Cardiac parasympathetic reactivation following exercise: implications for training prescription

Sports Med. 2013 Dec;43(12):1259-77. doi: 10.1007/s40279-013-0083-4.


The objective of exercise training is to initiate desirable physiological adaptations that ultimately enhance physical work capacity. Optimal training prescription requires an individualized approach, with an appropriate balance of training stimulus and recovery and optimal periodization. Recovery from exercise involves integrated physiological responses. The cardiovascular system plays a fundamental role in facilitating many of these responses, including thermoregulation and delivery/removal of nutrients and waste products. As a marker of cardiovascular recovery, cardiac parasympathetic reactivation following a training session is highly individualized. It appears to parallel the acute/intermediate recovery of the thermoregulatory and vascular systems, as described by the supercompensation theory. The physiological mechanisms underlying cardiac parasympathetic reactivation are not completely understood. However, changes in cardiac autonomic activity may provide a proxy measure of the changes in autonomic input into organs and (by default) the blood flow requirements to restore homeostasis. Metaboreflex stimulation (e.g. muscle and blood acidosis) is likely a key determinant of parasympathetic reactivation in the short term (0-90 min post-exercise), whereas baroreflex stimulation (e.g. exercise-induced changes in plasma volume) probably mediates parasympathetic reactivation in the intermediate term (1-48 h post-exercise). Cardiac parasympathetic reactivation does not appear to coincide with the recovery of all physiological systems (e.g. energy stores or the neuromuscular system). However, this may reflect the limited data currently available on parasympathetic reactivation following strength/resistance-based exercise of variable intensity. In this review, we quantitatively analyse post-exercise cardiac parasympathetic reactivation in athletes and healthy individuals following aerobic exercise, with respect to exercise intensity and duration, and fitness/training status. Our results demonstrate that the time required for complete cardiac autonomic recovery after a single aerobic-based training session is up to 24 h following low-intensity exercise, 24-48 h following threshold-intensity exercise and at least 48 h following high-intensity exercise. Based on limited data, exercise duration is unlikely to be the greatest determinant of cardiac parasympathetic reactivation. Cardiac autonomic recovery occurs more rapidly in individuals with greater aerobic fitness. Our data lend support to the concept that in conjunction with daily training logs, data on cardiac parasympathetic activity are useful for individualizing training programmes. In the final sections of this review, we provide recommendations for structuring training microcycles with reference to cardiac parasympathetic recovery kinetics. Ultimately, coaches should structure training programmes tailored to the unique recovery kinetics of each individual.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological / physiology*
  • Athletes
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Heart / innervation
  • Heart / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Parasympathetic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Physical Fitness / physiology*