tylenol, aspirin, or ibuprofen A study found that massaging a few drops of peppermint oil into your temples and forehead relaxes your muscles and ease painIncrease your water intakePlace an ice pack on your head or on the back of your neck to help numb the pain Try acupuncture – press the pressure point located between your index finger and base of your thumb for 5 minutes (do so on both hands, one at a time) Rest 
Alcohol Drink lots of fluids (water and a beverage that’s packed with electrolytes) Take the recommended dose of a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, like Aleve, ibuprofen, or aspirin 

What Can You Do to Prevent Getting a Headache After a CrossFit WOD? 

To prevent getting headaches during or after a high-intensity WOD, follow these best tips: 

  • Practice diaphragmatic breathing where you breathe in through your nose and activate your core muscles, and then slowly exhale  
  • Stay hydrated before you go to your CrossFit class and during your workout. Studies found you should, ideally, consume 15-20 ounces of water one to two hours prior to exercising, 8-10 ounces of water 15 minutes before you start your WOD, and 8 ounces every 15 minutes during your workout.  
  • Eat nutritious food to prevent your blood sugar from dropping. You can have a small snack just before your workout starts or in the middle of it. 
  • Ensure you do a proper warm up and cool down for 5-10 minutes. 
  • Practice your exercise form by watching yourself in the mirror or having a trainer help you. Also, focus on form rather than speed during exercise to prevent injury and headaches.  

The Last Ache 

Having a headache is never fun, so do what you can to prevent getting one during or after your CrossFit WOD. At least now you know why does CrossFit give you a headache and how to treat them!

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