Why Do Some Athletes Get A Pre-Workout Headache?

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Published by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: July 17, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Dr. Kristy Dayanan, BS, MD
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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 headaches in athletes are often triggered by reactions to certain supplement ingredients or increased water loss.
  • Staying hydrated and adjusting the dosage of pre-workout supplements can effectively reduce the risk of headaches.
  • According to the Cleveland Clinic, dehydration can cause the liquid around the brain to become thinner, leading to headaches.
  • Personally, I believe that understanding your body's response to pre-workout supplements is crucial for optimizing performance without discomfort.

Can Pre Workout Cause Headaches?

Drinking a pre-workout

When taking pre-workout supplements, it's essential to be mindful of the potential effects they can have on the body. They boost energy but can cause headaches. Once, upping my dose led to headaches due to increased water loss from diuretic ingredients.

Cleveland Clinic advises staying hydrated to prevent dehydration-related headaches [1]. Also, ingredients like L-citrulline in these supplements can increase nitric oxide, dilating blood vessels and potentially causing temporary, intense headaches.

Measures and Safe Practices

I've learned hydration is crucial to dodge headaches from pre-workouts. Now, I ensure I drink enough water before, during, and after exercise.

Knowing your tolerance and easing into new supplements helps spot side effects and tailor your pre-workout regimen. Always check with a healthcare expert before adding new supplements for safe and effective workouts.

Pre-workout Timing and Headaches

The timing of taking pre-workout supplements is key to avoiding headaches. Taking them too close to exercise can cause dehydration and vasoconstriction from caffeine, leading to headaches.

Conversely, taking them too early reduces their effectiveness. The sweet spot is 30–60 minutes before working out for optimal effect without headache risk. Since individual tolerance varies, it's crucial to observe personal reactions and maintain hydration to further reduce the risk of headaches from these supplements.

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, according to WebMed, 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, according to Mayo Clinic, 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, according to Harvad Medical School, it can mainly trigger after the effects of the caffeine wear off [4].

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.

“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

I've noticed in my own training that some pre-workouts with high caffeine content can lead to headaches as the effects wear off. It's a tricky balance to maintain, especially for those sensitive to caffeine.

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.

4. Balanced Nutrition

Combine your pre-workout supplement with a balanced meal or snack. Avoid taking it on an empty stomach, as this can contribute to headaches.

A mix of carbohydrates and protein can provide sustained energy.

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.


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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About The Author

Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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