Long-distance migratory birds are often considered extreme athletes, possessing a range of traits that approach the physiological limits of vertebrate design. In addition, their movements must be carefully timed to ensure that they obtain resources of sufficient quantity and quality to satisfy their high-energy needs. Migratory birds may therefore be particularly vulnerable to global change processes that are projected to alter the quality and quantity of resource availability. Because long-distance flight requires high and sustained aerobic capacity, even minor decreases in vitality can have large negative consequences for migrants. In the light of this, we assess how current global change processes may affect the ability of birds to meet the physiological demands of migration, and suggest areas where avian physiologists may help to identify potential hazards. Predicting the consequences of global change scenarios on migrant species requires (i) reconciliation of empirical and theoretical studies of avian flight physiology; (ii) an understanding of the effects of food quality, toxicants and disease on migrant performance; and (iii)mechanistic models that integrate abiotic and biotic factors to predict migratory behaviour. Critically, a multi-dimensional concept of vitality would greatly facilitate evaluation of the impact of various global change processes on the population dynamics of migratory birds.