In most daily activities related to work or leisure, the energy for muscle work substantially comes from oxidative metabolism. Functional limitations or impairments of this metabolism can significantly affect exercise tolerance and performance. As a method for the functional evaluation of skeletal muscle oxidative metabolism, near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS) has important strengths but also several limitations, some of which have been overcome by recent technological developments. Skeletal muscle fractional O2 extraction, the main variable which can be noninvasively evaluated by NIRS, is the result of the dynamic balance between O2 utilization and O2 delivery; it can yield relevant information on key physiological and pathophysiological mechanisms, relevant in the evaluation of exercise performance and exercise tolerance in healthy subjects (in normal and in altered environmental conditions) and in patients. In the right hands, NIRS can offer insights into the physiological and pathophysiological adaptations to conditions of increased O2 needs that involve, in an integrated manner, different organs and systems of the body. In terms of patient evaluation, NIRS allows determination of the evolution of the functional impairments, to identify their correlations with clinical symptoms, to evaluate the effects of therapeutic or rehabilitative interventions, and to gain pathophysiological and diagnostic insights.