Apoptosis is well accepted as a type of cell death occurring in the development of mammalian muscles, but the death of adult myofibres in neuromuscular disorders and exercise-induced muscle damage is usually explained in terms of muscle necrosis. The current view that apoptosis precedes necrosis in death of dystrophin-deficient muscle fibres of mdx mouse has been well substantiated. Moreover, apoptotic myonuclei have been reported to increase in mdx mice 2 days after spontaneous exercise. To investigate the contribution of apoptosis to exercise-induced damage of normal muscle fibre a time-course analysis has been performed in adult C57BL/6 mice. Groups of five mice were sacrificed immediately after the end of the exercise, and after a rest period of 6 or 96 h. The amount of apoptosis in leg muscles was assessed by electron microscopy, by the terminal deoxynucleotidyl transferase assay and by electrophoretic detection of fragmented DNA; the expression of Bcl-2, Bax, Fas, ICE, p53 and ubiquitin was examined by immunohistochemistry and Western blot. Absent in muscles of normal dentary’ mice, apoptotic myonuclei peak in muscles of normal mice after a night of spontaneous wheel- running (4%±3.5, immediately and 2.5%±1.8 after 6 h rest, P<0.05 vs non-runner mice); they then decrease but are present 4 days later (0.8%±1.5). Satellite cells are also involved in the apoptotic process. Myofibre content of Bcl-2 decreases whereas Bax, Fas, ICE and ubiquitin modify their pattern of expression in correlation with the changes in apoptotic myonuclei. Apoptosis of endothelial cells is present after the night of wheel-running and with a twofold increase 4 days later (1.5±2.3 and 4.8±4.4 P<0.05, respectively). Satellite cells are also involved in the apoptotic process. Thus, spontaneous running in unaccustomed mice increases the number of apoptotic nuclei in adult muscle fibres and in endothelial cells. It remains to be established whether muscle apoptosis is restricted to the repair mechanisms, as often suggested in many pathologic processes, or it is also part of pathogenesis of muscle damage. Regardless of whether these results are extended to human dystrophies, the clinical implications in terms of secondary pathogenetic mechanisms and muscle training are obvious.