Lessons from a Triathlete: How to Improve Self-Motivation

Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a 10 part series on how an elite athlete applies the lessons she’s learned from Triathalon training to her role as a Fortune 100 marketing executive. Read the first and second article in this series.

When I started training for my first Ironman race, I worked at Ogilvy Public Relations in their Digital Influence department. Our team was responding to client crises by creating websites overnight and launching social media response campaigns in less than 24 hours. Late nights at the office were so much a regular thing, we had take-out restaurants and a car service on speed dial. It was a given that I would miss at least one evening workout per week – if not more. I quickly adjusted my schedule to knock out the workouts in the morning. But, shifting the time of my workouts wasn’t enough. I had to find other ways to motivate myself to get out of bed at 5 in the morning. How could I hold myself accountable?

Here’s how I avoided hitting snooze and missing a workout during Ironman training:

Set a meeting spot. Leave the mobile phone behind.

At least once a week, I would meet a neighbor for a morning run. We made a pact to meet on the street corner between our houses – no phones. The location was so close and the last thing you wanted to do was leave a friend standing on the street corner at 5 or 6 AM. Just be there.

Applying this lesson at work: With Slack, Sametime (an IBM chat tool), Zoom meetings, and the never ending inbound emails, it can be hard to stay present and focused in one-on-one meetings with my teams or even during mentoring chats. So, the whole idea of set a meeting spot and leaving the tech behind applies well. At least once a week, I take one of my employees for a “walk & talk” to get out of the office for a real, focused conversation – no excuses.

No socializing outside the workout. 

When living and training in both San Francisco and Washington, DC, I swam in the mornings with a great group of women. Despite our friendships, there was an unspoken rule that there was no storytelling outside of the pool the day before a workout. If you wanted the scoop on someone’s date, to share the news about your promotion, or get some advice, you had to show up for swim practice.

Applying this lesson at work: Tuesdays are team days: I started leading a new team at IBM in February 2017. The team commutes in from all over the greater Boston area. To ensure that we get the most of our time together in the office, we set one day per week when everyone would work together. Need to brainstorm? Do it in-person and with a whiteboard on Tuesdays. Have an announcement or marketing campaign update? Share it in-person at our weekly team meeting. While we work together in person most other days of the week, we hold the announcements and big work sessions for Team Tuesdays.

Commit to a purchase you can’t return.

Thanks to living in a large metropolitan area, it wasn’t necessary to own a car. However, transportation to the early morning pool or spin workouts could be challenging. The solution: I would rent a ZipCar to get to the pool in the early mornings. The reservations cost $25 to $40 and you couldn’t cancel less than a few hours ahead of time.

Treat yourself.

The ZipCar reservations were a little commuting luxury at 5 am. Now, thanks to Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing services, I can treat myself to door-to-door service. This tactic of a little treat or reward worked well for long bike rides too – I would pick a destination with a coffee shop or restaurant I really wanted to visit at the end of the workout. If I bailed on the workout, I’d miss out on the treat too.

Applying this lesson at work: I’m fortunate to have worked for some companies that have great policies to recognize and reward employees. The late nights standing up digital campaigns at Ogilvy PR meant we could order a team dinner or ensure our coworkers got home safely in a taxi. IBM allows managers to choose how best to recognize employees with a Manager Empowerment Fund. Whether you’re trying to get people in for an early morning meeting, or motivate them to stay late and meet a deadline, I find that a box of pastries or a team dinner can go a long way.


It’s easy to make excuses, delay getting something done, or simply bail on a task or plan – especially if it’s an early morning or tedious chore. The tactics I learned to keep me motivated throughout Ironman training apply to work life as well. When your time is limited at the office or you have important, but tiresome tasks, how could you hold yourself accountable? Here are just a few ways:

  • Timeboxing: Some might call it procrastinating, but I like to think of it as time management. For weekly reports, I set aside 30 minutes or an hour every Friday afternoon or Sunday evening to review the reports and add comments. I know I’ll be on the spot at the Leadership team meeting on Monday – and I’ll need to be prepared. Timeboxing also works well for responding to emails. Give yourself a few breaks throughout the day to respond to emails or Slack messages – and ignore any notifications that come in between those breaks.
  • Set a challenge and a treat: Your inbox will never be clean, but it certainly shouldn’t have hundreds or thousands of unread messages. When the inbox gets to daunting, I give myself a challenge and treat. The inbox vs. a bowl of tater tots. Can I get read, file, and respond to the majority of the emails before I finish the tots?
  • Weekly or Daily Stand Ups, no recordings: Want your team to stay focused on a sprint, a launch, or just the content at hand? Make meetings mandatory. Keep them short. Do not record them. If you miss the meeting, you miss the direction or the chance to share your work.

Holding ourselves accountable is one of the toughest things. Whether it’s at work or outside the office, there will always be competing interests. Honing in on ways to motivate and reward yourself will help you keep the focus and allow you to build new preparation habits.

Sara Strope
Sara Strope
Director, Marketing

Sara is an experienced marketing and communications executive with expertise in product marketing and demand generation. She is currently the Director of Marketing for IBM’s Watson Data Platform. Over the past 15 years, Sara has worked with some of the largest technology companies, fastest growing startups, and most influential nonprofits to launch interactive campaigns, introduce new products to market, increase customer retention, and exceed company goals. Prior to IBM, Sara worked with startups like Cloudant, Convio, and Cleantech Group. Sara completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees at Washington University in St. Louis. Outside of work, she is an active triathlete and volunteer with organ donation groups. She also serves on the Massachusetts General Hospital Patient and Family Advisory Council.
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