To determine the buffering capacity of ischemic rat myocardium, lactate production was altered by glycogen depletion prior to total global ischemia. Lactate production was monitored by 1H-NMR spectroscopy in perfused rat hearts and determined by enzymatic assay of freeze-clamped tissue extracts. Intracellular pH was measured by 31P-NMR spectroscopy. The relationship between total lactate produced and pH varied considerably, depending on the final pH reached. At pH greater than 6.4 this relationship is linear with a total buffering capacity (delta lactate/delta pH) of 25 mumol H+/g wet weight per pH unit. At lower pH values (pH less than 6.4), the total buffering capacity increases progressively. Since ischemia is invariably accompanied by ATP and phosphocreatine (PCr) hydrolysis, the proton production/consumption during high-energy phosphate hydrolysis must be considered when evaluating the intrinsic buffering capacity of the myocardium against proton loads produced by lactate production from glucose and glycogen. Schemes are presented which allow an estimation of the contribution of ATP and PCr hydrolysis and the buffering by the CO2/HCO3- system during ischemia. At pH greater than 6.4, the majority (about 60%) of buffering is due to hydrolysis of adenosine triphosphate, phosphocreatine in the heart, and neutralization of sodium bicarbonate in the perfusate. At pH less than 6.4 an increasing proportion of cardiac buffering is from intrinsic cardiac buffers, most likely from intracellular proteins. After correction for these contributions to the observed total cardiac buffering capacity, the intrinsic buffering capacity of the myocardium can be accounted for by a high capacity (170 mumol/g wet weight) but low pKa (5.2) buffering system.