How to Become a Sports RD

CSSD certified sports dietitian

Sports Dietitian is without doubt a demanding and stimulating nutrition career involving close collaboration with competitive athletes – most of whom’s performance and subsequent success is largely based on their diet.

Sports RD Requirements: Getting Into the Game

Sport nutrition is a field of specialization in dietetics that to start with requires at minimum a bachelor’s degree program in dietetics or a major related to nutrition science that’s accredited/approved by ASCEND (the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics) as well as passing the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) exam to become credentialed as a Registered Dietitian (RD).

Once you become an RD, with further academic preparation and clinical training that emphasizes athlete nutrition, you’ll be in a position to obtain your sports dietetics certification. The “gold standard” accreditation to practice sports nutrition as a professional is offered by the SCAN (Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition) division of the ADA (American Dietetic Association). This credential qualifies you as a board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) through the CDR.

Tips for Landing The Job

If working with athletes in this specific capacity and becoming an integral addition to a team’s performance and injury prevention mission is what you’d like to do, then it’s best to “get a foot up” by means of the all or a combination of the following measures.

Tip #1: Network within the Athletic Community

It’s important to network early on while you’re in school since the sports dietitian role is not a position that’s easily obtainable. Developing and maintaining “inside” contacts has the potential to help tremendously when you’ve completed the requirements for professional employment. An effective approach to take is to begin by working with sports teams in your area and eventually moving up within the organization. You may have to work without pay at first, such as assisting a registered dietician, but you can consider it an investment to get your foot in the door.

Tip #2: Volunteer/Observe To Gain References

For those of you pursuing a career as sports dietitian it’s important to find some on-site experience whether as a volunteer or observer in an athlete performance department. Hiring managers seek job candidates with good references. They also are favorable to prospects who show enthusiasm about sports science and applying their expertise to enable athletes to perform better. Similar to how society has become more conscious of nutrition, so have athletes and sports team personnel. The advantages of using professional nutritionists in helping athletes optimize their performance is becoming more and more well known. As a result, it’s leading to an increasing interest and necessity for certified sports dietitians. In addition to sports teams, athlete performance centers and the military are actively seeking qualified nutritionists.

Tip #3: Further Your Education

At 1-2 years working as a Registered Dietitian and some experience working with athletes in any capacity (doesn’t have to necessarily be as an RD) is usually required even for entry level Sports Dietitian jobs. Since this is a competitive position it can be very worthwhile to earn a Master’s degree in Nutrition Science or related subject in addition to becoming certified by the National Strength & Conditioning Association as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist or the National Academy of Sports Medicine as a Performance Enhancement Specialist. Some employers prefer or require a graduate education and additional certifications, especially for higher profile positions.

Tip #4: Become a CPSDA Member

The Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (learn more about this non-profit organization here) is a leading advocate for the full-time, long term delivery of safe and optimal nutrition to athletes by means of qualified sports dietitians. Becoming a member will likely show potential hiring athletic departments/teams that you’re dedicated to the profession. Ideally, you’ll also be fostering your own growth and supporting the growth of this nutrition career niche as member. Membership is open to current students in the nutrition and sport sciences as well as practicing RDs and other allied health professionals within the nutrition and sports spectrum.

What Sports Dietitians Do

This area of dietetics mostly involves the components of nutrition responsible for optimizing sports performance, where your primary role is to consult with and counsel athletes on the volume and timing of macro/micronutrient intake. In earning your dietetics degree, coursework in the sciences such as biochemistry can be challenging, however excellent interpersonal communication abilities are arguably equally as critical in your day-to-day services. Taking body composition and circumfrence measurements in addition to dietary evaluation can be a large part of the job.

As a Sports RD you will also be responsible for educating and instructing athletes, both individually and in small classes, on the most effective eating habits, optimal nutrient profiles, and scheduling the consumption of protein and carbohydrates throughout different phases of training. As a clinical healthcare professional, you will also pay close attention to any potential or existing health conditions like food allergies, hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia and eating disorders that may require dietary adjustment and/or referral to a physician.

One of the most rewarding aspects of a career in sports dietetics is having the opportunity to work with incredibly driven athletes and the feeling of achievement when your clients perform better in their respective sport. Given the continuously increasing level of competition today, the difference between winning or losing is often becoming less and less. Something as basic as consuming the proper types/amounts of nutrients during a certain time can really make a difference in athlete performance and provide a competitive advantage.

As a sports dietetics specialist, continuing education will be a big part of your career. This requires keeping up to date on the latest sports and exercise science research and related publications, and communicating with your professional peers to share ideas and stay current in the field.

Salary and Job Outlook

Dr. Melinda Valliant, a faculty member of The University of Mississippi’s Dept. of Nutrition and Hospitality Management – and prominent member of the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) has stated:

…starting salaries for Sports RDs beginning at $42,000, and an average salary among full-time Sports RDs to be $75,050, with the higher paying jobs bordering on $90,000 for seasoned professionals.

This information was based off data collected by the CPSDA from a 2012 survey of just over one-hundred Sports RDs.

Full-time Sports RD employment and part-time consultant positions with professional and collegiate teams are both possibilities, however job openings may be scarce, in part due to the limited number of amateur and pro teams hiring and positions available.

According to Newsire, the 2012 survey shows that:

…in most cases, one college-based full-time Sports RD is counted on to counsel and provide well balanced meals for an average of 548 student athletes.

Overall, Valliant has indicated that employment has trended upwards as awareness of the significance of nutrition science for athletes has increased.