OBJECTIVE--To test the hypothesis that the addition of nitrates improves exercise tolerance in patients with heart failure caused by coronary artery disease already treated with an angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor and diuretics. DESIGN--Randomised, double blind, placebo controlled, 16 week treatment periods. SETTING--Outpatient clinic at a university hospital. PATIENTS--54 patients with previous myocardial infarction, symptoms of mild to moderate heart failure, left ventricular ejection fraction below 40%, no exercise-induced angina or electrocardiographic signs of ischaemia. Four patients in the nitrate group (n = 24) and one patient of the placebo group (n = 25) were withdrawn from the study. INTERVENTION--After the patients had been on constant doses of captopril and diuretics for at least 2 weeks, they were randomised to receive a target dose of 40 mg isosorbide dinitrate twice daily or placebo in addition to the continuation of captopril and diuretics. MEASUREMENTS--Bicycle exercise tests with measurement of gas exchange were carried out before randomisation and after 1, 6, 12, and 16 weeks of the double blind treatment. The change in peak oxygen uptake from control to week 16 was prospectively defined as the main outcome measure. RESULTS--The increase in peak oxygen uptake from before randomisation tended to be greater in the placebo group (before randomisation 17.4 (3.4) ml/min/kg) than in the nitrate group (before randomisation 17.1 (3.5) ml/min/kg) after 12 weeks (mean increase 1.1 (2.7) v 0.0 (2.7) ml/min/kg, p < 0.12) and 16 weeks (1.7 (3.0) v 0.3 (2.6) ml/min/kg, p < 0.14) of treatment. CONCLUSION--The addition of nitrates to a baseline treatment consisting of captopril and diuretics did not improve exercise tolerance.