PRIMARY OBJECTIVE: To determine the effects of pimobendan 2.5 and 5 mg daily on exercise capacity in patients with chronic heart failure. DESIGN: A randomised, double blind, placebo controlled trial of the addition of pimobendan to conventional treatment with a minimum follow up of 24 weeks. SETTING: Outpatient cardiology clinics in six European countries. PATIENTS: 317 patients with stable symptomatic heart failure, objectively impaired exercise capacity, and an ejection fraction of 45% or lower who were treated with at least an angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitor and a diuretic and who tolerated a test dose of pimobendan. RESULTS: Compared with placebo, both pimobendan 2.5 and 5 mg daily improved exercise duration (bicycle ergometry) by 6% (P = 0.03 and 0.05) after 24 weeks of treatment. At that time 63% of patients allocated to pimobendan and 59% of those allocated to placebo were alive and able to exercise to at least the same level as at entry (P = 0.5). No significant effects on oxygen consumption (assessed in a subgroup of patients) and on quality of life (assessed by questionnaire) were observed. Pimobendan was well tolerated. Proarrhythmic effects (24-hour electrocardiography) were not observed. In both pimobendan groups combined the hazard of death was 1.8 (95% confidence interval 0.9 to 3.5) times higher than in the placebo group. CONCLUSIONS: Pimobendan improves exercise capacity in patients with chronic heart failure who are also on conventional treatment. The balance between benefit and risk of treatment with this compound remains to be established however.