A while back now I posted an article about Exercise Induced Headaches (EIH). I have been suffering from them on and off for a few years now, mainly triggered by some form of over-exertion, and have never been able to find out exactly why they happen. It's a pain in the neck, literally. Since that EIH article I have been experimenting with myself and my headaches to try to get a handle on them and when I noticed that that article was one of my most popular (in terms of page views) I realised that there are many others in the same boat as me - suffering these headaches with no clear explanation as to why. I started to write an update to share my experiences but time ran away from me and the article never was published.
Until yesterday when one of my readers, Travis, reminded me that others are still struggling with EIH. So it is time to update my findings on Exercise Induced Headaches (EIH) in the hope that it can help others.
My Headaches Are Gone
Firstly, I have not suffered EIH since writing that article and taking a break from the gym. I am back working hard at the gym now, and have been for months, but I think I have learned a bit about my headaches and their causes. I feel that my workouts are better (and harder) now than they ever were (and I am leaner, fitter, and in better shape too) but I never have that feeling that I am straining so much that my head may explode. I'd say that's a good thing.
Before I share my tips for beating those nasty Exercise Induced Headaches let me just be clear again - I am not a doctor and this is not advice per se but just lessons I learned from my experiences. Use your discretion when applying to your own situation.
Lessons Learned For Beating EIH
In that first EIH article I hypothesized several theories for the causes behind my exercise headaches, one of which was about poor technique at the gym. I was on the right track there but not nearly in enough detail. Here are some of lessons I have learned over the past few months with my self-experimentation for EIH.
Focus on using the right muscles
When busting out weights at the gym I have learned that it is much better to focus on feeling that good, deep, burning pain in the right muscles rather than getting an extra rep/set out or upping the weights used. I was pushing myself to hit limits that my body could not match and instead of failing gracefully I was compensating with the rest of my body. I was using other muscles and incorrect technique to push myself to go just that little bit further and the result was an excess of tension in all the wrong places - back, neck, and shoulders.
Creating tension in those areas simply leads to headaches, and when all that blood is pumping through your body during exercises those headaches can feel like an explosion.
I'm not saying that pushing to failure is bad but what is important is how you define that failure.
Failure means failure to complete an exercise with perfect technique
Read that heading again. That is what failure means. Performing an exercise is all about getting the technique right and it does not matter if it is your 1st or 50th rep. Perfect technique should be maintained at all times. As soon as you cannot perform the exercise with that perfect technique then you have reached failure. There is no point swing your back and throwing your shoulders into the mix just to get an extra rep if the technique is poor.
A small number of perfect technique reps beats any number of mediocre technique reps any day of the week.
Breathing is important
Obviously breathing is important but I found that when I was pushing myself hard to find that extra rep I was often holding my breath. This is bad for many reasons, but it is the less-obvious ones that I want to focus on for the purpose of exercise induced headaches.
Holding your breath during exercise is heavily linked to tensing your neck. When we hold our breath normally nothing much changes in our body. But when we are under physical stress various parts of our body tense up in order to help out - mainly the abdominals and the neck. This is the way our body is designed to help us find that a short burst of extra strength when we really need it (i.e. life or death situations) but at the gym we misuse it - we lengthen the time these areas stay tensed when we hold our breath and the result is often dizziness, nausea, and headaches.
Don't say I didn't warn you.
Workout time is for working out only
I was big on taking my iPod to the gym, hitting shuffle, tuning out everyone else as I pushed through my gym routine. Bad idea. Tuning out is exactly the wrong thing to do when working out as you need to be entirely focused on the task at hand. If you are not focused then it is more than likely that you will a) not use the correct muscle groups b) not use perfect technique and c) not remember to breath.
You need to see your workouts as a time for concentration. A time to be zen-like. Feel the energy of the barbell resonate with you....ok maybe not quite so airy fairy but seriously, cutting down on distractions helps. When you are working out you should devote yourself to the exercise you are performing at that time. Nothing else matters. No listening to music, no chatting during a set, and no perving at the oily man-mountain deadlifting 500kg in the corner. It's just about you and the exercise.
Be Headache Free
Take a moment to consider your own efforts at the gym, or in whatever arena you tend to suffer your headaches, and see if you can identify the causes. Hopefully you can find something useful out of my experiences and put those headaches away for ever. Good luck!