The purpose of this study was to evaluate the physiologic responses to endurance training in patients with moderate to severe airflow obstruction by specifically looking at changes in skeletal muscle enzymatic activities. Eleven patients (age = 65 +/- 7 yr, mean +/- SD, FEV1 = 36 +/- 11% of predicted value, range = 24 to 54%) were evaluated before and after an endurance training program. Each evaluation included a percutaneous biopsy of the vastus lateralis and a stepwise exercise test on an ergocycle up to his/her maximal capacity. VE, VO2, VcO2, and serial arterial lactic acid concentration were measured during the exercise test. The activity of two oxidative enzymes, citrate synthase (CS) and 3-hydroxyacyl-CoA dehydrogenase (HADH), and of three glycolytic enzymes, lactate dehydrogenase, hexokinase, and phosphofructokinase was determined. The training consisted of 30-min exercise sessions on a calibrated ergocycle, 3 times a week for 12 wk. The aerobic capacity was severely reduced at baseline (VO2max = 54 +/- 12% of predicted) and increased by 14% after training (p < 0.05). For an identical exercise workload, there was a significant reduction in VE (34.5 +/- 10.0 versus 31.9 +/- 9.0 L/min, p < 0.05) and in arterial lactic acid concentration (3.4 +/- 1.3 versus 2.8 +/- 0.9 mmol/L, p < 0.01) after training. The lactate threshold also increased after training (p < 0.01) while the activity of the three glycolytic enzymes was similar at the two evaluations. In contrast, the activity of CS and HADH increased significantly after training (22.3 +/- 3.5 versus 25.8 +/- 3.8 mumol/min/g muscle for CS, p < 0.05, and 5.5 +/- 2.9 versus 7.7 +/- 2.5 mumol/min/g for HADH, p < 0.01). A significant inverse relationship was found between the percent changes in the activity of CS and HADH, and the percent changes in arterial lactic acid during exercise (p = 0.01). We conclude that endurance training can reduce exercise-induced lactic acidosis and improve skeletal muscle oxidative capacity in patients with moderate to severe chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).