RD Career Path: Sports Nutrition
SCAN Career Tip Sheet Series
Sports dietetics is an exciting, dynamic practice area. As the marketplace evolves, demand is increasing for those with knowledge and skills that integrate nutrition with physical activity and sport. Although creating your own job continues to be a vital pathway to success, increasingly, sports dietitians are being sought for positions with universities, sports organizations, food corporations, fitness clubs, corporate wellness, cardiac rehabilitation, and with physicians in bariatric surgery or family practice.
Having an advanced degree provides additional options in education, research, and administration. A focus on healthy body weight and treating and preventing obesity offers extensive opportunities to combine nutrition expertise with physical activity. Beyond a strong base in clinical nutrition, exercise science, and counseling, an entrepreneurial attitude and practical experience are keys to establishing a solid career in sports dietetics. Here are some tips.
Sports dietitian job description
Read the sports dietitian job description published in ADA's Job Descriptions: Models for the Dietetics Profession, 2nd edition, 2008. American Dietetic Association, ISBN: 978-0-88091-420-8.
Taking one or two classes in exercise science and sports nutrition will further your knowledge. However, for those who desire a career in sports dietetics, an undergraduate degree is an essential starting point. Although relatively few academic institutions offer a major in sports nutrition, many large universities have departments in both Nutrition and Exercise Science/Physiology or Kinesiology. A double major in nutrition and exercise science is one option. Alternatively, select courses from the two programs to suit your needs. Several academic institutions now offer interdisciplinary programs in nutrition and exercise at either the undergraduate or graduate levels. To qualify for high-level positions, pursue a master's degree in nutrition, exercise science, or a combined nutrition and exercise science degree. A doctoral degree will prepare you for opportunities in education, research, management, and administration.
Access sports nutrition education programs for a list of academic institutions that offer courses and degree programs in sports nutrition and exercise. For a list of undergraduate programs accredited and approved by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), formerly the American Dietetic Association, access AND's website: www.eatright.org. For a list of academic programs in exercise science/physiology or kinesiology, access the website of the American College of Sports Medicine website: www.acsm.org.
Become a Registered Dietitian
Obtaining proper education and credentials is an essential professional responsibility. As a registered dietitian (RD) you will be recognized by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the nation's largest organization of nutrition professionals.
Access the AND's website for information on becoming a registered dietitian. As an RD you will be legal to practice and provide nutrition assessment and counseling and other nutrition services. You will be eligible for licensure in states that require nutrition practitioners to meet specific standards.
Become a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics
Credentials become increasingly important as sports dietetics becomes more specialized. Having a specailty credential beyond the RD will set you apart from those who are less qualified and will be an asset in marketing yourself and your services. Although short certificate courses may look attractive, they are no match for the quality and breadth of education you receive from an academic degree, a dietetic internship, and a specialty credential. Recognizing the benefit of specialty certification, the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR), the credentialing agency for AND, established the Board Certification as a Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) credential. Eligibility requirements and applications are available on CDR's website: www.cdrnet.org . SCAN members assist CDR in preparing the specialty examinaton for the credential.
Join SCAN and sign-up for Sports Dietetics-USA
As an AND member, you are eligible to join SCAN, the dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics devoted to the nutritional aspects of sports, cardiovascular, wellness, and preventing and treating disordered eating. SCAN offers member benefits, such as the PULSE newsletter, an annual Symposium, networking with other sports dietetics professionals, and the opportunity to volunteer.
SCAN members are the leaders in sports dietetics. SCAN's Sports Dietetics-USA subunit is focused on the special needs of sports dietetics professionals, including attaining the CSSD specialty credential. Membership in Sports Dietetics-USA is a free member benefit for SCAN members. To sign-up for Sports Dietetics-USA, go to the Member Login and check the box at the bottom of your Member Profile.
Gain experience in medical nutrition therapy
Due to the varied skills and competencies that are required, sports nutrition is not an entry-level position. Although your career goals may focus on athletes and other active, healthy people, essential benefits are gained by first working in a clinical setting, such as a hospital or clinic. Competence in medical nutrition therapy will differentiate you from those who are less qualified. You will learn how to counsel individuals with heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity, cancer, osteoporosis, food allergies and intolerances, and other medical conditions that you will encounter among athletes and other physically active people. Furthermore, because clients who engage in disordered practices are encountered in a sports dietitian's practice, you need special knowledge and skills to work competently in this area. Besides knowing the literature and attending conferences and workshops, working with a mentor is recommended.
Get involved with sports
While in school or working in a clinical setting, gain experience in sports nutrition, perhaps as a volunteer for youth soccer, the YMCA, local running or biking groups, high school or college teams-any sport that interests you. Attend athletic practices and sporting events. Learn the physical and psychological demands placed on athletes in various sports. Listen to athletes, coaches, and trainers. They will teach you about their sport. Offer fueling strategies to assist teams in training, travel, and competitions.
Be physically active yourself. Participating in competitive or recreational sports will help you understand the nutritional challenges faced by athletes.
Sell your professional "brand"
Develop a resume, business cards, and brochures. Build a portfolio of your experiences and accomplishments. Network with members of your local dietetic association and with SCAN members nationwide. Partnering with a professional whose skills complement your own will enhance your marketability. For example, registered dietitians frequently work in group practices. Additionally, dietitians partner with coaches, exercise physiologists, athletic trainers, or personal trainers. Be aware, though, that some employers seek a professional who has training and credentialing in both nutrition and exercise and is equally skilled in providing dietary and exercise prescriptions.
Marketing yourself as a "brand" is an essential component of a successful business strategy. Contact sports medicine practices, corporate wellness programs, health and fitness clubs, food corporations, athletic departments at college and universities, YMCA's, and local high schools. When approaching coaches, trainers, or athletic directors, emphasize how you will make their job easier -- and the team stronger -- by teaching athletes how to use foods and fluids to train more effectively, stay healthy, and improve performance.
Distribute your marketing materials to individuals and organizations that work with physically active people. Become known among coaches, sports professionals, educators, and the media as a sports nutrition expert. Write articles for a local newspaper or sports newsletter. Being recognized for your expertise and credentials will position you as the professional to contact when sports nutrition issues arise. Be creative, patient, and persistent. Few RD's become full-time sports dietitians overnight. Use personal contacts, networking, and partnerships to advance your career.
The future is bright for sports dietitians. Set your goals high and attain them by gaining the education, skills, experience, and credentials you need.
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD, Sports Nutrition Services, West Newton, MA
Patti Steinmuller, MS, RD, CSSD, Nutrition Instructor, Burns Technology Center, Montana
State University, Bozeman, MT
Updated October 1, 2012