Short-duration sprints (<10 seconds), interspersed with brief recoveries (<60 seconds), are common during most team and racket sports. Therefore, the ability to recover and to reproduce performance in subsequent sprints is probably an important fitness requirement of athletes engaged in these disciplines, and has been termed repeated-sprint ability (RSA). This review (Part I) examines how fatigue manifests during repeated-sprint exercise (RSE), and discusses the potential underpinning muscular and neural mechanisms. A subsequent companion review to this article will explain a better understanding of the training interventions that could eventually improve RSA. Using laboratory and field-based protocols, performance analyses have consistently shown that fatigue during RSE typically manifests as a decline in maximal/mean sprint speed (i.e. running) or a decrease in peak power or total work (i.e. cycling) over sprint repetitions. A consistent result among these studies is that performance decrements (i.e. fatigue) during successive bouts are inversely correlated to initial sprint performance. To date, there is no doubt that the details of the task (e.g. changes in the nature of the work/recovery bouts) alter the time course/magnitude of fatigue development during RSE (i.e. task dependency) and potentially the contribution of the underlying mechanisms. At the muscle level, limitations in energy supply, which include energy available from phosphocreatine hydrolysis, anaerobic glycolysis and oxidative metabolism, and the intramuscular accumulation of metabolic by-products, such as hydrogen ions, emerge as key factors responsible for fatigue. Although not as extensively studied, the use of surface electromyography techniques has revealed that failure to fully activate the contracting musculature and/or changes in inter-muscle recruitment strategies (i.e. neural factors) are also associated with fatigue outcomes. Pending confirmatory research, other factors such as stiffness regulation, hypoglycaemia, muscle damage and hostile environments (e.g. heat, hypoxia) are also likely to compromise fatigue resistance during repeated-sprint protocols.