What Is a Sports Nutritionist Degree? (Plus Average Salary)

Updated October 4, 2022

Athletes typically need to pay attention to their nutritional needs, especially if they're training for a specific event or attempting to build muscle mass. A sports nutritionist receives special training to advise athletes on their dietary choices that help them achieve their athletic goals. Learning about this role and the educational requirements for it can help you determine if this is the right career path for you.

In this article, we explain what a sports nutritionist degree is, list the duties of a sports nutritionist, discuss how this role differs from that of a general nutritionist, share the education and skill requirements for the job and provide the salary and job outlook for this career.

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What is a sports nutritionist degree?

A sports nutritionist degree is an educational certification that qualifies you to give nutritional advice to athletes or those involved in sports. Many universities and colleges offer this type of degree. The courses you may take when pursuing a sports nutritionist degree include anatomy, physiology, chemistry and kinesiology. The specific courses and curriculum can depend on the institution and program, and they usually appear on the institution's website.

Related: 10 Fitness and Nutrition Certifications (And Reasons To Earn One)

What does a sports nutritionist do?

Sports nutritionists work with athletes and other sports professionals to develop dietary plans that help them optimize their performance. These diet plans enable athletes to heal and repair or build muscle mass, depending on their goals. For example, a professional football player typically requires a different diet than an Olympic gymnast, and a sports nutritionist would consider each athlete's goal in relation to their dietary plan.

Their clients may include college athletes, models and people with an interest in fitness, such as bodybuilders or competitive runners. Sports nutritionists may tailor their diet plans to help athletes achieve a faster recovery after a taxing workout or promote optimal performance for an important event or competition. Typically, they learn about their clients' training and lifestyle choices and may observe them for a short period of time. This helps them to understand their clients' habits and create a plan for their established routines. Sports nutritionists may vary their activities, but a typical day might include:

  • Reading about new scientific research or reviewing data relevant to their profession

  • Documenting updates to patient files, which may involve tracking their progress or establishing their current goals

  • Educating clients or sports teams on proper nutrition

  • Performing community outreach activities

  • Meeting with other nutritionists, doctors or health care staff to discuss a patient's care or provide dietary advice

  • Developing meal or recovery plans for clients

  • Observing the daily habits of their clients

  • Networking with new clients or fellow nutritionists

Related: What Is a Nutrition Specialist? (With Job Duties and Skills)

Sports nutritionist vs. general nutritionist

One of the key differences between a sports nutritionist and a general nutritionist is that general nutritionists work with a wider variety of people, whereas sports nutritionists specialize in creating diet plans for athletes or those training for a specific fitness goal. Sports nutritionists often have more in-depth knowledge of physiology and kinesiology in addition to diet and nutrition. This additional understanding helps them create diets based on their clients' training schedules.

For example, a professional athlete may have a different diet in the offseason of their sport than they would during training and competition. A sports nutritionist accounts for these differences and adjusts their clients' diet plans accordingly. In contrast, a general nutritionist may collaborate with someone to develop a dietary plan that helps them lose weight, improve their health or treat a disorder that requires a specialized diet. Sports nutritionists only focus on improving clients' athletic performance through diet and nutrition.

Related: 9 Nutritionist Types

How to become a sports nutritionist

Most states require a license and a degree for someone to pursue a career as a sports nutritionist. Here are the steps you can take to become a sports nutritionist:

1. Earn a degree

Employers hiring sports nutritionists typically prefer candidates who have a degree in sports nutrition, dietetics, nutrition or a related field, such as kinesiology or exercise science. Check your state's requirements for licensure, as some require prospective sports nutritionists to earn a bachelor's degree before they can take a licensing exam.

Some sports nutritionists also pursue advanced education, such as a master's degree or a doctorate. Advanced degrees might help you find a job more quickly or help you find clients if you choose to work in a private practice environment. Before choosing a school, consider searching for one that's accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency, such as the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND).

Related: Nutrition Degrees: Everything You Need To Know

2. Gain experience

Most states also require prospective sports nutritionists to work a certain number of hours in sports nutrition before they can take the licensing exam. You can attain these hours working under a supervising nutritionist or as part of an internship program. Your school may also help you prepare for the licensing exam or offer resources for finding a location to fulfill the required hours. Educators and mentors are excellent resources when you're networking and looking for different opportunities to gain experience.

Related: 12 of the Highest Paying Jobs in Nutrition

3. Pass your state's licensure exam

Once you have the required amount of experience, you can usually take the Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) exam. Passing this allows you to practice as a certified sports nutritionist, which means you can practice independently or find other job opportunities. You can also choose to pursue licensure through the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) and become a registered dietitian. Depending on your state's qualifications, your license may require continued education for renewal every few years.

Related: How To Become a Nutritionist or Registered Dietician: Careers in Nutrition

Work environment for sports nutritionists

Some common places you might work as a sports nutritionist include:

  • Hospitals

  • Sports organizations

  • Athletic clubs

  • Food manufacturers

  • Professional sports teams

  • Rehabilitation centers

  • Fitness centers

  • Research facilities

Some sports nutritionists also open their own private practice, where they consult with organizations or individual clients.

Related: How To Start Your Own Consulting Business in 10 Steps

Skills for sports nutritionists

Effective sports nutritionists often possess a range of skills to succeed in their profession, including:

  • Networking

  • Active listening

  • Critical thinking

  • Teaching

  • Biological knowledge

  • Nutritional knowledge

  • Organization

  • Communication

  • Teamwork

Sports nutritionists who work in private practices may also benefit from having some business skills, such as basic accounting.

Related: Skills of a Nutritionist: Definition and Examples

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Salary and job outlook for sports nutritionists

A nutritionist can expect to make an average of $55,598 per year. The salary of a sports nutritionist can vary, depending on their location, their employer and the clients with whom they choose to work. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nutritionists can expect employment to grow 7% between 2021 and 2031, which is higher than the average for all occupations. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the links provided.

Please note that none of the companies mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.

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