Though exercise training is part of most pulmonary rehabilitation programs, whether there is a physiologic basis for increased exercise tolerance is unclear. We sought to determine whether patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are capable of obtaining a physiologic training effect, as manifested by a reduction in blood lactate and ventilation (VE) at a given level of exercise. We also sought to determine whether training work rate determines the size of the training effect. Nineteen participants with COPD of predominantly moderate severity in an inpatient rehabilitation program performed two cycle ergometer exercise tests at a low and a high work rate for 15 min or to tolerance and also an incremental exercise test to tolerance. Arterial blood was sampled for blood gas and lactate analyses. Identical tests were performed before and after 5-day-per-week cycle ergometer training for 8 wk either for 45 min/day at a high work rate (average, 71 W) or for a proportionally longer time at a low work rate (average, 30 W). Average FEV1 was 56 +/- 12% predicted and did not change with training. Peak exercise lactate (average, 6.5 mEq/L) was not correlated with FEV1. For the high work rate training group, identical work rates engendered less lactate (4.5 versus 7.2 mEq/L) and less VE (48 versus 55 L/min) after training; the low work rate training group had significantly less lactate and VE decrease (p less than 0.01). Further, endurance time for the high constant work rate increased 73% in the high work rate training group but only 9% in the low work rate training group. At identical work rates, VE decrease average 2.5 L/min per mEq/L decrease in lactate (r = 0.75). We conclude that most COPD subjects studied increased blood lactate at low work rates. Many of these patients were able to achieve a physiologic training effect. Though total work was the same, training at a high work rate was more effective than was training at a low work rate. The lower VE requirement to perform exercise was in proportion to the lower lactate level, but the VE decrease for a given decrease in lactate was smaller than that seen in normal subjects (7.2 L/min/mEq/L), apparently because patients with COPD fall to hyperventilate in response to lactic acidosis (PaCO2 does not drop). These findings provide a physiologic rationale for exercise training of patients with COPD.