Born in Porto's downtown neighbourhood of Foz Velha, Rosa started participating in cross-country races while in high-school.
In 1980 she met Pedro Pedrosa, the man that would eventually be her personal trainer for her entire career. Rosa Mota's first marathon was at the European Championships of 1982, hosted by Athens, Greece - the first Women's Marathon ever. Mota was not one of the favourites for gold, but she easily beat Ingrid Kristiansen to win her first marathon.
This success was typical of Rosa Mota's career, as she usually finished well in the prestigious marathons. She was awarded the bronze medal in the first Women's Olympic Marathon in Los AngelesOlympic Games. Her personal best time was 2:23:29 in the 1985 Chicago Marathon. Mota won the Chicago Marathon twice.
In 1990, she returned to Boston to win for a third time beating Uta Pippig. After that she attempted to defend her European Marathon Championship in Split. She ran from the front and had a lead of over 1.5 minutes at the half way mark, but she was caught at the 35 km mark by Valentina Yegorova. They battled to the finish and Mota won by a slim margin of 5 seconds. As of 2006, winning a third European Championships marathon was unprecedented for both men and women. She won the Lisbon Half Marathon 1991 
Despite all her success Rosa Mota was suffering from sciatica and asthma as a child, yet, in 1991, she continued winning, this time the London Marathon. Later that year, Mota had to abandon the Tokyo World championships and she finally considered retirement after failing to finish the 1992 London marathon.
Mota ran 21 marathon races between 1982 and 1992. She averaged two marathons a year for a decade and won 14 of those races.
A nossa Rosinha (English: Our little Rose) as she is sometimes called in her homeland, was one of the most popular personalities of Portuguese sport in the late 20th century, alongside Eusébio, Carlos Lopes and Luís Figo.