To discover the underlying mechanisms involved in the beneficial long-term effects of angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, we investigated the systemic and peripheral effects of short- and long-term ACE inhibition in patients with chronic heart failure. After assessing the short-term effects and dose titration with cilazapril, a new long-acting ACE inhibitor, 21 patients were randomized to receive either placebo or the ACE inhibitor. Seventeen patients completed the 3-month treatment. Central hemodynamic output, femoral blood flow (measured by thermodilution), oxygen saturation, and lactate and norepinephrine levels were determined simultaneously in the femoral vein and radial artery during treatment and after a 3-month rest and during symptom-limited bicycle exercise. Short-term ACE inhibition improved rest and exercise hemodynamic output, but it did not alter peak femoral blood flow, calculated leg oxygen consumption, or systemic oxygen uptake during exercise, despite significant reduction in femoral norepinephrine extraction and arterial angiotensin levels during exercise. In contrast, long-term ACE inhibition further improved exercise cardiac output and increased leg blood flow (from 2.3 to 2.9 l/min, p less than 0.05), leg oxygen consumption (from 277 to 403 ml/min, p less than 0.05), and systemic oxygen uptake (from 1,133 to 1,453 ml/min, p less than 0.05), whereas these variables remained unchanged with placebo treatment (p less than 0.02 between groups). Moreover, a moderate but significant increase in femoral oxygen extraction occurred after long-term therapy (ACE inhibitor: from 76% to 83%, p less than 0.05; placebo: from 75% to 74%, NS; p less than 0.01 between groups). We conclude that long-term ACE inhibition is clinically beneficial in that it improves blood flow to skeletal muscle during exercise over time. The long-term effects of ACE inhibition are, in part, probably related to peripheral (vascular) mechanisms, for example, by reversing the inability of peripheral vessels to dilate and by improving oxygen utilization.