Aggressive interactions between animals are often settled by the use of repeated signals that reduce the risk of injury from combat but are expected to be costly. The accumulation of lactic acid and the depletion of energy stores may constrain activity rates during and after fights and thus represent significant costs of signalling. We tested this by analysing the concentrations of lactate and glucose in the haemolymph of hermit crabs following agonistic interactions over the ownership of the gastropod shells that they inhabit. Attackers and defenders play distinct roles of sender and receiver that are fixed for the course of the encounter. Attackers perform bouts of ‘shell rapping’, which vary in vigour between attackers and during the course of the encounter, and are a key predictor of victory. In contrast to the agonistic behaviour of other species, we can quantify the vigour of fighting. We demonstrate, to our knowledge for the first time, an association between the vigour of aggressive activity and a proximate cost of signalling. We show that the lactate concentration in attackers increases with the amount of shell rapping, and that this appears to constrain the vigour of subsequent rapping. Furthermore, attackers, but not defenders, give up when the concentration of lactate is high. Glucose levels in attackers also increase with the amount of rapping they perform, but do not appear to influence their decision to give up. Defenders are more likely to lose when they have particularly low levels of glucose. We conclude that the two roles use different decision rules during these encounters.