Chronic exercise induces physiological enlargement of the left ventricle ('athlete's heart'), but the effects of current and long-term exercise training on diastolic function have not been investigated. Echocardiography and Doppler imaging were used to assess left ventricular (LV) dimensions and indices of diastolic filling in 22 elite athletes at the end of their 'off-season' (baseline) and, subsequently, following 3 and 6 months of training. Twelve matched controls were also studied at baseline, 3 and 6 months. Compared to controls at baseline, athletes exhibited significantly higher LV mass (235.7 +/- 7.1 g versus 178.1 +/- 14.5 g, P < 0.01) and reduced flow propagation velocity (V(P): 50.21 +/- 1.7 versus 72.2 +/- 3.6 cm s(-1), P < 0.01), a measure of diastolic function. Three months of training further increased LV mass in athletes (253.2 +/- 7.1 g; P < 0.01 versus baseline), and significantly increased their V(P) (66.7 +/- 2.5 cm s(-1); P < 0.05 versus baseline). These trends for increased mass and diastolic filling persisted following 6 months of training (LV mass 249.0 +/- 8.7 g P < 0.05 versus baseline; V(P) 75.7 +/- 3.0 cm s(-1); P < 0.01 versus baseline, and P = 0.01 versus 3 months). This study suggests that following a period of relative inactivity the rate of ventricular relaxation during early diastole may be slowed in athletes who exhibit ventricular hypertrophy, whilst resumption of training increases the speed of ventricular relaxation in the presence of further hypertrophy of the left ventricle.