Born Lisa O'Dea in Gawler, South Australia, she was originally a 400 m hurdler. Initially reluctant to take up the marathon, she won her first marathon competition, the Rocket City marathon in Huntsville USA in 1983, taking almost five minutes off the Australian record with her time of 2:32:22. In 1984, as Lisa Martin, she finished seventh in the inaugural women's Olympic marathon at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Her time of 2:29:03 was the first of her eleven sub 2:30 marathons. Three months later, she finished second in the Chicago Marathon, with a new personal best time of 2:27:40.
At the 1985 Pittsburgh Marathon, she competed alongside her husband at the time, American distance runner Ken Martin; they became the fastest married couple ever in a marathon winning the men's and women's races in 2:12:57 and 2:31:54 respectively. Later that year, she finished second behind Greta Waitz in the New York City Marathon. She won the gold medal in the marathon at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in a personal best of 2:26:07, with New Zealand's Lorraine Moller in second. A month later, she won the first of her three Great North Run Half Marathon titles in a personal best of 69:45. She ended the 1986 season by again finishing second to Waitz in the New York Marathon. She finished second in the 1987 Osaka marathon, behind Moller, then failed to finish the 1987 World Championship marathon in Rome.
In 1988, she ran her fastest ever marathon, when winning in Osaka with a time of 2:23:51, which at the time made her the fourth-fastest woman marathon runner in history, behind Ingrid Kristiansen, Joan Benoit and Rosa Mota. Later that year, she won a silver medal at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in 2:25:53, 13 seconds behind Mota. In January 1990, she retained her Commonwealth marathon title at the Auckland Games. In a solo performance, she finished over seven minutes ahead of silver medallist Australiabn team-mate Tani Ruckle. Her time of 2:25:28 remains a Games record (as of 2014). Divorced from Martin, she married Kenyan distance runner Yobes Ondieki in 1990 and missed the rest of that season due to pregnancy, giving birth to their daughter in November 1990. In 1991, she achieved her third top three finish at the New York Marathon, finishing third in a race won by Scotland's Liz McColgan.
In January 1992, she finished second in the Tokyo Half Marathon, running a lifetime best of 68:33, in a race won by McColgan in 67:11. In June, she ran her lifetime best 10,000 metres, running 31:11.72 in Helsinki. This time was the second fastest in the world in 1992, with only Olympic champion Derartu Tulu going faster (31:06). At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, she failed to finish the marathon, having been one of the gold medal favourites. Three months later, she recovered to win the New York City Marathon, setting a course record of 2:24:40 that would last for nine years. In 1993, she competed in the London Marathon for the first time. In a heavily hyped head-to head with Liz McColgan, they both lost out to Germany's Katrin Dorre, with Ondieki second and McColgan third. In 1994, she again finished second to Dorre in London.
In 1996, now divorced from Ondieki, she ran her fastest marathon time for three years with 2:30:57 in Osaka, to earn selection for her fourth and final Olympics. At the 1996 Atlanta Games, she failed to finish.