To examine the functional consequences of the greater increase in right ventricular work with exercise, the effects of prolonged exercise on the right and left heart chambers were compared in 41 athletes before, at the finish (13 min) and after recovery (28 h) from the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon (3.9 km swim, 180.2 km bike ride, 42.2 km run). Two-dimensional and Doppler echocardiograms were analyzed for left and right atrial and ventricular areas at end-diastole and end-systole, right and left ventricular inflow velocities and mitral and tricuspid regurgitation. After exercise, left ventricular and left and right atrial sizes were reduced, whereas right ventricular size increased (diastole: 21.4 to 24.2 cm2; systole: 15.8 to 18.2 cm2; p less than 0.01). The emptying fraction of all chambers was unchanged. Left but not right ventricular inflow showed an increase in peak velocity of rapid filling, whereas both atrial systolic velocities increased (26 to 38 cm/s tricuspid; 38 to 54 cm/s mitral; both p less than 0.01). Overall, the right ventricular early to atrial velocity ratio was reduced after exercise (1.56 to 1.17; p less than 0.05) and the left ventricular pattern was unchanged. The prevalence of tricuspid regurgitation was statistically unchanged (86% to 52%), although that of mitral regurgitation was greatly reduced (76% to 0%). Changes in all variables returned toward prerace values during recovery. Thus, in highly trained athletes, prolonged exercise causes differing responses of the right and left ventricles. These differences may be due to changes in right ventricular function, shape or compliance.