Hydration Series - What color is your urine? The Armstrong Color Chart
When I was a strength coach, in the collegiate and NFL setting, I proudly put one in every bathroom, locker room and training room I worked. I thought I was doing the best job possible and changing lives.
For me it was just an extension of where I came from. The creator of this chart, ironically, was one of the professors in my masters degree program, Dr. Lawrence Armstrong. He has had a major impact on the research and implementation of hydration strategies for elite athletes, average exercisers and even special operation soldiers.
His chart looks similar to when you want to paint the walls in your house, but with the distinct disadvantage that it’s to measure urine color… nice!
How to use the chart?
When you’re done using the bathroom, you simply compare the color of your pee to the chart. If you’re in the lower ranges (#1-3) you’re less likely to be dehydrated. If you’re in the middle section (#4-6) you are potentially dehydrated and if you a high number (#7-8) you are likely dehydrated.
Most sport teams, institutions, units, etc. have protocols with each of these posted. I for one would put them in ranges:
Urine colors 1-3: Continue current hydration plan with sodium still being added in small quantities to food and drink
Urine colors 4-6: Consume more fluids, specifically ones with sodium added (usually a picture with an isotonic sport drink that sponsored us), consume more salty snacks or add salt to meals.
Urine colors 7-8: Immediately work to rehydrate and contact dietitian, sports medicine or strength coaches about creating a plan for rehydration and safety.
Is this the best approach?
The general purpose of the chart was to bring awareness of the change in urine color and how hydration effects it, thus creating a simple tool. The early research showed that it could be used at a low level with minimal equipment to help people with hydration strategies.
This research showed the correlation of urine color to specific gravity and osmolality (both measures of hydration) of the same sample to be correlated. The use of this, coupled with consistently measuring body weight, is a simple, cost effective way to provide basic guidance to those who are exercising heavily, specifically in hot environments.
Dark urine = dehydrated?
This is where it becomes trickier, because recent research started to question if this is the best way to measure hydration status and if dark urine always means dehydration.
When researchers took blood samples and looked at markers of cellular hydration, they found minimal relationship between cellular dehydration and the urine concentration / color we are measuring with the chart.
What does that mean? It means that while it’s the color chart is a good free and basic strategy to ensure people are paying attention to their hydration status; it doesn’t answer all questions or provide a detailed look at a person’s hydration.
If you remember from some of our other articles during Hydration Series, the human body moves water in and out of the cell by changing the water retained, or lost by the body.
This means that one reason for having dark colored urine is that the body is retaining water to protect cell size and keep fluid.
When urine is completely clear and a person is peeing constantly, it is usually a sign that the body is getting MORE than it needs. As we continue to overdrink, above our current needs, it often leads to peeing way more than needed.
So, there is ABSOLUTELY a relationship between how much we drink and urine color. BUT, it doesn’t always correlate with true blood and cellular hydration status, where it is most vital to health and performance.
This is a tough adjustment for some people. After years, even decades of being told to DRINK MORE, no matter the need, event, environment, sweat rate, etc. it has become engrained in sports and tactical settings where it is the ONLY answer.
The current mantra of “if an athlete isn’t peeing clear they dehydrated”, may not be the best thing to perpetuate. A deeper understanding of the ranges and what is happening may have better long-term results.
One negative consequence of this ideology, is the athletes overdrinking immediately pre-contest. This often negatively affects their performance. It could be as simple as their needs to use the facilities, but could be as dangerous as hyponatremia, which is the dilution of sodium within the body.
The other negatives are making athletes think that urine color ALONE will lead to optimized success and that constant OVER hydration is positive. Each of these carry some negative consequences. They both lead to the athlete thinking they can fix all dehydration with consuming as much water as possible. They both also lead to a lower sodium intake and ignores the education and research about better fueling and hydration before training sessions and competitions.
Urine color and hydration status
We all agree, looking at the color of your urine makes sense for being aware of your hydration status. How specific and easy to utilize for performance is it?
No research has show finite and simple relationships between urine color and the necessary amount to positively affect hydration status. Even when an athlete is urinating with a level #7-8 on the Armstrong scale, this may not be due to dehydration. There are other factors we need to consider:
- Diuretic drinks (E.g - tea, coffee) consumed in excess
- Cold water emersion
- Water drank excessively (hyponatremia potential)
- Anxiety / nervousness
- Medications (this would be a great conversation to have with our Powell Performance Dietitians)
We’re not saying that checking the color and comparing it to the Armstrong chart is bad. For MANY people this will be all the information and feedback system they need. Of our athletes and clients we do have some where we recommend they stay below a certain number, often due to medical conditions or habits that we want to enforce.
We DO NOT believe, however, that anyone should make sweeping recommendations about nutrition or hydration such as “stay within levels 1-3 at all costs”.
- Use the chart for massive changes in urine color – this can be a great indicator of issues from diet, medications, training level, etc.
- Monitor pre and post workout/competition body weight AND your urine color to see if you can find a correlation for YOU that works.
- If you use this chart and are often a #6-8, try drinking more water and increasing sodium, see if you respond positively. If more of a #1-3, drink only to thirst, and keep a journal of feelings and changes in performance, mood, etc.
It is important as coaches, dietitians, athletic trainers, etc. that we work towards educating our athletes more and not just making sweeping recommendations constantly. It is not as simple as athletes at #1 are hydrated and #8 are dehydrated. There needs to be more data and information along with that scale.
Use the chart for what it is, a useful first step to be combined with other tools. If you want to add more tools to your tool box, please reach out to our Powell Performance Staff for a FREE CONSULTATION, we’d love to help!
Perrier E, Johnson EC, McKenzie AL, Ellis LA. Urine colour change as an indicator of change in daily water intake: a quantitative analysis. European Journal of Nutrition, in press, 2015. Published online 19 August 2015.
Armstrong, L. E., Maresh, C. M., Castellani, J. W., Bergeron, M. F., Kenefick, R. W., LaGasse, K. E., & Riebe, D. (1994). Urinary Indices of Hydration Status, International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 4(3), 265-279.