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Oxygen Debt

During muscular exercise, blood vessels in muscles dilate, and blood flow increases the available oxygen supply. Up to a point, the available oxygen is sufficient to meet the body's energy needs. However, when muscular exertion is very high, oxygen cannot be supplied to muscle fibres fast enough. The aerobic breakdown of pyruvic acid cannot produce all the ATP required for further muscle contraction.

Lactic Acid

During such periods, additional ATP is generated by anaerobic glycolysis. Most of the pyruvic acid produced is converted to lactic acid. About 80% of the lactic acid diffuses from the skeletal muscles and is transported to the liver for conversion back to glucose or glycogen.


Ultimately, once adequate oxygen is available, the lactic acid must be entirely catabolized into carbon dioxide and water. After exercise has stopped, extra oxygen is required to metabolize lactic acid; to replenish ATP, phosphocreatine, and glycogen; and to pay back any oxygen that has been borrowed from hemoglobin, myoglobin (an iron-containing substance similar to hemoglobin that is found in muscle fibres), air in the lungs, and body fluids.

The additional oxygen that must be taken into the body after vigorous exercise to restore all systems to their normal states is called oxygen debt (Hill 1928)[1].

Eventually, muscle glycogen must also be restored. This is accomplished through diet and may take several days, depending on exercise intensity. The maximum oxygen consumption rate during the aerobic catabolism of pyruvic acid is called "maximal oxygen uptake". It is determined by sex (higher in males), age (highest at about age 20) and size (increases with body size).

Highly trained athletes can have maximal oxygen uptakes that are twice that of average people, probably owing to a combination of genetics and training. As a result, they are capable of higher muscular activity without increasing their lactic acid production, and their oxygen debts are less. For these reasons, they do not become short of breath as readily as untrained individuals.

Oxygen consumption following exercise

After a strenuous exercise, four tasks need to be completed:

  1. Replenishment of ATP
  2. Removal of lactic acid
  3. Replenishment of myoglobin with oxygen
  4. Replenishment of glycogen

The need for oxygen to replenish ATP and remove lactic acid is referred to as the "Oxygen Debt" or "Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption" (EPOC) - the total oxygen consumed after exercise above a pre-exercise baseline level.

In low-intensity, primarily aerobic exercise, about one half of the total EPOC occurs within 30 seconds of stopping the exercise. Complete recovery can be achieved within several minutes (oxygen uptake returns to the pre-exercise level).

Recovery from more strenuous exercise, often accompanied by an increase in blood lactate and body temperature, may require 24 hours or more before re-establishing the pre-exercise oxygen uptake. The amount of time will depend on exercise intensity and duration.

The two significant components of oxygen recovery are:

  • Alactacid oxygen debt (fast component)
    • the portion of oxygen required to synthesise and restore muscle phosphagen stores (ATP and PC)
  • Lactacid oxygen debt (slow component)
    • the portion of oxygen required to remove lactic acid from the muscle cells and blood

The replenishment of muscle myoglobin with oxygen is normally completed within the time required to recover the Alactacid oxygen debt component.

The replenishment of muscle and liver glycogen stores depends on the type of exercise. In essence, short distance, high-intensity (e.g. 800 metres) may take up to 2 or 3 hours and long endurance activities (e.g. marathon) may take several days.

Replenishment of glycogen stores is most rapid during the first few hours following training and can take several days to complete. Complete restoration of glycogen stores is accelerated with a high carbohydrate diet.


  1. HILL, A.V (1928) The diffusion of oxygen and lactic acid through tissues. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 104 (728)
  2. DAVIS, B. et al. (2000) Physical Education and the Study of Sport. Fourth Edition. London: Harcourt Publishers. p. 102

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2000) Oxygen Debt [WWW] Available from: [Accessed