Catecholamines and the effects of exercise, training and gender

Sports Med. 2008;38(5):401-23. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200838050-00004.


Stress hormones, adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), are responsible for many adaptations both at rest and during exercise. Since their discovery, thousands of studies have focused on these two catecholamines and their importance in many adaptive processes to different stressors such as exercise, hypoglycaemia, hypoxia and heat exposure, and these studies are now well acknowledged. In fact, since adrenaline and noradrenaline are the main hormones whose concentrations increase markedly during exercise, many researchers have worked on the effect of exercise on these amines and reported 1.5 to >20 times basal concentrations depending on exercise characteristics (e.g. duration and intensity). Similarly, several studies have shown that adrenaline and noradrenaline are involved in cardiovascular and respiratory adjustments and in substrate mobilization and utilization. Thus, many studies have focused on physical training and gender effects on catecholamine response to exercise in an effort to verify if significant differences in catecholamine responses to exercise could be partly responsible for the different performances observed between trained and untrained subjects and/or men and women. In fact, previous studies conducted in men have used different types of exercise to compare trained and untrained subjects in response to exercise at the same absolute or relative intensity. Their results were conflicting for a while. As research progressed, parameters such as age, nutritional and emotional state have been found to influence catecholamine concentrations. As a result, most of the recent studies have taken into account all these parameters. Those studies also used very well trained subjects and/or more intense exercise, which is known to have a greater effect on catecholamine response so that differences between trained and untrained subjects are more likely to appear. Most findings then reported a higher adrenaline response to exercise in endurance-trained compared with untrained subjects in response to intense exercise at the same relative intensity as all-out exercise. This phenomenon is referred to as the 'sports adrenal medulla'. This higher capacity to secrete adrenaline was observed both in response to physical exercise and to other stimuli such as hypoglycaemia and hypoxia. For some authors, this phenomenon can partly explain the higher physical performance observed in trained compared with untrained subjects. More recently, these findings have also been reported in anaerobic-trained subjects in response to supramaximal exercise. In women, studies remain scarce; the results are more conflicting than in men and the physical training type (aerobic or anaerobic) effects on catecholamine response remain to be specified. Conversely, the works undertaken in animals are more unanimous and suggest that physical training can increase the capacity to secrete adrenaline via an increase of the adrenal gland volume and adrenaline content.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Catecholamines / metabolism*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Muscle, Skeletal / metabolism*
  • Physical Fitness / physiology
  • Sex Factors


  • Catecholamines