Oh boy. You want to be a sports nutritionist, or a sports dietitian? Get ready for a journey, y’all!
What is a Sports Dietitian?
Sports dietitians, sometimes referred to as sports nutritionists, use scientific research, known as “evidence-based,” to work with athletes of all levels to leverage their nutrition habits to support optimal performance. The field of sports nutrition is growing fast, meaning job opportunities should be abundant!
A quick note that while “nutritionist” vs. “dietitian” may seem like semantics, the reality is that the way licensure laws work, nearly anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Still, only those who complete the educational requirements listed below are legally allowed to call themselves dietitians and perform medical nutrition therapy, which means working with specific medical concerns like food allergies and chronic conditions like type 1 diabetes. For those looking for a sports dietitian, please don’t fall into the trap of hiring someone with a certification or obscure letters behind their name. Look for the RD, CD, or RD, LD.
There are three main steps to becoming a registered dietitian: an undergraduate degree, a dietetic internship, and an exam. To be a sports dietitian, you need those three steps plus some related work experience. But you can always be intentional with the first three steps to steer your career path to sports dietetics.
Please note: this post is aimed specifically at students and RD2B’s in the United States. I’m working on updating it to include other countries. Please reach out if you have a blog post or article on becoming a sports dietitian in another country so I can link readers to!
Didactic Program (Typically Undergrad)
For your first step, you’ll want to get an undergraduate degree in a didactic program in dietetics, or you’ll at least want to take the didactic classes in addition to whatever major you choose.
Some students may opt to major in exercise science, food science, biology, or other similar degrees and then do their didactic classes concurrently or post-baccalaureate. If your school doesn’t offer an accredited didactic program, choose something in a related field, so there are fewer prerequisites to take! If you choose English or another non-science major, you’ll spend more than two years getting all the required classes. I majored in Nutrition and Fitness, which was a perfect blend of nutritional science and exercise physiology. Still, since it wasn’t an accredited program, I had to take some additional dietetics courses to qualify for an internship.
After you complete your bachelor’s degree in dietetics, or during your last semester, you’ll start applying to dietetic internships before the April or November match cycle. These are highly competitive and you’ll need to weigh many options to find the right program. These are typically 7-12 months-long as a standalone program, or about two years when combined with a master’s degree. Some undergraduate degrees offer the internship as a fifth year, kind of like student teaching! These are called “coordinated” programs and might be of interest to you if your school offers them.
Dietetic internships are a work immersion experience. You will work about 40 hours a week in various types of dietetics, including food service, clinical, and community. While it can be very tempting to want a “sports nutrition program,” there are very few of those. Ultimately, you want to give yourself the best chance to get matched with an internship that aligns with your timeline, location, and budget. Most internships offer a “specialty” rotation, and this would be a great time to get connected to a sports dietitian to see if you can work with them to build your own sort of sports nutrition concentration.
When reaching out to sports dietitians, be prepared to be flexible. First, they likely have times of the year that work better for students so you may need to adjust your other rotations to accommodate this rotation. With such a variable schedule, you and the RD should pick a time in the sport calendar that allows you to get the most competencies completed.
Second, working with a dietitian near your school might be challenging. Be prepared to look at other locations, including your hometown or places where you have friends or family you could stay with to save money. Finally, make sure you are organized and prepared to add value to the sports RD. We typically ask interns to stay for 4-6 weeks since it takes time and training. It’s always a great idea to build a relationship with sports nutritionists or others in the sports nutrition field during your undergrad studies, as it is easier for them to agree to precept someone already familiar with their athletic department, team, or sports organization, and that their athletes already know.
You can get by with a bachelor’s degree, but starting in 2025, you’ll have to get a master’s degree to qualify to become an RD. Even though everyone who graduates before 2025 will get grandfathered in, earning a master’s degree is a good idea. However, the demand of an undergraduate program followed by an unpaid internship can make additional schooling sound exhausting. But don’t worry! You can get work experience in sports nutrition and get your master’s degree simultaneously, usually for free, through a graduate assistantship. I am biased since this is the route I took. Still, I think it offers the easiest way to get your foot in the door to work in sports nutrition if you don’t have much experience. It is the most financially accessible way to get a graduate degree. Plus, collegiate sports are a great place to start because there tends to be more than one RD at a school, allowing you to work with people with different styles, skills, and strengths.
Registered Dietitian Exam & Licensure
Finally, once you’ve completed your educational requirements and dietetic internship, you can sit for your dietetic registration exam. After you pass, you’ll look up the laws in your state and determine if you need to be a licensed dietitian or a certified dietitian. You’ll go through your local health department to adequately license yourself to practice in the state.
Once you are licensed to practice, you can start looking for jobs! The variety of jobs in sports dietetics is nearly endless. Look for jobs at fitness centers, with workplace wellness nutrition, NCAA athletic departments, professional sports teams, or start a private practice working 1:1 with high school, collegiate, and professional athletes. There are even jobs in clinical settings like orthopedic and physical therapy offices and eating disorder clinics.
Gaining Experience in Sports Nutrition
You’ll see in most job descriptions that you need sports nutrition experience. So how do you get that? Volunteer at your school with the Sports RD, if there is one. If there isn’t, reach out to a local sports team to see if they have a Sports RD, and if they don’t, see if you can come by and talk about healthy eating. Before you become an RD, you can provide basic nutrition education around a healthy diet. Reach out to people in the sports industry who may be able to connect you with a Sports RD who isn’t local, especially if you live in a small town or rural area. I reached out to a private practice RD with a successful career and volunteered with her virtually, helping to read scientific studies and create content for her.
Don’t be afraid to reach out! But do so via email rather than LinkedIn or social media. LinkedIn is often very spammy and impersonal, designed more for business than sports people. I log in about twice a year, and most other RDs, ATCs, PTs, etc., are the same. So please do a little work, find their email, draft a brief and well-written ask, and reach out. Finally, be involved in the sports community. While you certainly don’t need to play a sport to work with that sport, showing an interest in sports and being familiar with the environment can be invaluable in writing cover letters that showcase transferable skills even if you have limited experience.
Have more questions? Need more help?
There is more to come in this series! Sign up for my email list to be notified when my next post in this series drops. It will be on the specific steps to take based on where you are in your journey.