The purpose of this study was to examine the time course of changes in plasma potassium concentration during high intensity exercise and recovery in trained and untrained men. The subjects performed two exercise protocols, an incremental test and a sprint, on a cycle ergometer. A polyethylene catheter was inserted into the antecubital vein to obtain blood samples for the analysis of plasma electrolyte concentrations and acid-base parameters, during and after exercise. During both tests, venous plasma sodium, potassium and chloride concentrations increased in all the subjects, although the largest relative increase was detected in potassium concentration - 35% and 31% over rest in the progressive test and 61% and 37.7% in the sprint test, for cyclists and controls, respectively. After exercise plasma potassium concentration decreased exponentially to below resting values. There was a linear correlation between the amount of potassium accumulated in plasma during exercise and the amount eliminated from plasma when the exercise ceased. We found that, although plasma potassium accumulation occurred in both forms of exercise in the trained and nontrained subjects, the time constant of potassium decrease following exercise was shorter in the trained subjects. Thus, the trained subjects exhibited a better capacity to recover to resting concentrations of plasma potassium. We propose that the extracellular potassium accumulation acts as a negative feedback signal for sarcolemma excitability depending on the muscle metabolic rate.