The purpose of this study was to quantify the intensity of breathlessness associated with exercise and respiratory resistive loading, with the specific purpose of isolating the quantitative contributions of inspiratory pressure, length, velocity, and frequency of inspiratory muscle shortening and duty cycle to breathlessness. The intensity of inspiratory pressure was quantified by measurement of estimated esophageal pressure (Pes = pressure at the mouth plus lung pressure), the extent of shortening by tidal volume (VT), and the velocity of shortening by inspiratory flow rate (VI). Six normal subjects underwent five incremental (100 kpm X min-1 X min-1) exercise tests on a cycle ergometer to maximum capacity. The first and last test were unloaded and the intervening tests were performed with external added resistances of 33, 57, and 73 cm H2O X l-1 X s in random order. The resistances were selected to provide a range of pressures, tidal volumes, flow rates, and patterns of breathing. At rest and at the end of each minute during exercise the subjects estimated the intensity of breathlessness (psi) by selecting a number ranging from 0 to 10 (Borg rating scale, 0 indicating no appreciable breathlessness and 10 the maximum tolerable sensation). Breathlessness was significantly and independently related to Pes (P less than 0.0001), VI (P less than 0.0001), frequency of breathing (fb) (P less than 0.01), and duty cycle [ratio of inspiratory duration to total breath duration (TI/TT)] (P less than 0.01): psi = 0.11 Pes + 0.61 VI + 1.99 TI/TT + 0.04 fb - 2.60 (r = 0.83). The results suggest that peak pressure (tension), VI (velocity of inspiratory muscle shortening), TI/TT, and fb contribute independently and collectively to breathlessness. The perception of respiratory muscle effort is ideally suited to subserve this sensation. The neurophysiological mechanism purported is a conscious awareness of the intensity of the outgoing motor command by means of corollary discharge within the central nervous system.