The relationship between the redox state and lactate accumulation in contracting human skeletal muscle was investigated. Ten men performed bicycle exercise for 10 min at 40 and 75% of maximal oxygen uptake [VO2(max.)], and to fatigue (4.8 +/- 0.6 min; mean +/- S.E.M.) at 100% VO2(max.). Biopsies from the quadriceps femoris muscle were analysed for NADH, high-energy phosphates and glycolytic intermediates. Muscle NADH was 0.20 +/- 0.02 mmol/kg dry wt. of muscle at rest, and decreased to 0.12 +/- 0.01 (P less than 0.01) after exercise at 40% VO2(max.), but no change occurred in the [lactate]/[pyruvate] ratio. These data, together with previous results on isolated cyanide-poisoned soleus muscle, where NADH increased while [lactate]/[pyruvate] ratio was unchanged [Sahlin & Katz (1986) Biochem. J. 239, 245-248], suggest that the observed changes in muscle NADH occurred within the mitochondria. After exercise at 75 and 100% VO2(max.), muscle NADH increased above the value at rest to 0.27 +/- 0.03 (P less than 0.05) and 0.32 +/- 0.04 (P less than 0.001) mmol/kg respectively. Muscle lactate was unchanged after exercise at 40% VO2(max.), but increased substantially at the higher work loads. At 40% VO2(max.), phosphocreatine decreased by 11% compared with the values at rest, and decreased further at the higher work loads. The decrease in phosphocreatine reflects increased ADP and Pi. It is concluded that muscle NADH decreases during low-intensity exercise, but increases above the value at rest during high-intensity exercise. The increase in muscle NADH is consistent with the hypothesis that the accelerated lactate production during submaximal exercise is due to a limited availability of O2 in the contracting muscle. It is suggested that the increases in NADH, ADP and Pi are metabolic adaptations, which primarily serve to activate the aerobic ATP production, and that the increased anaerobic energy production (phosphocreatine breakdown and lactate formation) is a consequence of these changes.

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