Acute loss of sleep produces few apparent physiological effects at rest. Nevertheless, many anecdotes suggest that adequate sleep is essential for optimum endurance athletic performance. To investigate this question, heavy exercise performance after 36 h without sleep was compared with that after normal sleep in eight subjects. During prolonged treadmill walking at about 80% of the VO2 max, sleep loss reduced work time to exhaustion by an average of 11% (p = 0.05). This decrease occurred despite doubling monetary incentives for subjects during work after sleeplessness. Subjects appeared to fall into "resistant" and "susceptible" categories: four showed less than a 5% change in performance after sleep loss, while four others showed decrements in exercise tolerance ranging from 15 to 40%. During the walk, sleep loss resulted in significantly greater perceived exertion (p less than 0.05), even though exercise heart rate and metabolic rate (VO2 and VCO2) were unchanged. Minute ventilation was significantly elevated during exercise after sleep loss ( p less than 0.05). Sleep loss failed to alter the continuous slow rises in VE and heart rate that occurred as work was prolonged. These findings suggest that the psychological effects of acute sleep loss may contribute to decreased tolerance of prolonged heavy exercise.