Food as fuel and fun for cross country runners

Caitlyn Diimig

For most athletes, exercise and diet go hand in hand.

But for sophomore long-distance runner Morgan Casey, food is more than just fuel, it’s a creative outlet.

“I love cooking,” Casey said. “That’s something that’s fun for me.”

As a kinesiology major, Casey knows how important food and nutrition is to remain competitive.

Casey said she recently checked her iron levels and found out hers were too low for endurance runners. She now fills up on red meat, which is a good source of the mineral.

Michelle Ihmels, assistant professor in the department of kinesiology and wife of ISU track and cross country coach Corey Ihmels, said iron is important for runners to be able to transport oxygen to muscles.

A former collegiate athlete and Olympic trials qualifier, Ihmels meets with the team at the beginning of the season to discuss proper nutrition and health.

“When they hear it from somebody who’s been there and done that, it might hit home a little bit more,” Ihmels said.

Redshirt freshman Maddy Becker, a dietetics major, also understands the role nutrition plays in her training. 

Previously a vegetarian, Becker said she decided to start eating meat after listening to Ihmels’ advice.

“Michelle talked to us about how it’s not good to cut out whole food groups,” Becker said.

When Becker was a vegetarian, she met with the athletic department’s registered dietitian Meagan Burnham to make sure she was getting the right nutrients, such as vitamin B12 and iron that can be stripped away from meatless meals.

Burnham said she does not often meet with cross country runners about their diets unless coaches identify an athlete who may need help.

“Runners are a group that tend to be aware of nutrition,” Burnham said.

Burnham prefers athletes to have well-rounded diets and said the popular idea to “carbo-load” — eating a large amount of carbohydrates — is a drastic measure.

“There’s certainly an argument to say you definitely need to have enough calories and enough carbohydrates in your tank, but I wouldn’t recommend they do it the night before,” Burnham said.

Becker agrees and said she rarely eats pasta. Casey also does not partake in carbo-loading, but follows a strict time regiment for eating her meals.

Although Casey admits her diet is not perfect and that she loves to eat greasy foods. 

“I definitely eat french fries and cheese burgers,” Casey said. “But I wait until after my runs.”

Casey’s diet seems to be working for her as Iowa State relies on her as one of its top scorers.

Casey said food should not be thought of as just fuel for athletes, but also as fun.

She will make anything, whether it is sugar cookies for the men’s team or tomato soup cupcakes with avocado frosting for Becker, her roommate. 

“My friends say I’m a pretty good cook,” Casey said.

In the back of Casey’s mind is the thought she will someday open her own restaurant or bakery. Casey said her favorite thing about cooking is doing it for others.

“A good cook knows that what’s in the chairs is more important than what’s on the table,” Casey said.