How Emily Sisson Fuels Her Body & Mind for the Marathon

Emily Sisson runs to an American record in the marathon.

October 9, 2022 was a chilly morning in downtown Chicago. It was, in my opinion, perfect racing weather–but not perfect weather to walk a mile in the cold from my hotel to Grant Park. As I hailed a Lyft and begrudgingly paid $21.84 to be driven three quarters of a mile, I scrolled social media, reading the chatter about the potential of a new American women’s marathon record today.

It had only been nine months since the American women’s marathon record had been broken by Kiera D’Amato at the 2022 Houston Marathon (a race I also participated in, it’s almost like I’m an American-record good-luck charm). But before D’Amato’s record-breaking run, it had been 16 years since Deena Kastor’s 2:19:36 mark had been broken. The potential for two new American marathon records in less than a year signaled a seismic shift in women’s distance running.

Emily Sisson had only completed one marathon before–London 2019. During her build up to Chicago, she mentioned she would go for the American record if she was having a good day.

With just one marathon under her belt, it would’ve been easy to doubt the Wisconsin native. But that would have been a mistake. Sisson was a standout in college, winning two NCAA titles and competing in multiple national championships in the 10K. She debuted in the half marathon in 2017, two years before stepping up to the full.

“The biggest change from training for a 10K to training for a marathon is just more of everything,” she explains. “More miles, more sleep, more fuel, more strength training. The good news is, I have a lot more flexibility and time than I did in college.”

The additional miles, sleep, fuel and strength training paid off as she crossed the Chicago Marathon Finish Line in 2:18:29, lowering the American record by 43 seconds.

“All throughout the race I just kept my head down, rode the line and tried to hang on,” she says.

We sat down with Sisson to learn more about how she fuels both her body and mind for long training blocks, challenging workouts and goal races on the world’s biggest stage.

6.2 to 26.2

Emily Sisson runs while downing a UCAN gel.

In college, Sisson shined in the 5K and 10K distances. She competed at her first USA senior national championships in 2012 in the 5K, coming in 12th. In 2016, she came in 10th in the 10K, an improvement against the best in the country but still a far cry from a podium finish.

She stepped up to the marathon distance at the 2019 London Marathon, running the fastest ever debut by an American on a record-eligible course. She was quickly growing into the distance, and her eyes were set on making the national team the following year.

However, with just four miles to go and a top-three spot out of reach during the 2020 USA Marathon Championships, Sisson dropped out. She had discussed this plan with her coach prior to the race in order to save her legs for the upcoming USA Track and Field Championships. She knew her chances were good for a podium finish in the 10K. Of course, she had no idea that the world would be put on pause in the spring of 2020.

Fast forward to 2021, and all eyes were on Sisson for the women’s 10K national championship race in Eugene, Oregon. The temperatures were hovering around 90 degrees and, while the other competitors were using ice cubes to rub on their wrists before shoving them down their sports bras, Sisson looked calm, cool and collected in a pair of black and red sunglasses.

“My coach and I had a race plan going in, but I had to adapt and make some calls on the spot,” she says. “My coach said to run 74-second laps, but I knew that would feel different in 80 degrees versus 60 degrees. So, I had to adjust based on the effort I was putting out.”

Sisson pulled away within the first 5 laps, slowly whittling down the pace until she had lapped nearly the entire field, coming in first place.

“It’s the race I’m most proud of because I really had to use my head and make hard decisions,” she says.

In terms of her proudest accomplishments, a close second is her 2022 record-breaking run in Chicago. We wanted to learn more about exactly what goes on behind the scenes of the country’s fastest female marathoner.

Emily Sisson’s Marathon Fueling Plan

Emily Sisson smiles with a UCAN gel.

Before the race

Sisson eats breakfast three hours before the race, always either toast or oatmeal with almond butter and a banana. She’ll also have a bit of coffee, some water and sip on some UCAN Energy Powder drink mix until an hour before the race starts. Depending on how she’s feeling, she’ll down a UCAN Edge gel before heading to the start line.

“I like to keep it simple the morning of the race,” she says. “I want to have a clear mind heading in. While I don't have any specific pre-race rituals, I like to make sure I give myself plenty of time to eat breakfast, get dressed, and head to the start line so I’m not feeling rushed.”

During the race

Sisson emphasizes that she’s currently tinkering with her fueling strategy as she’s been experiencing side cramps in recent races. However, her typical race fueling looks something like this:

Every 10 kilometers, Sisson will grab her bottle. Some bottles are filled only with water and some with UCAN Energy Powder mix. Because this powder doesn’t have added sugar, she’ll also consume three to four sugar-based gels about every 10 to 15 kilometers throughout the race although she relies more on feel than a predetermined distance. She emphasizes the importance of continuing to sip on her UCAN as the steady stream of complex carbohydrates keeps her stomach from getting upset.

“That's the recipe that's worked well for me, having the UCAN product and occasionally taking in the sugar when I need it,” she explains. “It took some time for me to figure that out. During my first two marathons I only took sugary gels, and it took a lot for me to get them down. They just weren’t sitting well.”

Just as important as her fueling strategy is her mental game plan.

“When things get tough, I find it really helpful to break the race down,” she says. “Right before my first marathon, my teammate Molly Huddle told me to just focus on getting to the next bottle station, which is about every 5K. In Orlando, I broke it down even more when I was hurting–‘Just get to halfway’ or ‘Let's see how you feel at mile 18.’ I picked these checkpoints and was surprised by how much things had turned around when I reached them.”

After the race

After downing a UCAN Protein shake with almond milk, Sisson loves to celebrate with a burger (medium-well) topped with the works–cheese, tomato, lettuce, onion and pickles. Don’t forget the side of fries!

Finding her perfect fit

Emily Sisson carefully dumps some UCAN Powder into her water bottle.

Finding a fueling plan that works for your body is just as important as finding the proper fitting running shoes.

Sisson began fueling with UCAN in 2021, when she was sent some samples during a bout of injury.

“I wasn’t doing a lot of mileage, so the first thing I tried was the protein powder because after cross-training I like to have a shake,” she says. “Immediately, I thought it was the best shake I’d ever had. I'm so used to my stomach hurting after having a protein shake, but I’d mix it with a little bit of vanilla almond milk and didn't have my typical upset stomach.

Then, as I got into training a little bit more, I swapped out my pre-workout drink with the UCAN Energy Powder. That made a big difference in not feeling bloated or having any stomach issues for a long run or workout. I gradually started swapping out my typical products for UCAN products and found that it really worked for me. That’s what I recommend for most people, to make changes gradually and play around with it. You have to figure out what works best for your body.”

UCAN uses a proprietary formula in their products called LIVSTEADY™, which is a low-glycemic complex carbohydrate formula derived from starch instead of sugar. In layman's terms, it simply means the carbs release into your system at a steady rate to avoid spikes and crashes. This also allows athletes to consume the carbs they need during endurance events without overloading on sugar, which can upset your GI system.

Sisson’s diet isn’t all low-glycemic, complex carbohydrate mixes and energy gels, of course. She relies on convenient foods like sandwiches after workouts and, of course, her post-race celebratory burger and fries. While she doesn’t discriminate between french fry types, she prefers thin, crispy fries (and honestly, who doesn’t?).

Looking ahead

Emily Sisson during her record-breaking run at the Chicago Marathon in 2022.

Sisson’s next marathon will be overseas, just like her first was. But instead of the mostly flat London marathon course, this race will feature several large hills in the middle, making the race interesting.

“I’ve had to train for a little bit of everything,” Sisson explains. “I’ve done some hilly tempo runs, but also some flat runs to get my legs used to the quick, steady turnover. I’ve also been practicing running downhill.”

As for the weather, it will likely be a similar climate to what Sisson trains in in Providence, Rhode Island–warm and humid. She’ll likely head to Europe ahead of the race to get some heat training and get accustomed to the time change.

It will no doubtedly be challenging with the heat and hills, but Sisson will be well-prepared after a 12-week training block focusing on high volume (with up to 115 miles per week!), long runs and tempo workouts. She adds in strength training on her hard days and mobility work every day to keep her body primed for running.

Such a robust training schedule is tiresome for even the sport’s most elite and, despite all the medals and accolades, sometimes Sisson simply doesn’t feel like running.

“A common mantra I use during marathon training is ‘motivation follows action.’ Sometimes it's hard to get out the door and start a workout, especially when my legs are heavy from all the miles,” she says. “There are definitely some days when I'm just feeling tired and sluggish in the morning. But I know once I start the workout, I’ll feel more motivated and excited as I go on.”

Even if you’re not training to compete on the world’s biggest stage, every runner can heed Sisson’s advice.

“I’ve heard other runners say ‘Okay, I’ll just run down the street and if I still don't feel like running when I get down the street I'll turn around and come back.’ But 99 percent of the time, you'll start feeling good and want to finish your run. Just tell yourself ‘Once I get started, the motivation will follow.’”

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