1. Exercise seems to change the extracellular potassium concentration far beyond the narrow limits seen in resting subjects. To examine alterations in plasma potassium concentration during exercise, twenty healthy, well-trained men ran on the treadmill at 6 deg inclination with catheters inserted in the femoral vein and artery. 2. During 1 min exhausting exercise plasma potassium concentration rose in parallel in the vein and artery, reaching peak post-exercise values of 8.34 +/- 0.23 mmol l-1 and 8.17 +/- 0.29 mmol l-1. After 3 min recovery the potassium concentration was 0.50 +/- 0.05 mmol l-1 below pre-exercise values. Both the rise of plasma potassium concentration during exercise and the decline during recovery followed exponential time courses with a half-time of 25 s. 3. Exercise at reduced intensity showed that the peak post-exercise potassium concentration was linearly related to the exercise intensity. Individual resting, peak and nadir values were proportionally related. 4. The increased potassium concentration during exercise can be explained in full by the electrical activity in the exercising muscles. Repeated 1 min exhausting exercise bouts revealed no relationship between potassium concentration and plasma pH nor glycogen break-down. 5. All of the observations fit a simple model of potassium efflux from active muscle and elimination from blood with the following characteristics: the efflux increases (decreases) stepwise at the onset (end) of exercise, and the efflux rate during exercise increases with exercise intensity. Potassium is eliminated from blood by a proportional regulator which may be the Na(+)-K+ pump of the exercising muscle. Extracellular potassium is indirectly linked to the pump stimulus, and the rate of reuptake is proportional to the extracellular accumulation. Thus no limited maximal power for potassium uptake was found. The post-exercise undershoot of 0.5 mmol l-1 can be explained by a higher gain of the pump after exercise. 6. The large, rapid changes in the plasma potassium concentration during and after exercise is due to the first order kinetics of the reuptake mechanism rather than to a limited power to take up potassium.
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