The regulation of the active form of pyruvate dehydrogenase (PDHa) and related metabolic events were examined in human skeletal muscle during repeated bouts of maximum exercise. Seven subjects completed three consecutive 30-s bouts of maximum isokinetic cycling, separated by 4 min of recovery. Biopsies of the vastus lateralis were taken before and immediately after each bout. PDHa increased from 0.45 +/- 0.15 to 2.96 +/- 0.38, 1.10 +/- 0.11 to 2.91 +/- 0.11, and 1.28 +/- 0.18 to 2.82 +/- 0.32 mmol.min-1.kg wet wt-1 during bouts 1, 2, and 3, respectively. Glycolytic flux was 13-fold greater than PDHa in bouts 1 and 2 and 4-fold greater during bout 3. This discrepancy between the rate of pyruvate production and oxidation resulted in substantial lactate accumulation to 89.5 +/- 11.6 in bout 1, 130.8 +/- 13.8 in bout 2, and 106.6 +/- 10.1 mmol/kg dry wt in bout 3. These events coincided with an increase in the mitochondrial oxidation state, as reflected by a fall in mitochondrial NADH/NAD, indicating that muscle lactate production during exercise was not an O2-dependent process in our subjects. During exercise the primary factor regulating PDHa transformation was probably intracellular Ca2+. In contrast, the primary regulatory factors causing greater PDHa during recovery were lower ATP/ADP and NADH/NAD and increased concentrations of pyruvate and H+. Greater PDHa during recovery facilitated continued oxidation of the lactate load between exercise bouts.