Administration of the positive inotropic vasodilator milrinone results in immediate improvement in the maximal and submaximal metabolic responses to exercise. To determine whether these effects persist during long-term therapy, nine patients with severe congestive heart failure were evaluated by upright maximal exercise testing before therapy (baseline), after 10 +/- 1 weeks of oral therapy, and during double-blind, placebo-controlled readministration of intravenous milrinone after withdrawal of oral drug for 24 hours. During long-term oral therapy, maximal oxygen uptake was unchanged (baseline 792 +/- 72 ml per minute, oral therapy 820 +/- 83 ml per minute), whereas the anaerobic threshold was increased significantly from 570 +/- 53 ml per minute to 681 +/- 61 ml per minute. After withdrawal of milrinone, maximal oxygen uptake and anaerobic threshold decreased significantly; subsequent intravenous administration caused significant increases in maximal oxygen uptake and anaerobic threshold, back to the values measured during oral therapy. After oral milrinone withdrawal, maximal oxygen uptake decreased below baseline values, suggesting progression of the underlying disease. The anaerobic threshold expressed as a percent of maximal oxygen uptake was significantly increased during oral therapy (baseline 73 +/- 2 percent, oral therapy 84 +/- 2 percent) and remained significantly increased after drug withdrawal, suggesting a peripheral circulatory effect. These results indicate that in selected patients with severe congestive heart failure, milrinone exerts persistent effects on the metabolic responses to both maximal and submaximal exercise. Because of progressive deterioration in exercise capacity during long-term oral therapy, the effects of milrinone may not be apparent unless it is withdrawn. The relation of milrinone therapy to disease progression is not known.