Although lung transplantation improves exercise capacity by removal of a ventilatory limitation, recipients' postoperative maximum oxygen uptake (VO2max) remains markedly abnormal. To determine if abnormal skeletal muscle oxidative capacity contributes to this impaired aerobic capacity, nine lung transplant recipients and eight healthy volunteers performed incremental quadriceps exercise to exhaustion with simultaneous measurements of pulmonary gas exchange, minute ventilation, blood lactate, and quadriceps muscle pH and phosphorylation potential by 31P-magnetic resonance spectroscopy (31P-MRS). Five to 38 mo after lung transplantation, peak VO2 was decreased compared with that of normal control subjects (6.7 +/- 0.4 versus 12.3 +/- 1.0 ml/min/kg, p < 0.001), even after accounting for differences in age and lean body weight. Neither ventilation, arterial O2 saturation nor mild anemia could account for the decrease in aerobic capacity. Quadriceps muscle intracellular pH (pH(i)) was more acidic at rest (7.07 +/- 0.01 versus 7.12 +/- 0.01 units, p < 0.05) and fell during exercise from baseline values at a lower metabolic rate (282 +/- 21 versus 577 +/- 52 ml/min, p < 0.001). Regressions for pH(i) versus VO2, phosphocreatine/inorganic phosphate ratio (PCr/Pi) versus VO2, and blood lactate versus pH(i) were not different. Among transplant recipients, the metabolic rate at which pH(i) fell correlated closely with VO2max (r = 0.87, p < 0.01). The persistent decrease in VO2max after lung transplantation may be related to abnormalities of skeletal muscle oxidative capacity.