Premature lactic acidosis during exercise in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) may play a role in exercise intolerance. In this study, we evaluated whether the early exercise-induced lactic acidosis in these individuals can be explained by changes in peripheral O2 delivery (O2). Measurements of leg blood flow by thermodilution and of arterial and femoral venous blood gases, pH, and lactate were obtained during a standard incremental exercise test to capacity in eight patients with severe COPD and in eight age-matched controls. No significant difference was found between the two groups in leg blood flow at rest or during exercise at the same power outputs. Blood lactate concentrations and lactate release from the lower limb were greater in COPD patients at all submaximal exercise levels (all P < 0.05). Leg D02 at a given power output was not significantly different between the two groups, and no significant correlation was found between this parameter and blood lactate concentrations. COPD patients had lower arterial and venous pH at submaximal exercise, and there was a significant positive correlation between venous pH at 40 W and the peak O2 uptake (r = 0.91, P < 0.0001). The correlation between venous pH and peak O2 uptake suggests that early muscle acidosis may be involved in early exercise termination in COPD patients. The early lactate release from the lower limb during exercise could not be accounted for by changes in peripheral O2. The present results point to skeletal muscle dysfunction as being responsible for the early onset of lactic acidosis in COPD.