This study was designed to clarify the effects of cold air exposure on metabolic and hormonal responses during progressive incremental exercise. Eight healthy males volunteered for the study. Informed consent was obtained from every participant. The following protocol was administered to each subject on three occasions in a climatic chamber in which the temperature was 20 degrees, 0 degree or -20 degrees C with relative humidity at 60% +/- 1%. Exercise tests were conducted on an electrically braked ergocycle, and consisted of a progressive incremental maximal exercise. Respiratory parameters were continuously monitored by an automated open-circuit sampling system. Exercise blood lactate (LA), free fatty acids (FFA), glucose levels, bicarbonate concentration (HCO-3), acid-base balance, plasma epinephrine (E) and norepinephrine (NE) were determined from venous blood samples obtained through an indwelling brachial catheter. Maximal oxygen uptake was significantly different between conditions: 72.0 +/- 5.4 ml kg-1 min-1 at 20 degrees C; 68.9 +/- 5.1 ml kg-1 min-1 at 0 degree C and 68.5 +/- 4.6 ml kg-1 min-1 at -20 degrees C. Workload, time to exhaustion, glucose levels and rectal temperature decreased significantly at -20 degrees C. Catecholamines and lactate values were not significantly altered by thermal conditions after maximal exercise but the catecholamines were decreased during rest. Bicarbonate, respiratory quotient, lactate and ventilatory thresholds increased significantly at -20 degrees C. The data support the contention that metabolic and hormonal responses following progressive incremental exercise are altered by cold exposure and they indicate a marked decrease in maximal oxygen uptake, time to exhaustion and workload.