To examine effects of aging and endurance training on human muscle metabolism during exercise, 31P magnetic resonance spectroscopy was used to study the metabolic response to exercise in young (21–33 yr) and older (58–68 yr) untrained and endurance-trained men (n = 6/group). Subjects performed graded plantar flexion exercise with the right leg, with metabolic responses measured using a 31P surface coil placed over the lateral head of the gastrocnemius muscle. Muscle biopsy samples were also obtained for determination of citrate synthase activity. Rate of increase in P(i)-to-phosphocreatine ratio with increasing power output was greater (P < 0.01) in older untrained [0.058 +/- 0.022 (SD) W-1] and trained men (0.042 +/- 0.010 W-1) than in young untrained (0.038 +/- 0.017 W-1) and trained men (0.024 +/- 0.010 W-1). Plantar flexor muscle cross-sectional area and volume (determined using 1H magnetic resonance imaging) were 11–12% (P < 0.05) and 16–18% (P < 0.01) smaller, respectively, in older men. When corrected for this difference in muscle mass, age-related differences in metabolic response to exercise were reduced by approximately 50% but remained significant (P < 0.05). Citrate synthase activity was approximately 20% lower (P < 0.001) in older untrained and trained men than in corresponding young groups and was inversely related to P(i)-phosphocreatine slope (r = -0.63, P < 0.001). Age-related reductions in exercise capacity were associated with an altered muscle metabolic response to exercise, which appeared to be due to smaller muscle mass and lower muscle respiratory capacity of older subjects.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 250 WORDS)