5 Signs of Dehydration

And a not so expert opinion on what do about it

I did it!

This past Monday I completed my very first Olympic Triathlon!  I did it in the gym (not in competition) because it’s January and nobody wants to do an open water swim in Ottawa this time of year.  But I did the whole distance for the first time, in the pool, on a stationary bike and treadmill, so it counts.

Photographic proof of my time – I really did it!

My total time of 3:24:13 isn’t going to put the fear of God in any competitive triathletes but that’s not the point.  The point is I did it and now that I have established a base line, I can only get better from here.

After I got home, I posted a video about my experience and some of my immediate impressions, just link to my last post here to view.  One of the things I noticed was that I had a pretty persistent headache and some other odd bodily sensations for the rest of the day.   My immediate thought was general fatigue but then I remembered that I tend to run a low-grade headache pretty much all the time, so I did a little bit of research and found that the more likely culprit for most of my symptoms is dehydration.

According to my research here are five of the most common signs of dehydration (all of which I displayed in the hours following my triathlon and on a regular basis at other times as well).  For more check out facty.com, a peer reviewed medical information website based in Victoria BC.

1 – Headache

We all know that our bodies are mostly water.  But did you know that a loss of water in your body can lead to a change in the chemical make up of your blood?  This can then cause your brain to shrink and pull away from the skull, triggering the pain receptors in the region.  After strenuous exercise this effect can be amplified.  No wonder I get a headache after just about every 10K run.

2 – Dark Coloured Urine

Healthy urine is mostly clear with a slight yellow tint.  As you lose bodily fluids your urine will turn a darker shade.  Just a 3% reduction will result in a prominent yellow colour, 5% will show a rusty colour, anything approaching orange or red is a sign of severe dehydration and you should seek medical attention immediately.  My urine wasn’t too bad but I have seen some pretty funky shades at other times.

3 – Fatigue

Everyone knows that without the right amount of water you can experience muscle soreness, but general fatigue is also a high risk.  A 10% drop in overall performance, both physical and metal is quite common and reasonable in people dealing with dehydration.  I was in a mental fog for most of the day and made a few silly errors while I tried to get my work done, things like sending documents to the wrong printer, misplacing small items, that type of thing.

4 – Muscle Cramps and Spasms

Every athlete, even weekend warriors like me, knows about the intense pain of a Charlie Horse.  Other less obvious and less painful muscle spasms and minor twitches are also early signs of dehydration.  Sodium and potassium help muscles contract and dehydration can cause an imbalance here which is the real cause of cramps and the dreaded Charlie Horse.  No Charlie Horse this time, thank God, but my legs and arms did twitch a bit off and on throughout the day.

5 – Light-Headedness

One of the reasons I started my triathlon training in the first place was due to a diagnosis of hypertension or high blood pressure.  It’s a well-known fact that regular exercise lowers blood pressure but coupled with the previously mentioned electrolyte imbalance, low blood pressure after intense exercise can result in a light-headed feeling, dizziness and even fainting.  I was slightly light-headed early in the day, but it seemed to abate quickly in my case.


So, armed with this knowledge what are some things I can do next time to avoid dehydration?

I should obviously drink more water.  Most experts agree that 64 fluid ounces per day is the goal.  If I get a full glass every 2 hours that should be good.  Most days I’m lucky if I remember to get half that.  But what else should I do to get more fluid in my body and avoid the electrolyte imbalances that cause some of the more painful symptoms of dehydration?  Here are four simple remedies and preventative steps to take to avoid dehydration.

1 – Eat more Fruit

Specifically, watery fruits like melons, bananas and citrus fruits are a good source of not only water but many of the minerals like potassium that are lost during dehydration.  I already tend to eat a banana as my first solid food after a workout anyway, but more fruit can’t hurt.  Watery veggies are also a good idea, cucumbers, celery, tomatoes, etc.

2 – Salt

This may seem counterintuitive since salt is associated with dehydration, but we need salt to regulate the function of our organs and we lose a lot of it when we sweat.  Some athletes drink saltwater, others eat crackers or other salty snacks right after an intense workout.

3 – Yogurt

Another great source of sodium and potassium, yogurt is also very easy to digest and generally won’t upset your stomach.  I felt a bit nauseous after my triathlon, maybe a few mouthfuls of yogurt would have helped.

4 – Epsom Bath

Soaking in Epsom salts has been shown to help the body absorb fluids through the skin.  Epsom salts also contain magnesium which can counteract many of the negative effects of inefficient fluid intake.  Just 10 or 15 minutes in a warm bath of Epsom salts can do wonders in heading off the effects of dehydration after an intense workout.


So there you have it, a few common signs of dehydration and how combat them.   The next time I run a triathlon I shouldn’t feel quite as dehydrated afterwards.

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