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Helping Athletes Excel Is the Work of a Sports Nutritionist

Sports nutritionists combine science and nutrition to help athletes perform their best.

workout partners look at diet plan on tablet
emily polner

Written and Reported by
Mimi Polner
Contributing Writer

Becoming a sports nutritionist is a great choice for people who are passionate about sports and helping athletes perform at a peak level through nutrition. Most sports nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition or a science-related field, complete an internship, and earn specialized certifications. 

A Focus on Sports and Athletes

Nutritionists, in general, use nutrition to promote or improve health in response to disease. Sports nutritionists focus on helping athletes or athletic individuals improve their performance through nutrition.

They create nutrition plans that increase stamina for training, workouts, and competition, and provide treatment after strenuous exercise and injuries.

Sports nutritionists work with sports teams or athletes at all levels, and they also work with recreational athletes.

“Understanding nutrition on a macro and micro level is paramount for sports nutritionists,” says Lisa Moskovitz, RD and CEO of NY Nutrition Group. “Unlike more sedentary individuals, athletes require additional nutrients. Calculations must be specific to ensure adequate energy intake and absorption.”

Qualities of a Successful Sports Nutritionist

A successful sports nutritionist should be:

  • A strong communicator and motivator. As a sports nutritionist, you’ll be working directly with clients who will be following your recommendations. It’s important that you communicate your advice and instructions clearly and help clients stick to their prescribed routines.
  • Analytical and organized. These skills are a must. Being a sports nutritionist requires a lot of recordkeeping and analysis of the results of your work.
  • Detail-oriented. Every person you work with will be different. Being able to fine-tune your menu plans and advice will be crucial to your success.
  • Collaborative. In addition to working with athletes, you may work and communicate with their parents and coaches, as well as doctors and other health professionals.
  • A lifelong learner. Sports nutrition relies heavily on science. It’s important that you’re interested in reading and learning about the latest scientific findings in your field.

Job Description

According to Moskovitz, the top responsibilities of a sports nutritionist include:

  • Advising athletes and highly active individuals on how to maximize performance, promote faster recovery, and prevent injury through proper nutrition
  • Tailoring recommendations to meet each athlete’s demands
  • Developing meal plans and hydration schedules
  • Communicating with clients’ families, coaches, and other medical professionals
  • Keeping records of a plan’s effectiveness
  • Staying on top of trends and scientific developments in sports nutrition

Education to Become a Sports Nutritionist

The education requirements to become a sports nutritionist are becoming increasingly strict.

“While anyone can call themselves a ‘nutritionist,’ a sports dietitian must complete more rigorous education and training,” says Moskovitz. “First, in order to become a dietitian, one must fulfill college-level coursework.

Then, they must apply to, and successfully complete, an accredited dietetic internship. Finally, in order to receive the registered dietitian credential, they must be validated by the Commission on Dietetic Registration and pass the official RD exam.” 

If you decide to become a sports nutritionist, you’ll likely need to earn a master’s degree to advance your career and qualify for more prestigious positions.

Sports nutritionists have a bachelor’s degree in nutrition, physiology, kinesiology, or a related field. Those who decide to pursue sports nutrition as a career after earning a different four-year degree can take postgraduate classes through certificate programs.

If you decide to become a sports nutritionist, it’s likely that you’ll need to earn a master’s degree to advance your career and qualify for more prestigious positions.

In fact, starting in 2024, you’ll need a master’s degree to take the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) exam, which is a requirement for licensure in most states.

What You’ll Study

Sports nutritionists advise athletes on how to balance rigorous physical activities with a proper diet. Their education focuses largely on subjects like biology, physiology, and kinesiology, as these all relate to how the body moves and reacts to different stimuli.

Here are the most common subjects that are required for studying sports nutrition. Many are about science and will include labs:

  • Nutrition management: The study of how nutrients and vitamins affect the human body and its functions.
  • Physiology: The study of the chemistry and physics behind basic body functions, from how molecules behave in cells to how systems of organs work together.
  • Biology: The study of life processes and how organisms interact with their environment.
  • Chemistry: The study of solids, liquids and gases, chemical bonding, and radioactivity.
  • Biochemistry: The study of the chemical processes necessary for life to exist. 
  • Statistics: The study of analyzing and interpreting data.
  • Kinesiology: The study of the mechanics of human movement, including joint mobility, muscle strength, coordination, and balance.

Clinical Hours

Most states require nutritionists to earn the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential. To do this, you’ll need to complete an internship.

Some undergraduate programs weave internship experience into their programs. If your program doesn’t, you’ll need to secure an internship after graduation. You’ll need to complete 1,000 to 1,200 hours of supervised training in nutrition assessment, diagnosis, intervention, and management. The number of hours will depend on the state in which you’re seeking your RDN certification.

Most states require nutritionists to earn the Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential. To do this, you’ll need to complete an internship.

Online Programs

There are online bachelor’s programs and certificate prep courses for sports nutrition. Some internships moved online due to COVID-19, but it remains to be seen whether these will continue in the future.

In general, hybrid and online nutritionist programs are a great option for those who work or have a family or other daytime obligations. These programs allow you to take many classes online at your convenience while fulfilling clinical work or internship requirements in person.

Sports Nutritionist Licensing and Certification

Most states require nutritionists to earn the RDN credential and apply for state licensure separately. States that don’t require separate licensure still require the RDN credential.

Licenses and RDN credentials must be renewed on a regular basis.

Specialty Certifications

In most professions, credentials are a sign of your expertise and competency. Sports nutritionists aren’t required to have additional credentials beyond the RDN, but there are others they can earn.

“After becoming a registered dietitian, it is optional to earn additional credentials such as the Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) credential,” says Moskovitz. “This requires maintenance of RD status for a minimum of two years, documentation of 2,000 hours of sports dietetics practice experience, and continued hours of practice experience for recertification.”

In addition to the CSSD, you can also pursue Certified Nutrition Specialist (CNS) certification, which focuses on the science behind nutrition plans.

Where Sports Nutritionists Work

Sports nutritionists most commonly work for:

1. Colleges and universities. Sports nutritionists work with student athletes to make sure they’re eating well and getting the proper nutrition to perform their best.

2. Sports organizations. Similar to colleges and universities, sports organizations hire nutritionists to make sure athletes are getting the most out of every meal for top performance.

3. Athletic clubs. Sports nutritionists work with recreational athletes who want to improve their individual performance and also may belong to athletic leagues.

4. Rehabilitation centers/clinics. As part of an overall recovery plan, sports nutritionists help athletes build strength and heal faster by providing them with meal plans and other support.

Career and Salary Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nutritionist jobs are expected to grow by 6.8% through 2031, which is faster than the average job growth rate overall. The median salary for nutritionists is $61,650, with the lowest 10% making $42,530 per year and the highest 10% making over $93,640 per year.

Geographic location can significantly impact your salary. Here’s how states rank in terms of pay for sports nutritionists.

Dietitians and Nutritionists

National data

Median Salary: $61,650

Projected job growth: 6.8%

10th Percentile: $42,530

25th Percentile: $49,490

75th Percentile: $77,430

90th Percentile: $93,640

Projected job growth: 6.8%

State data

State Median Salary Bottom 10% Top 10%
Alabama $59,280 $42,280 $76,430
Alaska $75,730 $47,410 $97,680
Arizona $60,530 $43,500 $79,340
Arkansas $57,800 $42,920 $77,210
California $79,340 $47,590 $116,690
Colorado $61,350 $47,150 $91,110
Connecticut $62,170 $47,150 $94,870
Delaware $69,550 $46,980 $87,750
District of Columbia $77,810 $47,150 $101,220
Florida $60,290 $42,290 $79,100
Georgia $48,000 $22,830 $78,380
Hawaii $76,920 $58,000 $97,310
Idaho $59,540 $35,880 $79,460
Illinois $62,920 $47,150 $79,500
Indiana $59,720 $46,450 $78,230
Iowa $60,570 $47,020 $76,920
Kansas $60,450 $47,040 $89,410
Kentucky $59,720 $37,150 $77,740
Louisiana $60,130 $46,980 $77,960
Maine $60,850 $47,040 $99,770
Maryland $69,210 $50,340 $98,820
Massachusetts $62,410 $47,210 $99,770
Michigan $60,180 $45,070 $77,600
Minnesota $62,060 $48,450 $78,690
Mississippi $46,730 $18,070 $71,120
Missouri $48,980 $43,370 $77,060
Montana $60,110 $37,620 $77,210
Nebraska $60,570 $47,100 $78,220
Nevada $61,310 $36,900 $78,940
New Hampshire $63,650 $46,710 $89,150
New Jersey $76,270 $59,280 $94,880
New Mexico $61,090 $45,200 $80,200
New York $75,000 $48,000 $98,540
North Carolina $60,040 $37,310 $78,230
North Dakota $60,490 $47,020 $77,670
Ohio $60,850 $47,230 $78,760
Oklahoma $60,560 $30,180 $77,560
Oregon $74,660 $57,440 $99,220
Pennsylvania $61,650 $45,800 $79,730
Rhode Island $74,970 $38,160 $100,650
South Carolina $59,280 $27,050 $77,560
South Dakota $59,320 $47,020 $97,720
Tennessee $58,550 $23,450 $78,940
Texas $61,350 $37,880 $85,820
Utah $49,860 $29,530 $78,610
Vermont $61,940 $47,740 $100,660
Virginia $60,590 $37,560 $85,630
Washington $70,260 $47,380 $89,710
West Virginia $61,940 $42,090 $87,820
Wisconsin $60,400 $46,090 $78,940
Wyoming $61,220 $33,280 $127,470

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) 2021 median salary; projected job growth through 2031. Actual salaries vary depending on location, level of education, years of experience, work environment, and other factors. Salaries may differ even more for those who are self-employed or work part time.

In terms of cities, California has some of the best-paid sports nutritionists. The 10 top-paying metropolitan areas are all in the state, according to the BLS.

Metro Area Median Annual Salary
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $97,640
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $96,900
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $95,750
Santa Rosa, CA $83,720
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA $82,940
Napa, CA $82,090
Salinas, CA $80,460
Sacramento--Roseville--Arden-Arcade, CA $80,230
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA $79,020
Modesto, CA $78,990

How to Stay Informed in this Field

Sports nutrition is a career that relies heavily on the latest research, so it’s important to read up on industry trends and findings. Here is a short list of resources to help you stay up to date.

The Performance Nutrition Podcast interviews experts on performance nutrition for athletes and the latest evidence-based research.

The National Athletic Trainers Association offers continuing education courses, has job listings, and holds an annual convention.

Food Insight is an information hub created by nutrition and food safety experts at the International Food Information Council.

Precision Nutrition offers certifications and continuing education for nutritionists.

lisa moskovitz

With professional insight from:
Lisa Moskovitz, RD
CEO of NY Nutrition Group