How to Become a Sports Dietitian
Are you passionate about sports and fitness? Do you enjoy helping people optimize their physical performance with diet and exercise? If you love nutrition and working with active people, being a sports dietitian is an incredible and rewarding career. As a sports dietitian, I get to work with active people of all ages and fitness levels. From recreational runners and gym-goers to professional athletes.
So often I’m asked the question “how do I become a sports dietitian?” This article will walk you through the steps to take to become a sports RD, and I’ll be sharing a bit of my personal experiences along the way.
Step 1: Earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Nutrition
The first step to becoming a sports dietitian or sports nutritionist is to earn a bachelor’s degree in nutrition. To qualify, the program you choose must be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).
A degree in nutrition and dietetics can take between 4-5 years to complete. Coursework will usually include medical nutrition therapy, food science, counseling, and some sports nutrition. There are some programs available with a greater focus on sports nutrition, but most programs are more generally focused. You can also consider double majoring in nutrition and exercise science. This was the undergraduate route that I took at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. I received Bachelor’s of Science degrees in both Dietetics and Exercise Science.
Step 2: Gain Experience
While you are in school, you should take every opportunity to learn about the field of dietetics and sports nutrition. This may mean volunteering your time with a school sports team or helping in an athletic department. You can also join organizations specific to the field as a student member to gain more experience. Look into both SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition dietetic practice group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) and CPSDA (Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association).
For me personally, I began getting experience at a young age. I was a sophomore in high school when I first shadowed a sports RD. Throughout college, I worked as a student intern in the athletic department and also became certified through ACSM as a personal trainer to get more hands-on experience working one-on-one with clients.
Step 3: Complete a Dietetic Internship
When you are close to completing your degree, you will begin to apply for your dietetic internship. The internship is a 1,200-hour supervised program required to become a registered dietitian. Some programs do include internships within their curriculum, but many are separate from undergraduate degrees.
The internship includes rotations in clinical nutrition, community nutrition, and foodservice administration. Many programs have “elective” rotations that allow you to spend time with dietitians working outside these three areas. If you are interested in sports nutrition, you can always request to spend time with a sports RD if possible. I completed my dietetic internship at Saint Louis University, which offers a Nutrition & Physical Performance concentration. While the majority of my rotations were still in a clinical setting, I was able to have a few elective rotations in sports, and also receive a Master of Science with this concentration.
Step 4: Take the RD Exam
In order to become a registered dietitian, you must successfully complete your internship then sit for the RD exam. Your eligibility requirements to sit for the exam are determined by the Commission for Dietetic Registration (CDR). Note, effective January 1, 2024, a graduate degree will be required to be eligible to take the exam. Once you pass the RD exam, you can call yourself a registered dietitian and you can begin working.
Some states require dietitians to be licensed which may require an additional fee or other experience. The requirements for licensure vary by state and can be found on the CDR website.
Step 5: Apply for Work
Depending on your previous work experience, you may get lucky and be able to get a job as a full-time sports RD immediately after completing your internship. Quite a few newly registered dietitians start off working in a clinical setting, which is still an excellent way to expand your knowledge in nutrition. However, being a part of the two organizations mentioned above (SCAN, CPSDA) and networking will allow opportunities to see and apply for new job openings in the sports nutrition field.
Step 6: Gain Experience and Network
To become a sports dietitian you have to continue to gain experience in athletics. To do this, you could volunteer with your local sports teams, start taking on private clients for counseling or find ways to stay involved in the fitness or sports community at all levels. Whether that’s local running stores, fitness centers/gyms, athletic training facilities, find areas needing your nutrition expertise and connect with them.
Consider joining professional networking groups; attend conferences and workshops. These experiences and networking with other professionals may eventually help you land your first job in sports nutrition. Connect with fellow sports dietitians, but also build relationships with strength coaches, athletic trainers, physical therapists, and the many other health professionals that work with athletes in some capacity.
For those interested in working in the media or with brands, attending these national conferences is a great way to connect and work towards a partnership together. If working in a private practice setting is your goal, I recommend checking out this webinar with a fellow sports dietitian, Kelly Jones. We have also developed a Sports Nutrition Entrepreneurs group that you can request to join.
Step 7: Get Board Certified as a Sports Dietitian (CSSD)
Once you have been a registered dietitian for a minimum of two years and have accumulated 2,000 practice hours in sports nutrition, you can apply to become a certified sports dietitian from the CDR. To receive the Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) you must pass a board exam that covers a variety of sports nutrition-related topics. Examination specifications include but are not limited to energy metabolism, fueling for training and competition, fluid and electrolyte balance, sports foods and supplements, clinical sports nutrition (disordered eating, energy availability and balance, weight management, special populations), and nutrition administration.
Although this certification is not required to work as a sports dietitian, it demonstrates your expertise and is valuable to employers.
Step 8: Never Stop Learning
Being a registered dietitian does require you to complete 75 continuing education units every 5 years, but you may need to go beyond those units to stay current in the dynamic field of sports nutrition. Many sports dietitians pursue master’s degrees in nutrition, exercise science, or a related field. Or you may choose to complete certifications in personal training, exercise physiology, or related fields.
As a sports dietitian, you should never stop learning. You should also keep an open mind. A curiosity about athletics, nutrition, and how to best support your clients is the best way to help athletes and continue advancing in your career.