BACKGROUND: Identification of whether episodes of ambulatory ischemia are caused by increases in myocardial oxygen demand or to episodic coronary vasoconstriction in patients with stable coronary disease may be important to guide selection of optimal anti-ischemic therapy and to gain insight into mechanisms responsible for adverse cardiac events. METHODS AND RESULTS: Mean minute heart rate activity during ambulatory ECG (AECG) monitoring was determined for 50 patients treated with propranolol, diltiazem, nifedipine, or placebo in a randomized, double-blind, crossover trial. Periods of heart rate increases of various magnitudes and durations and starting at various baseline heart rates on each therapy were identified throughout each 48-hour AECG recording, and the proportion of these periods associated with an ischemic episode was determined. The circadian variation of ischemic episodes categorized by the presence or absence of an increase in heart rate was analyzed. Eighty-one percent of ischemic episodes were preceded by an increase in heart rate > or = 5 beats per minute. The likelihood of developing ischemia associated with a heart rate increase was proportional to the magnitude and duration of the heart rate increase and the baseline heart rate before the increases in heart rate: likelihood ranged from 4% when the heart rate increased 5-9 beats per minute and lasted < 10 minutes to 60% when the heart rate increased > or = 20 beats per minute and lasted > or = 40 minutes. The likelihoods of developing ischemia based on changes in the heart rate variables were similar for each of the therapies. Propranolol therapy significantly reduced the magnitude and duration of heart rate increase and the baseline heart rate compared with therapy with placebo, diltiazem, or nifedipine (P < .001). Ischemic episodes associated with a heart rate increase displayed a daytime peak, whereas ischemia occurring without a heart rate increase occurred evenly throughout the day. Propranolol reduced the proportion of heart rate-related ischemic episodes and increased the proportion of non-heart rate-related episodes compared with placebo (P < .02), and nifedipine exerted the opposite effect (P = .005). Multivariate analysis indicated that the probability of developing ischemia was strongly associated with heart rate variables and was unaffected by time of day. CONCLUSIONS: Most episodes of ambulatory ischemia are associated with a preceding period of increased heart rate. The likelihood of developing ischemia is predicted by heart rate variables and unaffected by time of day. Anti-ischemic efficacy is generally a result of the medication's efficacy in reducing heart rate variables. A minority of ischemic episodes are not associated with preceding periods of increased heart rate, may be caused by episodic coronary vasoconstriction, and are more effectively reduced by nifedipine than propranolol.