Patients with COPD usually are limited in their exercise tolerance by a limited ventilatory capacity. Lactic acidosis induced by exercise increases the stress on the ventilatory system due to CO2 generated by bicarbonate buffering and hydrogen ion stimulation. Patients with COPD are often observed to increase blood lactate levels at low levels of exercise. We wished to determine whether patients with COPD who experience lactic acidosis do so because of respiratory muscle production of lactate. Eight patients with moderate to severe COPD (FEV1 = 43.5 +/- 11.6% predicted) and 5 healthy subjects performed 10 min of moderate constant work rate exercise either breathing spontaneously or volitionally increasing their ventilation for 5 min to approximate the peak minute ventilation seen during incremental exercise. During volitional increased ventilation, 3% CO2 was added to the inspirate to prevent alkalosis and hypocapnia. In neither the healthy subjects nor the COPD group was the end-exercise lactate level significantly higher during volitional ventilation increase than during spontaneous ventilation. Further, in the COPD patients, the blood lactate levels during volitional ventilation increase were much lower than during maximal exercise (averaging 2.4 vs 5.3 mmol/L) despite similar ventilation levels (averaging 50 and 53 L/min). We conclude that it is unlikely that the respiratory muscles have an important influence on the blood lactate level elevation seen during maximal exercise in COPD patients.