Herbaceous plants grown with free access to nutrients exhibit inherent differences in maximum relative growth rate (RGR) and rate of nutrient uptake. Measured rates of root respiration are higher in fast-growing species than in slow-growing ones. Fast-growing herbaceous species, however, exhibit lower rates of respiration than would be expected from their high rates of growth and nitrate uptake. We investigated why the difference in root O2 uptake between fast- and slow-growing species is relatively small. Inhibition of respiration by the build-up of CO2 in closed cuvettes, diurnal variation in respiration rates or an increasing ratio of respiratory CO2 release to O2 uptake (RQ) with increasing RGR failed to explain the relatively low root respiration rates in fast-growing grasses. Furthermore, differences in alternative pathway activity can at most only partly explain why the difference in root respiration between fast- and slow-growing grasses is relatively small. Although specific respiratory costs for maintenance of biomass are slightly higher in the fast-growing Dactylis glomerata L. than those in the slow-growing Festuca ovina L., they account for 50% of total root respiration in both species. The specific respiratory costs for ion uptake in the fast-growing grass are one-third of those in the slow-growing grass [0·41 versus 1·22 mol O2 mol (NO3–)–1]. We conclude that this is the major cause of the relatively low rates of root respiration in fast-growing grasses.