Isosorbide dinitrate is an effective vasodilator that improves resting left ventricular performance in patients with congestive heart failure, but little is known of the effect of the drug on the response to exercise. Bicycle exercise to symptomatic maximum was performed by 18 patients with class II to IV congestive heart failure before and 90 minutes after administration of isosorbide dinitrate, 40 mg orally. Although resting pulmonary wedge pressure and systemic vascular resistance were significantly reduced after isosorbide dinitrate, exercise duration was not altered and maximal oxygen consumption was not significantly changed (13.6 +/- 1.3 [SEM] standard error of the mean versus 13.8 +/- 1.2 ml/kg per min). At peak exercise pulmonary wedge pressure of 37.1 +/- 1.7 mm Hg, cardiac index of 4.19 +/- 0.35 liters/min per m2, and systemic vascular resistance of 14.7 +/- 1.3 units were not significantly different after nitrate administration. However, at submaximal loads, pulmonary wedge pressure was reduced from 33.6 +/- 1.7 to 27.9 +/- 1.8 mm Hg (P less than 0.01), and systemic resistance from 16.5 +/- 1.5 to 13.7 +/- 1.0 units (P less than 0.01) after administration of isosorbide dinitrate. Thus, short-term administration of nitrates does not improve maximal exercise capacity or left ventricular performance at maximal exercise in patients with congestive heart failure, but it does appear to improve pump function at submaximal work loads and may therefore enable patients to perform limited exercise more comfortably.