Peak Performance: How to Fuel Your Career in Sports Nutrition

Posted March 17, 2015 by
Two young nutritionists posing in a gym - one with an apple and one with weights

Two young nutritionists posing in a gym – one with an apple and one with weights. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Most nutritionists help people choose the right foods for basic health. A sports nutritionist creates eating and supplement regimens that help athletes achieve peak performance. Because so many individual pro athletes are incorporating nutritional strategies into their training, the demand for sports nutritionists is growing. In fact, job openings for dietitians and nutritionists are expected to grow 21 percent over the next 10 years.

What Does a Sports Nutritionist Do?

Sports nutritionists meet with athletes, evaluate their dietary intake, and make suggestions for improvement. They work not only on what athletes eat every day but also on crafting a specific eating plan for game day. A sports nutritionist has specialized knowledge of how various foods affect the body. They can recommend specific foods for training and game day to help athletes gain a competitive edge.

Many people without specialized nutrition training call themselves sports nutritionists. Elite sports organizations usually prefer to work with trained sports dietitians, who usually have at least a bachelor’s degree in nutrition science and often have graduate-level nutrition training. Board certification in sports nutrition is key to landing elite jobs. Personal trainers and other exercise professionals can have sports nutrition credentials, but those credentials are rarely enough to land a job with a pro athlete or team.

After earning their degrees, most sports nutritionists complete nine-month internships before earning their licenses as registered dietitian nutritionists (RDN). According to sports nutritionist Page Love, who consults with professional tennis players and professional baseball teams, including the Atlanta Braves, sports nutritionists should make sure that their internship focuses on sports nutrition.

Do You Really Need a Nutrition Degree?

If you’re already a personal trainer, you can add sports nutrition credentials to your resume without becoming a registered dietitian. Personal trainers who want to offer general nutrition counseling to their clients can earn an introductory certification from the International Society of Sports Nutritionists (ISSN) called the Sports Nutrition Specialist (SNS) certification. SNS credentialing doesn’t require a four-year degree or training as a dietitian, but applicants have to join ISSN and display knowledge of exercise physiology, supplements, and general nutrition. Also, with an associate degree in nutrition, people can become dietetic technicians.

A CISSN credential (Certified Sports Nutritionist) is also available to anyone with a four-year undergraduate degree in a field besides nutrition, such as kinesiology or exercise science. People with degrees in completely unrelated fields, like liberal arts, are encouraged to take a semester-long sports nutrition class before trying to pass the CISSN exam. Without a degree, applicants have to have five years of work experience, and they have to be Certified Personal Trainers through the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), or the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). Like most certifications, applicants have to pass the exam, and they have to fulfill continuing education requirements to renew their CISSN certification.

To work with professional athletes and top-level athletic teams, becoming an RDN is essential. Without licensure as a dietitian, sports nutritionists face legal limits on the kinds of advice they can give. RDNs who want to specialize in sports nutrition can become Board Certified Specialists in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). Dietitians with master’s or doctoral degrees can also earn the Certified Nutritionist Specialist (CNS) credential. These top-level certifications open doors to managerial positions in major sports organizations, and they add credibility to sports nutritionists who open their own practices.

All of the credentials, from Sports Nutrition Specialist to board certification, require continuing education credits to keep sports nutritionists up to date on the latest nutrition science information. Some credentials, like the CSSD, also require candidates to document continuing specialty practice experience hours.

How Do You Get a Job in the Professional Sports World?

In addition to becoming an RDN, CSSD, and possibly a CNS, elite sports nutritionists take continuing education courses to add to their skill sets. They should have knowledge of exercise physiology as well as subjects like functional nutrition, organic diets, and holistic eating. Dietitians in management positions can earn an average of between $85,000 and $88,000 per year. Income potential soars when sports nutritionists open their own consulting practices.

Top jobs in sports nutrition require a lot of training and a lot of hard work. However, the rewards of working with the world’s most gifted athletes make all of the hard work worthwhile.

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