Advice from a Triathlete: How to Set and Achieve Ambitious Goals


As the year comes to a close, many readers may take time to assess their business progression over the last twelve months and formulate plans for the future. This likely involves analyzing outcomes and setting expectations for forward progress. Goal setting is a vital part of this planning process. For growth and innovation to happen in business, these goals should be lofty but obtainable with hustle and dedication.

But how do you visualize and set ambitious goals and then systematically work toward their realization?

To address these questions, we recently spoke with sports psychologist and pro-triathlete Ruth Brennan Morrey.

Ruth is a TerraLoco sponsored athlete and a native of Rochester. Always involved with sports, she played soccer for four years at University of Wisconsin-Madison and was a semi-professional soccer player during her collegiate summers. After college, Ruth became interested in long distance running through her marathon-ing brother. At her second ever attempt at the distance, she ran a 2:48 marathon, qualifying for the Olympic Trials in 2000. After three years of competitive distance running, she dropped out of the sport completely.

“I didn’t do a single 5K run in ten years,” Ruth laughed. During this time, she instead focused on raising her three children and obtaining a PhD in Counseling Psychology.

In 2011, a friend talked Ruth into training for a triathlon, a three-part competition composed of a biking, swimming, and running portion. There was only one problem.

“I was thirty-five and had no clue how to swim! I could float, and thankfully, I would not drown,
but I didn’t have any experience with free style swimming, or any other strokes for that
matter,” Ruth explained.

She quickly figured out the swimming portion, jumped into the local triathlon scene, and did quite well, becoming a professional triathlete in 2013.

Over her lifetime of sports competition, Ruth has learned what it takes to set lofty goals and work towards them with purpose and intention.

While some readers may not see a direct correlation between sports and business, this writer believes they are innumerable. Activities like long distance running (such as completing a 50K, or 31-mile distance) seem impossible when you’re standing still. But with vision, focus, dedication, and relentless forward progress, it is possible for just about anyone. Trust me. I’ve done it. The same is true with building a business. From afar, it’s quite a daunting, beast-like, even herculean task. But in the same manner as attacking sports, business development can also be navigated through a similar focal process.

Here are seven key ingredients Ruth uses to reach toward ambitious goals in her sport that are directly applicable to business.


1.     Keep your purpose front and center.

“I always keep my purpose as my number one focus. And I always remind myself what my purpose is,” Ruth explained.

She advises not worrying about the minute, day-to-day details, but homing in on what’s intrinsically motivating and lends deeper meaning and value to your actions and goals.

“We’re all put on this earth for a reason. And I think it’s our job to figure out what that purpose is and live it out each day to our greatest potential,” she said. “It’s easy to focus on winning. It’s easy to focus on awards, status, or prize money.”

In Ruth’s long distance running career, she had no purpose, which perhaps flavored her experience with the sport. But when she became a professional triathlete, she made sure her focus was clear.

“Now my purpose is competing for more than myself. It’s just being thankful and having extreme gratitude for the gifts that I’ve been given and to use them appropriately,” she explained.


2.     Set lofty but achievable goals.

When Ruth first saw an IRONMAN triathlon in 1999, she thought the competitors were insane. A 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run was just not a possible feat in her mind.

“If I was to ask myself, can I do that distance tomorrow? Even as a pro triathlete, the answer would be no, I’m not trained for that right now. Goal seeking is a process, and it is the small daily building blocks with a smart, methodical progression that make it possible," she explained.

However, seeing others achieve this goal helped her understand that this accomplishment was possible for herself as well. But reaching that goal would require discipline and a step-by-step progression.

It would also require a bit of strategy.

“Invite the right people aboard your ship to help steer it.  It’s really important to have a solid team who supports your development and who truly values your unique goals to help propel you forward,” she explained.


3.     Focus on the process over the results.

“Every task matters,” Ruth said.

There are many times when she doesn’t want to get out of bed or considers cutting a workout short, rationalizing that it doesn’t have much impact in the big picture. She believes it’s important to set your tasks for the day and not budge from crossing those off, unless it would truly impact your physical or mental health. One excuse just leads to the next excuse; she advises instead exercising discipline right from the start.

“Don’t give yourself time to think or consider, just engage yourself in the task, and keep your eye on the big picture," she advised.


4.     Relish the process.

While working toward your goals, Ruth says to remain aware of how that journey is changing you as a person, even if you fall a bit short of your aim. Be sure to enjoy the moments and appreciate your accomplishments along this path.

This past summer, Ruth was set to compete in a full distance race in Germany, but suffered a hamstring injury during her training. She still traveled to the race, but decided, with her coach, not to compete and put her health at risk. She explained that while this may be difficult for some people to understand, reaching that point was still a life-altering journey that impacted her as a person. Her goals just shifted. The experience still served as a building block for her next goal.

“Outcomes change your resume, but process changes your character. Every part of the process is worth it, success and failure,” Ruth summed up.


5.     Failure is essential.

“Failure is part of success. It is a necessary and essential ingredient of success,” she explained. “You have to use it as a springboard to launch yourself forward instead of allowing it to deflate your mission, sink your spirits, and ultimately give up on your plan and your purpose.”

Nothing in life is worth achieving without experiencing failures.

When you do fail, Ruth says to take time to recognize, accept, and process the associated disappointment, but have a set time and date when you will move on. As her goals grew bigger, she says that her failures became increasingly more disappointing. However, this process has built up her resiliency, helping her to rebound from each setback faster.

She said it’s also essential to keep the larger picture in focus.

“Life or sport is never about one goal.  It’s about striving towards that goal, building upon your character development, and being very intentional about living out and being proud of your own life story. You get to write your own story,” Ruth explained. “Your sport, your job, your goal achievement should not define you as a person. Your value and worth go well beyond your achievements, athletic identity, or work identity.”

She also reminds people that their actions affect more than just themselves. Your journey impacts others and can have larger purpose.

“When giving back or teaching others, I think it’s important to keep your success stories small, but make your failures known to all. Failure is relatable, your success through failure stories are going to be the messages that build up others up when they need it the most,” she explained.


6.     Find a healthy and sustainable schedule.

For Ruth, it’s all about balance.

“The definite key for me as a mom of three kids is prioritizing and being efficient,” she explained.

This involves dragging herself out of bed several hours before her children to get in her first workout of the day. She also maximizes her work efficiency during school hours to not sacrifice time with her family. Whatever schedule you land on for your business and priorities should be sustainable with your lifestyle, which can take a fair bit of creativity, she explained.

“Some people think that more is better. The more that I work, the more successful I’m going to get, the more money,” she said.

Instead, Ruth advocates for time efficiency to maximize your effort. It’s also important to have balance between all aspects of your life- to still take time to read a book outside of your work or go to the movies- to reduce burnout and remain productive in your business.


7.     Recovery is essential.

“Recovery and healthy distractions are important to stay fresh and balanced,” Ruth explained.

She would not race a marathon and then turn around and compete in another one two days later. In the same manner, working back-to-back-to-back fourteen hour days is not constructive for yourself or your business. You need to take some time to relax, rejuvenate, and recover to stay the process toward your goal.