Environmental oxygen is transported by the respiratory cascade to the site of oxidation in active tissues. Under conditions of heavy exercise, it is ultimately the working skeletal muscle cells that set the aerobic demand because over 90 % of energy is spent in muscle cells. The pathways for oxygen and substrates converge in muscle mitochondria. In mammals, a structural limitation of carbohydrate and lipid transfer from the microvascular system to the muscle cells is reached at a moderate work intensity (i.e. at 40-50 % of VO2max). At higher work rates, intracellular substrate stores must be used for oxidation. Because of the importance of these intracellular stores for aerobic work, we find larger intramyocellular substrate stores in 'athletic' species as well as in endurance-trained human athletes. The transfer limitations for carbohydrates and lipids at the level of the sarcolemma imply that the design of the respiratory cascade from lungs to muscle mitochondria reflects primarily oxygen demand. Comparative studies indicate that the oxidative capacity of skeletal muscle tissue, and hence maximal oxygen demand, is adjusted by varying mitochondrial content. At the level of microcirculatory oxygen supply, it is found that muscle tissue capillarity is adjusted to muscle oxygen demand but that the capillary erythrocyte volume also plays a role. Oxygen delivery by the heart has long been recognized to be a key link in the oxygen transport chain. In allometric variation it is heart rate and in adaptive variation it is essentially stroke volume, and hence heart size, that determines maximal cardiac output. Again, haematocrit is an important variable that allows the heart of athletic species to generate higher flux rates for oxygen. The pulmonary gas exchanger offers only a negligible resistance to oxygen flux to the periphery. However, in contrast to all other steps in the respiratory cascade, the lungs have only a minimal phenotypical plasticity and appear, therefore, to be built with considerable structural redundancy in all but the most athletic species. Because of the lack of malleability, the lungs may ultimately become limiting for VO2max when adaptive processes have maximized O2 flux through the malleable downstream elements of the respiratory system: the heart, microcirculation and muscle mitochondria.

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