Hypogonadotropic hypogonadism due to a deficiency in hypothalamic gonadotropin-releasing hormone is common in female athletes ("hypothalamic amenorrhea"). It is not known, however, whether a similar phenomenon occurs in male athletes. We investigated the integrity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-gonadal axis in six highly trained male marathon runners (who were running 125 to 200 km per week). The mean (+/- SEM) frequency of spontaneous luteinizing hormone pulses was diminished in the runners, as compared with healthy controls (2.2 +/- 0.48 vs. 3.6 +/- 0.24 pulses per eight hours, P less than 0.05). The amplitude of the pulses was also low in the runners (0.9 +/- 0.24 vs. 1.6 +/- 0.15 mlU per milliliter; P less than 0.05), and the responses of luteinizing hormone to gradually increasing doses of exogenous gonadotropin-releasing hormone were decreased. Plasma testosterone levels were similar in the two groups and increased equally in response to an intramuscular injection of 2000 units of human chorionic gonadotropin. During short-term intense physical exercise (a treadmill run at 72 percent of maximal oxygen consumption for two hours), the plasma gonadotropin levels in the athletes remained stable, but significant elevations in plasma levels of cortisol, prolactin, and testosterone occurred. We conclude that highly trained male athletes, like their female counterparts, may have a deficiency of hypothalamic gonadotropin-releasing hormone. This condition may be caused by the prolonged, repetitive elevations of gonadal steroids and other hormones known to suppress gonadotropin-releasing hormone secretion that are elicited by their daily exercise.