Mechanisms that have been suggested to underlie the abnormal ventilatory response to exercise in patients with chronic congestive heart failure (CHF) include high pulmonary pressures, ventilation-perfusion mismatching, early metabolic acidosis, and abnormal respiratory control. To evaluate the role that ventilation and gas exchange play in limiting exercise capacity in patients with CHF, data from 33 patients with CHF and 34 normal subjects of similar age who underwent maximal exercise testing were analyzed. Maximal oxygen uptake was higher among normal subjects (31.7 +/- 6 ml/kg/min) than among patients with CHF (17.7 +/- 4 ml/kg/min; p less than 0.001). The ventilatory equivalent for oxygen, expressed as a percentage of maximal oxygen uptake, was 25% to 35% higher among patients with CHF compared with normal subjects throughout exercise (p less than 0.01). A steeper component effect of ventilation on maximal oxygen uptake was observed among normal subjects compared with patients with CHF, which suggests that a significant portion of ventilation in CHF is wasted. Maximal oxygen uptake was inversely related to the ratio of maximal estimated ventilatory dead space to maximal tidal volume (VD/VT) in both groups (r = -0.73, p less than 0.001). Any given oxygen uptake at high levels of exercise among patients with CHF was accompanied by a higher VD/VT, lower tidal volume, and higher respiratory rate compared with normal subjects (p less than 0.01). Relative hyperventilation in patients with CHF started at the beginning of exercise and was observed both below and above the ventilatory threshold, which suggests that the excess ventilation was not directly related to earlier than normal metabolic acidosis. Thus abnormal ventilatory mechanisms contribute to exercise intolerance in CHF, and excess ventilation is associated with both a higher physiologic dead space and an abnormal breathing pattern. The high dead space is most likely due to ventilation-perfusion mismatching in the lungs, which is related to poor cardiac output, and the abnormal breathing pattern appears to be an effort to reduce the elevated work of breathing that is caused by high pulmonary pressures and poor lung compliance.