We studied interrelationships between exercise endurance, ventilatory demand, operational lung volumes, and dyspnea during acute hyperoxia in ventilatory-limited patients with advanced chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Eleven patients with COPD (FEV(1.0) = 31 +/- 3% predicted, mean +/- SEM) and chronic respiratory failure (Pa(O(2)) 52 +/- 2 mm Hg, Pa(CO(2 ))48 +/- 2 mm Hg) breathed room air (RA) or 60% O(2) during two cycle exercise tests at 50% of their maximal exercise capacity, in randomized order. Endurance time (T(lim)), dyspnea intensity (Borg Scale), ventilation (V E), breathing pattern, dynamic inspiratory capacity (IC(dyn)), and gas exchange were compared. Pa(O(2)) at end-exercise was 46 +/- 3 and 245 +/- 10 mm Hg during RA and O(2), respectively. During O(2), T(lim) increased 4.7 +/- 1.4 min (p < 0.001); slopes of Borg, V E, V CO(2), and lactate over time fell (p < 0.05); slopes of Borg-V E, V E-V CO(2), V E-lactate were unchanged. At a standardized time near end-exercise, O(2) reduced dyspnea 2.0 +/- 0.5 Borg units, V CO(2) 0.06 +/- 0.03 L/min, V E 2.8 +/- 1.0 L/min, and breathing frequency 4.4 +/- 1.1 breaths/min (p < 0.05 each). IC(dyn) and inspiratory reserve volume (IRV) increased throughout exercise with O(2) (p < 0.05). Increased IC(dyn) was explained by the combination of increased resting IRV and decreased exercise breathing frequency (r(2) = 0.83, p < 0.0005). In conclusion, improved exercise endurance during hyperoxia was explained, in part, by a combination of reduced ventilatory demand, improved operational lung volumes, and dyspnea alleviation.