Five healthy males took part in two separate studies. In one study subjects breathed air (control, C) and in the other 5% CO2 in 21% O2 (respiratory acidosis, RA). Measurements were made at rest, during exercise at 30 and 60% maximal O2 uptake (VO2 max), (20 min each) and in recovery. RA was associated with higher arterial CO2 partial pressure (PCO2) and bicarbonate and lower pH than C. The increase with exercise in plasma lactate (mmol . l-1) was less in RA than C from 1.0 +/- 0.15 (SE) (C = 1.1 +/- 0.17) at rest to 5.3 +/- 1.25 (C = 6.8 +/- 0.98) at 60% VO2 max (P less than 0.10). Plasma pyruvate, alanine, and glycerol concentrations increased with exercise; free fatty acids did not change. There were no significant differences between RA and C in any of these metabolites. Norepinephrine concentrations were similar at rest but increased to a greater extent during exercise in RA than C (P less than 0.02). Epinephrine levels were also higher in RA than C at 60% VO2 max (NS); the two subjects in whom lactate was not lower with RA showed the greatest increase in epinephrine. Exercise in RA was associated with higher heart rates (P less than 0.05), blood pressures (NS), and ventilation (P less than 0.01). In hypercapnia the metabolic effects of acidosis are modified by increased levels of circulating catecholamines.