Long Run Recovery: Headaches and GI Distress

Today we’re talking about long run recovery.  I know it may seem like we’re going in reverse by talking about recovery first, but this seems to be one of the biggest issues to long distance running.  It also seems to be where runner’s have the biggest complaints.  So, we’re going to chat about it ok?

Before we start I just want to make sure you know that I am NOT a nutrition expert, nor a running expert, nor a post long run recovery expert.  I’m a runner.  Period.  This is simply my opinion and remember; recovery is very specific to each individual runner.  My stomach is different from yours.  My body recovers differently than yours.  So, we’re going to open it up to some common post long run issues and discuss several possible options to help each one.  This may take a few posts.  I had lots of great responses on IG and FB so hang with me.

Today we’re going to start with the 2 issues I found most people complained about; headaches and stomach problems.  Hang onto your seats.


Several years ago I started getting headaches after long runs.  I’ve always been a headache sufferer so it didn’t really take me by surprise.  It’s my thing.  I get headaches and the occasional migraine.  However, it was making training for anything longer than a 10k miserable.  Who wants to run long distances if they have a pounding headache after every “long run?” Not this girl.  For me at the time, a long run was anything over 8 miles.  So, when I decided to train for my first marathon, I knew I had to get this under control or the whole process would be completely miserable.

I started researching headaches and causes for them after long stretches of exercise.  They are called “primary exercise headaches.”  According to Dr. Rashmi Halker from the Mayo clinic in Arizona, these headaches come on after sustained periods of exertion.  A long run certainly fits into that category.  The cause is unknown but could be related to blood flow to the brain during long bouts of exercise.  So, what do we do?

This past year I focused very heavily on recovery.  I knew that as a mom of 3 training for a marathon, I couldn’t come home from a long run and crash the rest of the day.  I walk in the house to hungry critters who are ready to roll with their Saturday or Sunday.  So, I had to nail my recovery.  Here are some tips I have found that work for me and the headaches…

1~ coffee.  I know you may not all be coffee drinkers but for headaches, caffeine helps.  It’s why migraine pills contain caffeine I assume…..but I’m not a dr.  So, I have started drinking about a half a cup of coffee before my long runs.  Now, yes..this can cause some added GI distress so this may not be an option for you.  If I do it, it’s at least an hour before my long run.  It also boosts your performance.  My stomach is able to tolerate it but if yours is not, then try a cup of coffee once you have recovered from your run.  I usually wait about an hour or so.  Runner’s World did a study on coffee and performance and said…..”One study had cyclists ride hard for two days in a row to put them in a glycogen-depleted state. Those who drank a recovery drink with carbs and caffeine rebuilt their glycogen stores by 66 percent more than those who drank only carbs.”  
You don’t have to tell me twice.  Coffee….check.  Obviously, this is along with water and electrolytes but I have found a little caffeine goes a long way on long run day.

2~salt.  I’ve found that when I’m not hydrating adequately with electrolytes I sweat salt.  When I sweat salt, I tend to get headaches.  Here’s the thing.  Don’t just hydrate right before or during your run.  It’s a constant.  Hydrate all week but especially the couple of days leading up to your long runs.  Alternate electrolyte drinks(Cocogo or Nuun to name a few) with water.  I also do this on long runs.  I alternate the two and this has helped tremendously with headaches.

3~refuel within 30 min.  Refueling within 30 min of your long run is huge.  I drink chocolate milk.  It’s just my thing.  I walk in the door and grab a chocolate milk.  I, like many of you, am so not hungry right after a long run.  So, it’s not like I walk in the door and grab a huge meal right away.  I drink my chocolate milk while I stretch and foam roll, and get crawled on by kids while I’m on the floor, and it settles my stomach and gets the proper amount of carbs, protein and calories back in.

My good friend and trainer Jeremy Jackson says this about long run recovery…
As with fitness there is no “one size” fits all approach to recovering after a long run. My suggestion is to immediately replenish carbohydrate and fat stores and then later in the day allow for protein source to help overnight recovery and post-race/run day recovery. Generally after a long run there is a short window of opportunity for the body to absorb important nutrients that will help with speedy recovery, so be sure to have some good complex carbohydrate/fat sources ready to consume. It is ok to consume liquid form of carbohydrates via meal replacement shakes or higher carb based protein shakes but be sure to get a good meal within the next hour or so following the race/run. 

This is so true.  You have a window, use it.  After my chocolate milk, I eat within the hour.  Always.  This is critical.  I rarely “feel” hungry but I eat anyway.  I don’t stuff my face but I eat a sensible meal and generally have no issues with headaches.  Make yourself eat people.  I know it’s hard and you may want to puke, but do it anyway.  Start with a drink and maybe a banana or an orange and work your way into a more substantial meal.  Your body will thank you!!

So, once I started refueling right away,  hydrating better, and adding in a little boost of caffeine my headaches went away.  If I feel one coming on I’ll grab a couple ibuprofen as soon as I feel it or fix myself a late afternoon cup of coffee and it goes away.  But, I can honestly say I’ve only had a couple in the last few years post long run.

GI Distress

isn’t this awesome?  This is how I feel sometimes.  I totally think I stole this pic from Runner’s World but we just won’t tell.  

Ok, I know this is a big one.  So many of you commented that stomach issues were your thing.  I get it.  Isn’t being a runner glamorous?  After reading all the feedback on Instagram I seriously thought about switching sports! Kidding.  But really.  During exercise, our bodies divert blood flow away from the intestinal organs and send it to the working muscles.  The harder the effort, the more blood flow is diverted.  I started slowing my long runs down and this seemed to help.

A lot of you had suggested that your gu’s or gel’s may be the culprit for your intestinal issues.  While I think this can sometimes be the case, I’m more a believer in hydration being the key.  I have found certain fueling that works better for me and is gentler on my stomach.  However, since I took my hydration seriously, my stomach is very rarely upset after a run.  Here are a few tips..

1~I’m going to pound this point home.  Hydrate BEFORE dehydration becomes an issue and BEFORE a long run.  Not just the morning of.  Hydrate regularly and especially those couple days leading up to your long run.  Like I said before, alternate electrolyte drinks and water.  I know a little about dehydration after being told I have Syncope(I dehydrate rapidly) as a kid.  So, all week long I carry a huge thing of water with me.  I use NUUN tablets and love them.  I pop one in my water and I’m good to go.  Also, carry water with you or have it stashed along your run route.  This is important even when it gets cold.  You may not feel as thirsty but you need to be drinking.  Every time my Garmin beeps at me at the mile marks, I drink.  It’s like my little reminder.  I alternate water and electrolytes while I’m running if I can.  I carry a handheld water bottle.  I fill it with an electrolyte then on my first water stop I’ll fill it with water.  This way I get a mix of both.

2~Another key is testing out different fuels during training.  You will find some gel’s or gu’s or chew’s just don’t agree with your stomach.  My husband uses Accelerade and LOVES it.  Swears by it in fact.  It makes me so sick.  Not necessarily after a run but during.  My stomach does NOT agree with my hubby.  So, I found my solution.  I’m not getting paid to advertise ya’ll, but seriously this stuff turned my long runs around…GEN UCAN.

here’s my long run stash laid out the night before…it’s insane
I LOVE this stuff.  It’s a superstarch so it’s a powerful fuel but it is also very gentle on the stomach.  It’s like a coating for your stomach.  I have found I need very little, if any, mid run fuel if I drink UCAN before my long runs.  It has also helped my recovery in a big way.  I drank this before my last marathon and had no headache and no GI distress after the race.  My knee was jacked so I couldn’t walk, or sit, or squat, or climb stairs without crying BUT my stomach was perfect.  
Test stuff out.  You will find the right combo that agrees with your system but do it during training, NOT on race day.  We’re going to tackle some more issues so if you didn’t see yours, don’t worry.  There is more coming your way.  My kids are up and I gotta scoot to breakfast and getting them off to school.  Happy Wednesday!!! 
I know I can’t cover everything so if you see something I’ve missed please weigh in below in the comments section. I love hearing from you.  We can all benefit from the experiences of other runners! 

9 comments on “Long Run Recovery: Headaches and GI Distress

  1. Megan,
    I did gatorade for my last marathon because that’s what they had on the course. I mixed it with water to dilute it a bit because I can’t handle the sugar either. Nuun has been a lifesaver since I started using that instead. Also, humidty and dew point affect how much we sweat so even when it’s cooler, if those two things are high(which they are A LOT here in Texas) I have to make sure to drink a lot. I sometimes use Hershey’s for my chocolate milk, even though it’s terrible for you. I only do it after really long runs so once a week or so. I also use chocolate hemp protein powder as a replacement for the chocolate milk. I sometimes buy Torani chocolate sauce. It’s organic but expensive so I alternate.

  2. Dani, I love your analogy!! It’s so true and a great way to remind ourselves how important it is to hydrate. I love that you eat cocoa krispies haha. Two birds, one stone. Love it!

  3. After my half this past Sunday I was covered in salt. During the race drank my entire 12oz water bottle and had water at all the stops. I drink at least 100oz of water everyday. I can’t do Gatorade types of drinks because they make me so thirsty and make me feel dehydrated. Definitely going to get some nuun tablets to try! Thank you! Also, how do you make your chocolate milk? I used to use this as my recovery drink as well, until I started trying eat healthier.

  4. Lots of great info! I drink spark in the mornings typically before my run…a few weeks back after a 10k I had a headache the entire afternoon and thinking back I did not have any caffeine that morning. Hmmmm

  5. Lots of great info! I drink spark in the mornings typically before my run…a few weeks back after a 10k I had a headache the entire afternoon and thinking back I did not have any caffeine that morning. Hmmmm

  6. I seriously could not agree more about the hydration! A few years ago, I would get soooo tired and blah after a long run or even a short one. Water can go a loong way. I like to think of it as oil for my muscle/bones to help them move smoother not get all crampy 😉
    After my long runs, I usually eat a bowl of cocoa krispies cereal. It turns my milk chocolate AND it forces me to eat even though thats the last thing I feel like doing after a long run. Your tips are awesome :)) Thanks for sharing!

  7. I am “crusted” in salt after a long run. Will be getting some nuun tablets. Thanks for that!!! I wholeheartedly agree with everything else you said. We have been learning so much about our bodies and how to properly fuel and what you’ve shared has proven to be spot on!!! Thanks Kel!

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