To shorten in vivo, airway smooth muscle must overcome an elastic load provided by cartilage and lung parenchyma. We examined the effects of linear elastic loads (0.2-80 g/cm) on the active changes in porcine trachealis muscle length and tension in response to electrical field stimulation in vitro. Increasing elastic loads produced an exponential decrease in the shortening and velocity of shortening while causing an increase in tension generation of muscle strips stimulated by electrical field stimulation. Shortening was decreased by 50% at a load of 8 g/cm. At small elastic loads (less than or equal to 1 g/cm) contractile responses approximated isotonic responses (shortening approximately 60% of starting length), whereas at large loads (20 g/cm) responses approximated isometric responses with minimal shortening (20%). We conclude that elastic loading significantly alters the mechanical properties of airway smooth muscle in vitro, effects that are likely relevant to the loads against which the smooth muscle must contract in vivo.