The increased prevalence of airway hyperresponsiveness (AHR) observed among athletes suggests that high-level training may contribute to the development of AHR. We investigated the possible influence of the sympatho-vagal balance on this phenomenon in 40 athletes and 10 sedentary controls. Each subject filled out a respiratory questionnaire, had a methacholine challenge, and measurements were made of their baseline plasma catecholamines [epinephrine (E), norepinephrine (NE) and dopamine (DA)] as a reflection of sympathetic tone, and their heart rate variability (SDNN: standard deviation of all normal-to-normal intervals) as an indicator of parasympathetic tone. The athletes had a 45% prevalence of AHR (defined as PC20 < 16 mg/ml, where PC20 is the concentration of methacholine inducing a 20% fall in the forced expiratory volume in 1 s, FEV1) with a mean PC20 of 21.2 mg/ml compared with 10% prevalence (mean PC20: 74.4 mg/ml) in sedentary subjects (P < 0.01). Plasma catecholamine values were not significantly different between the two groups (all P > 0.05), but the estimated parasympathetic tone was higher in athletes (P = 0.01). When data from all subjects were analyzed together, plasma E and NE correlated with PC20 (r = 0.39, P = 0.005 and r = 0.29, P < 0.005) but DA and SDNN did not (both P > 0.05). However, the ratios E/SDNN, NE/SDNN and DA/SDNN showed significant correlations with PC20 (r = 0.42, P < 0.01; r = 0.33, P < 0.005 and r = 0.31, P < 0.05, respectively) This study suggests that the sympatho-vagal balance may contribute to the increased AHR in the population studied but this influence alone cannot explain the higher prevalence of AHR in athletes.