We subjected 29 healthy young women (age: 27 +/- 1 yr) with a wide range of fitness levels [maximal oxygen uptake (VO2 max): 57 +/- 6 ml . kg-1 . min-1; 35-70 ml . kg-1 . min-1] to a progressive treadmill running test. Our subjects had significantly smaller lung volumes and lower maximal expiratory flow rates, irrespective of fitness level, compared with predicted values for age- and height-matched men. The higher maximal workload in highly fit (VO2 max > 57 ml . kg-1 . min-1, n = 14) vs. less-fit (VO2 max < 56 ml . kg-1 . min-1, n = 15) women caused a higher maximal ventilation (VE) with increased tidal volume (VT) and breathing frequency (fb) at comparable maximal VT/vital capacity (VC). More expiratory flow limitation (EFL; 22 +/- 4% of VT) was also observed during heavy exercise in highly fit vs. less-fit women, causing higher end-expiratory and end-inspiratory lung volumes and greater usage of their maximum available ventilatory reserves. HeO2 (79% He-21% O2) vs. room air exercise trials were compared (with screens added to equalize external apparatus resistance). HeO2 increased maximal expiratory flow rates (20-38%) throughout the range of VC, which significantly reduced EFL during heavy exercise. When EFL was reduced with HeO2, VT, fb, and VE (+16 +/- 2 l/min) were significantly increased during maximal exercise. However, in the absence of EFL (during room air exercise), HeO2 had no effect on VE. We conclude that smaller lung volumes and maximal flow rates for women in general, and especially highly fit women, caused increased prevalence of EFL during heavy exercise, a relative hyperinflation, an increased reliance on fb, and a greater encroachment on the ventilatory "reserve." Consequently, VT and VE are mechanically constrained during maximal exercise in many fit women because the demand for high expiratory flow rates encroaches on the airways' maximum flow-volume envelope.