I get many queries from students who want more information about becoming a sports dietitian. Here are some answers to common questions, and a description of the career and work conditions that can be expected for a sports dietitian. I studied and work in Australia, so the situation may be different if you are living and studying elsewhere. See also more specific examples of what I personally do as a sports dietitian.
Firstly, I am a sports dietitian - which in Australia is a higher qualification than a nutritionist. One first needs to study to become a clinical dietitian in order to be able to treat any clinical issues that may arise for your athletes e.g. Iron deficiency etc., then specialise through work experience and study to specialise in sports nutrition.
To become a sports dietitian in many countries does not require any more than some qualification in basic Nutrition or Dietetics, and then an interest and some experience in the sports nutrition field. There are some courses specifically for sports dietitians (See Courses).
In Australia, to become an Accredited Sports Dietitian, you must be a fully qualified dietitian, and then gain credit in a specific sports dietetics course or University unit. In the US, the premier professional sports nutrition accreditation is by the The Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). The CSSD is offered by the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR) for registered dietitians (RDs) who have specialised experience in sports dietetics.
Even if you have the right qualifications, the good sports dietitian job can be hard to find. If you have the right contacts and a bit of luck you can get involved with a major sporting team. If that is the direction you wish to go in, it would be best to start helping out (possibly voluntarily) with a local sports team and work your way up from there.
There is also an online sports nutrition course called the Sports Oracle ( www.sportsoracle.com/ioc ) they conduct the IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition, which is a very good course also. The course is done completely online.
It is awesome working with high level athletes, and really a challenging and exciting field to be in. There are very few full time positions available as a sports dietitian, so to work in this field often a few part time positions need to be taken. Many sports dietitians do other non-sports related work (such as clinical or community dietetics). In a typical day I regularly perform anthropometry testing (such as skinfolds etc.) as well as practical sessions like cooking and shopping. A big part of my job is also diet planning and advice, and personal consultations. See this example list of sports dietitian services.
I must admit I have done limited clinical dietetics in the hospital setting, as I have specialised in sports nutrition. There is still an element of science within every dietetics field, however I would say majority of the work is counselling type work and consultations with clients whether they be patients or athletes. Biochemistry would be the most challenging aspect of the study, but in reality if you have a good understanding of it all it won't seem too 'scientific' in the work place.
I think majoring in both nutrition and journalism may be a good match - there are always plenty of options for work in the media when it comes to nutrition, not only for sports nutrition but all dietetics areas.
A sport dietitian, like any dietitian, is required to be an excellent communicator, have good people skills and counselling. You need to have an interest in food, diet, and health. Other skills which are advantageous include marketing know-how, time management and business skills. You need to be aware of current trends, monitor the media and scientific journals, and network with other dietitians to keep up with the latest developments and the emerging research.
The pay for a sports dietitian can vary, and it can take time to make a name for yourself. Some sports teams may expect you to work long hours for minimal pay. As you can do many small jobs, the total hours can be as long or short as you would like - but this will effect pay obviously! I am passionate about sports nutrition, so I love my job! It is a great feeling making a positive impact on peoples' lives.
For me, the least enjoyable part of becoming a dietitian were the Biochemistry units and labs at University. Once in this career, I find that there is nothing too hard about being a dietitian, except maybe breaking through to get more work opportunities when you work in private practice.
Working with other people, particularly working with highly motivated athletes.
As the profile of Sports Dietetics improves, work is becoming easier to come by. However, on saying that there are still not many full time sports nutrition jobs available. Most sports dietitians in Australia have several part time jobs to make up full time work. All professional AFL clubs in Australia have a sports dietitian at an average of two days per week. These are the most high profile team positions around, so that tells you something. Other jobs can be secured through sporting institutes. Some of these are full time, but again, not many.
My advice for any aspiring sports dietitian is to get some work experience under you belt and then you can come to a job opportunity well credentialed. Your background education will be a factor in getting a job in Australia. To be a qualified sports dietitian, you need to have clinical dietetic qualifications first. Go to www.sportdietitians.com.au for more information about becoming a sports dietitian in Australia.
As a Sports Dietitian, it is unlikely to be paid a salary or a wage. Usually it is part time work on a consultancy or contract basis, which is often negotiated with the employer, if there is one! Most often you work for yourself in private practise, and charge an hourly (or consult) rate. These consult rates can vary from $80 to about $150 for an hour (2011 figures). On a good day you could see maximum 6 people. This is not taking into account overhead expenses for the location of work. You could also get contract work, completing a set amount of hours per week for a company, and get paid a much lower hourly rate, but there are no overheads or other expenses. The upside is there are other perks to this position, making it worthwhile. I know this is not a simple answer, but if you are wanting to do this job for the money I would suggest you look to doing something else, as it is often hard going, and there are very few full time sports nutrition positions.
Prospects are certainly improving. The general public are becoming more aware and interested in the importance of sports nutrition, but more importantly, the coaches and fitness staff of sporting teams are seeing the benefits of having a specialist sports dietitian working with their athletes.