Very few sports people can ever get to anywhere near the top of their profession with a poor diet. What we put in our mouth can have a direct link to our strength, stamina and speed, and at the very highest level even one or two incorrect meals can be costly. Think about sportsmen such as George Best and Ricky Hatton, and how their careers were adversely affected by the food and drink they consumed; compare this to the diets of the teetotal Ronaldo or Floyd Mayweather.
However, sports nutrition is not as simple as popping a few vitamin pills, drinking water and gobbling chicken breasts, although those can all help! The dietary requirements of a marathon runner could be vastly different to those of a heavyweight boxer or a 100m crawl swimmer, and that’s where a sports nutrition specialist helps. Virtually every professional club or sportsman is likely to employ one – so it’s a fantastic career for anyone interested in the science of sport and being around sportspeople who care.
What sports nutritionist qualification requirements are there?
The most common qualification for aspiring sports nutritionists is a degree in nutritional science or a similar object, to perhaps be followed by post-graduate study. Any course that you take might be recognised by at least three bodies:
- The Nutrition Society, which is dedicated to advancing the scientific study of nutrition and its application to overall human and animal health.
- The Sport and Exercise Nutrition register (SENr), the voluntary competency-based register that accredits qualified and experienced sports nutritionists.
- Association for Nutrition: A registered charity that aims to protect and benefit people by defining standards in evidence-based practice.
A BSc (Hons) Sports and Exercise Nutrition degree will study nutrition at both ends of the sporting spectrum, from world class athletes down to youngsters just starting out in a sporting career. You’ll assess the impact that nutrition has on a sportsperson’s physiology, and how to help those with specific needs or issues. A course is generally three years long on a full-time basis, four years with a sandwich/foundation year, or six years if you take the part time version. The most common way of applying is through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service).
Another option, for those who are already working in the fitness industry, is to take a course on top of your basic qualifications. So, for example, you might possess a Level 2 Certificate in Fitness Instructing and/or the Level 3 in Personal Training, and now wish to move into sports nutrition.
This is similar to one of the PG-NASM career pathways - Strength and Conditioning Coach - you can sign up for.
Should you volunteer or do work experience?
As with virtually any career, work experience in a relevant field can be a real bonus for the prospective sports nutritionist, and this is recognised by universities; a sandwich degree course will include a year’s industry related work. You might wish to contact sports teams, universities, health and fitness centres, medical centres/NHS, and leisure centres for potential work experience. Word of mouth and building a reputation are two of the strongest ways of gaining eventual work, so the earlier you can start learning about sports nutrition in a real-life, authentic setting, the better.
You’ll probably meet people who watch every single mouthful through to those who know nothing, or don’t actually even agree with current nutrition theory. You may also meet those whose performance seems completely unrelated to their diets – it’s all good learning experience for you. The nutrition society also runs an annual graduate internship programme – visit its website for more details.
What CPD opportunities are there for a sports nutritionist?
You might wish to take a masters degree to follow on from your Bsc, which specialise in one aspect of sports nutrition. Courses could include MSc Sports Psychology, MSc strength and conditioning, and MSc Sport and Clinical Biomechanics. As with any career, it’s a good idea to continually top up and refresh your skills with regular courses.
You can also take a Strength and Conditioning Course through PG-NASM - if that's your interest. You will learn the basics of nutrition - combined with the rigors of S&C. There are many other CPD options as well.
One other route you could take for additional learning, albeit one that will not confer any additional qualifications, is to network and reach out to experts online. Keeping abreast of the latest developments and news will look impressive, and could lead to good opportunities. Attend as many events as you can muster LinkedIn is particularly good for finding experts in both nutrition, sports nutrition, sports massage and weight loss, as well as indirectly related skills such as lecturing, and social media.
If you’ve completed the steps above you’ll now hopefully possess a large database of knowledge, qualifications and contacts; perhaps you’ll already have some work lined up. Most of the big employment sites have plenty of opportunities, and although you might need to travel in the early stages, the thrill of seeing people progress because of the nutritional advice you’re providing will make this a rewarding and interesting career choice.