The purpose of these experiments is to test the hypothesis that exercise-induced hypoxemia at sea level in highly trained athletes might be exacerbated during acute hypoxia and therefore result in correspondingly larger decrements in maximal O2 uptake (VO2max) compared with less trained individuals. Thirteen healthy male volunteers were divided into two groups according to their level of fitness: 1) trained endurance athletes (T) (n = 7), with a VO2max range of 56-75 ml.kg-1.min-1 and 2) untrained individuals (UT) (n = 6), with a VO2max range of 33-49 ml.kg-1.min-1. Subjects performed two incremental cycle ergometry tests to determine VO2max under hypoxic conditions [14% O2-86% N2, barometric pressure (PB) = 760 Torr] and normoxic conditions (21% O2-79% N2, PB = 760 Torr). Tests were single blind, randomly administered, and separated by at least 72 h. Mean percent oxyhemoglobin saturation (%SaO2) during maximal exercise under hypoxic conditions was significantly (P less than 0.05) lower in the T group (77%) compared with the UT group (86%). Furthermore, the T group exhibited larger decrements (P less than 0.05) in VO2max (normoxic-hypoxic) compared with the UT group. Finally, a significant linear correlation (r = 0.94) existed between normoxic VO2max (ml.kg-1.min-1) and delta VO2max (normoxic-hypoxic). These data suggest that highly T endurance athletes suffer more severe gas exchange impairments during acute exposure to hypoxia than UT individuals, and this may explain a portion of the observed variance in delta VO2max among individuals during acute altitude or hypoxia exposure.