Lactate irreversible disposal (RiLa) and oxidation (RoxLa) rates were studied in six male subjects during rest (Re), easy exercise [EE, 140 min of cycling at 50% of maximum O2 consumption (VO2max)] and hard exercise (HE, 65 min at 75% VO2max). Twenty minutes into each condition, subjects received a Na+-L(+)-[1-13C]lactate intravenous bolus injection. Blood was sampled intermittently from the contralateral arm for metabolite levels, acid-base status, and enrichment of 13C in lactate. Expired air was monitored continuously for determination of respiratory parameters, and aliquots were collected for determination of 13C enrichment in CO2. Steady-rate values for O2 consumption (VO2) were 0.33 +/- 0.01, 2.11 +/- 0.03, and 3.10 +/- 0.03 l/min for Re, EE, and HE, respectively. Corresponding values of blood lactate levels were 0.84 +/- 0.01, 1.33 +/- 0.05, and 4.75 +/- 0.28 mM in the three conditions. Blood lactate disposal rates were significantly correlated to VO2 (r = 0.78), averaging 123.4 +/- 20.7, 245.5 +/- 40.3, and 316.2 +/- 53.7 mg X kg-1 X h-1 during Re, EE, and HE, respectively. Lactate oxidation rate was also linearly related to VO2 (r = 0.81), and the percentage of RiLa oxidized increased from 49.3% at rest to 87.0% during exercise. A curvilinear relationship was found between RiLa and blood lactate concentration. It was concluded that, in humans, 1) lactate disposal (turnover) rate is directly related to the metabolic rate, 2) oxidation is the major fate of lactate removal during exercise, and 3) blood lactate concentration is not an accurate indicator of lactate disposal and oxidation.