To investigate the mechanism of reduced exercise tolerance in hyperthyroidism, we characterized cardiovascular function and determinants of skeletal muscle metabolism in 18 healthy subjects aged 26 +/- 1 yr (mean +/- SE) before and after 2 wk of daily ingestion of 100 micrograms of triiodothyronine (T3). Resting oxygen uptake, heart rate, and cardiac output increased and heart rate and cardiac output at the same submaximal exercise intensity were higher in the hyperthyroid state (P less than 0.05). However, maximal oxygen uptake decreased after T3 administration (3.08 +/- 0.17 vs. 2.94 +/- 0.19 l/min; P less than 0.001) despite increased heart rate and cardiac output at maximal exercise (P less than 0.05). Plasma lactic acid concentration at an equivalent submaximal exercise intensity was elevated 25% (P less than 0.01) and the arteriovenous oxygen difference at maximal effort was reduced (P less than 0.05) in the hyperthyroid state. These effects were associated with a 21-37% decline in activities of oxidative (P less than 0.001) and glycolytic (P less than 0.05) enzymes in skeletal muscle and a 15% decrease in type IIA muscle fiber cross-sectional area (P less than 0.05). Lean body mass was reduced (P less than 0.001) and the rates of whole body leucine oxidation and protein breakdown were enhanced (P less than 0.05). Thus, exercise tolerance is impaired in short duration hyperthyroidism because of decreased skeletal muscle mass and oxidative capacity related to accelerated protein catabolism but cardiac pump function is not reduced.