The rate of oxidative phosphorylation depends on the contractile activity of the heart. Cardiac mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation is determined by free ADP concentration, mitochondrial Ca2+ accumulation, mitochondrial enzyme activities, and Krebs cycle intermediates. The purpose of the present study was to examine the factors that limit oxidative phosphorylation upon rapid changes in contractile activity in cardiac muscle. We tested the hypotheses that prior contractile performance enhances the changes in NAD(P)H and FAD concentration upon an increase in contractile activity and that this mitochondrial "priming" depends on pyruvate dehydrogenase activity. Intact rat cardiac trabeculae were electrically stimulated at 0.5 Hz for at least 30 min. Thereafter, two equal bouts at elevated stimulation frequency of 1, 2, or 3 Hz were applied for 3 min with 3 min of 0.5-Hz stimulation in between. No discernible time delay was observed in the changes in NAD(P)H and FAD fluorescence upon rapid changes in contractile activity. The amplitudes of the rapid changes in fluorescence upon an increase in stimulation frequency (the on-transients) were smaller than upon a decrease in stimulation frequency (the off-transients). A first bout in glucose-containing superfusion solution resulted, during the second bout, in an increase in the amplitudes of the on-transients, but the off-transients remained the same. No such priming effect was observed after addition of 10 mM pyruvate. These results indicate that mitochondrial priming can be observed in cardiac muscle in situ and that pyruvate dehydrogenase activity is critically involved in the mitochondrial adaptation to increases in contractile performance.