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Why Do Some Athletes Get A Pre-Workout Headache?

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: June 21, 2022

Pre-workout supplements are one of the products I get all my clients to take who want to make sure that they maximize their muscle growth during training.

But I have had a few clients complain about a headache after they take certain pre-workouts. It certainly doesn't affect every person the same, but it seems like some people are more sensitive to how these products dilate blood vessels.

So, I spent some time with a nutritionist to get to the bottom of which products and ingredients to look out for and if there are ways to avoid such a headache.

Quick Summary

  • Pre-workout supplements are highly effective for muscle growth, but they can come with side effects like headaches.
  • Certain amino acid combinations can have an impact on blood vessels in your head that then lead to headaches.
  • It’s mainly dosage dependent on how your body reacts, but there are ways to reduce the headache risk.

Can Pre Workout Cause Headaches?

Drinking a pre-workout

A pre-workout supplement can give you a headache either because of an increased loss of water or a reaction to some ingredients.

What seems to be quite common is that a pre-workout will boost performance levels enough for an athlete to work a lot harder and sweat more.

A lack of fluid can then cause the liquid around the brain to get thinner resulting in headaches [1].

Then there are some amino acid ingredients like L-citrulline that boost nitric oxide levels and dilate blood vessels.

This includes blood vessels in your head, and that can cause severe but temporary pain.

What Ingredients Could Cause The Pain?

Here are some common ingredients in pre-workout supplements that seem to cause a headache.

L-Citrulline

This amino acid has been proven to help with increased nitric oxide levels in the body. And nitric oxide has a direct impact on how easily blood flows through the body [2]. The negative effect of this is that some people are more sensitive to the reaction and will suffer some discomfort.

L-Arginine

L-arginine is also common in pre-workouts and has been linked to reduced blood pressure and easier blood flow. However, this can also impact the blood vessels in your head and cause temporary pain [3].

Caffeine

And finally, caffeine can work great for your exercise performance, but if you’re sensitive to stimulants or drink a lot of coffee, then too much of it in your body can cause a headache.

This can especially impact people who suffer from migraines, and it can mainly trigger after the effects of the caffeine wear off [4].

3 Ways To Avoid Pre-Workout Headaches

Woman having a headache, and another drinking water

You can avoid pre-workout headaches by focusing on three things around your exercise routine.

1. Reduce The Dose

If you’re having trouble with a specific pre-workout supplement, then it can be worth taking a smaller dose to see if that’s the cause. It might impact your exercise performance as well, but at least you’ll know that it’s dose-dependent, and you might need to find a different product.

2. Drink More Water

One of the most common reasons for pre-workout side effects during exercise comes down to not being prepared for hydration. Ideally, you need to drink a lot more water before and during your exercise routine.

I suggest drinking about three cups of water 20 minutes before you head to the gym, and then take regular small sips between sets.

Post you may like: Should I Drink Water While Working Out?

“The exact reason why dehydration causes headaches is unknown. The brain does not have pain receptors. A dehydration headache is possibly triggered by pain receptors in the lining around the brain, called the meninges.” - Howard E. LeWine, MD, Chief Medical Editor, Harvard Health Publishing.

3. Avoid Overstimulation

Some pre-workouts contain a lot of caffeine. And when the caffeine wears off, one of the side effects can be a headache. If you’re not a big coffee drinker or you know that you're sensitive to stimulants, then maybe choose a caffeine-free pre-workout supplement.

FAQs

How Long Do Pre-workout Headaches Last?

Pre-workout headaches typically last less than an hour. In most cases, you can avoid them by drinking more water, but if they last a lot longer, then you should avoid your current supplement altogether.

Should You Seek Medical Help If You Have Pre-workout Headaches?

No, you don’t need to seek medical help from a doctor if you have pre-workout headaches. The effect should wear off quickly, and if they last for a long time, then stop taking a product.

Avoid Unnecessary Pain With Your Pre-Workout Supplement

Boosting your muscle growth shouldn't come at the expense of suffering from headaches every time you head to the gym.

The best thing you can do is reduce your dose and drink more water. And if that doesn't help, then you probably need to switch to a different product.

Our team has researched and tested dozens of pre-workout supplements that actually work, and the ones we recommend have given us practically no negative effects.

Check them out today, and see if they can solve your issues.


References:

  1. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21517-dehydration-headache
  2. https://www.webmd.com/vitamins-and-supplements/l-citrulline-uses-and-risks
  3. https://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements-l-arginine/art-20364681
  4. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/if-you-have-migraines-put-down-your-coffee-and-read-this-2019093017897

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