My path to becoming a performance nutritionist

March 25, 2019 Paige Crawford

Finding a job in sports nutrition isn’t easy, but at least the opportunities are clearer today than they used to be. About eight years ago, when I began considering it as a possible career, there weren’t as many options.

But thankfully I figured it out — my career as a performance dietitian has turned out to be more fulfilling than I originally dreamt.

Maybe what I’ve learned can help you find your way forward. Looking back, I think my success boils down to curiosity, luck, and perseverance.

As a track-and-field athlete in high school, I understood nutrition played a part in my ability to perform, but I wanted to know more about the science and how to apply it in real life. In my freshman year at Texas Tech University, I decided to major in nutrition and minor in exercise sports science. And while I knew I was interested in sports nutrition, I had no idea what a career path might entail.

This is where luck came in. I happened to be attending a university that offered an accredited program, something many colleges did not. My education was on track, and the more I learned, the more I was set on working in sports nutrition.

A couple years into my undergrad, though, I realized that finding an internship would be a challenge. Lubbock, Texas, wasn’t exactly ripe with opportunities for aspiring sports dietitians. There wasn’t a sports dietitian to learn from at the university and there were no professional teams closer than a six-hour drive. So, I directed my energy to the research lab, working with a professor who researched nutrition and exercise science.

I was learning a lot and becoming even more interested in a career working with athletes, but, surprisingly, my professors and advisors weren’t supportive. It was foreign territory to them, and they warned me that this was a rare, highly competitive specialty within dietetics. According to them, clinical dietetics was a safer choice.

I ignored their warnings and forged ahead, hoping they were wrong.

Presenting a nutrition research poster at Texas Tech University.

See what’s out there and pursue what inspires you. Exposure to different organizations can broaden your vision of other practices and specialties.

After graduation, I pursued a master’s degree at the University of Texas, mainly because they had recently hired their first full-time dietitian. I contacted her, eager for a mentor in the field, and I was invited to volunteer. I loved every minute of it and was eventually hired to assist with nutrition programming.

I was so eager to become a dietitian and take my career to the next level, I began pursuing dietetic internships during this time. A year and a half into grad school at University of Texas, I was matched with Iowa State University’s dietetic internship program.

Discussing nutrition during the NFL Combine and Pro Day Preparation program.

Getting into a dietetic internship program was a relief. Beyond meeting the internship qualifications, you must rank programs that you wish to apply to, they rank you, and if the stars align you get linked up with one from your list. Toward the end of my internship, I wanted to diversify my experience, so I applied for some short-term positions at other schools through the Gatorade Sports Nutrition Immersion Program.

And this is where it gets a little complicated. Even though it wasn’t a school that I selected from the Gatorade program, Auburn University reached out for an interview and I was offered a year-long position separate from what Gatorade had to offer. I moved to Alabama, took the registered dietitian certification exam, and finished my master’s degree through Iowa State’s distance program. As the primary sports dietitian for five of Auburn’s teams, my expertise grew immensely through a combination of high moments and challenges.

During this time, I was invited to attend an advanced practice workshop organized by the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association. It was here that I connected with Amanda Carlson-Phillips, vice president of nutrition and research at EXOS.

Providing personalized post-workout nutrition guidance for Auburn University football players.

If this is a field that you can envision yourself in, don’t let any words of discouragement or other obstacles get in the way.

I sent Amanda my resume immediately following the workshop, leading to a job with EXOS at the SKLZ headquarters in San Diego. EXOS opened my eyes to another world of sports nutrition, or performance nutrition as we call it, broadening the definition beyond athletes to apply to everyday people and their performance.

After a year at EXOS, I qualified to take the next step in my practice and took the exam to become a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics (see the list of qualifications). This certification is the highest level of education as a sports dietitian outside of pursuing a Ph.D.

Now four years into my career, I can honestly say that my passion and enthusiasm is as strong as ever. It seems impossible to lose interest — advances in decoding our genome and microbiome have tons of potential, for example. It’s exciting to think about the world of possibilities that could be around the corner.

Seeing athletes off before the NFL combine after eight weeks of training, nutrition, and physical therapy.

Today, the demand for performance dietitians is only growing. Professional teams, universities, private training facilities, and even sport supplement companies are all becoming more interested in using nutrition to help people perform their best.

If you’re pursuing or thinking about a career in performance nutrition, here are some tips based on my experience.

1. Trust your passion (ignore the haters).

If this is a field that you can envision yourself in, don’t let any words of discouragement or other obstacles get in the way.

2. Know your basic education requirements.

You need a bachelor’s or master’s degree from an accredited didactic program in dietetics (see list of accredited programs), 1,200 hours of supervised practice through an accredited dietetic internship or coordinated program in dietetics, and to pass a national board exam.

3. Be proactive and creative.

Don’t just check the boxes of what should be done. The field has plenty of room for innovation so make the most of your projects and job. This will make you a memorable part of the team and could lead to new opportunities.

4. Be open to new experiences.

See what’s out there and pursue what inspires you. Exposure to different organizations can broaden your vision of other practices and specialties.

5. Build your network.

Foster relationships with your mentors, coworkers, peers, and athletes. And consider attending conferences and meetings from professional organizations, like CPSDA and SCAN.

Interested in starting your career at EXOS? Learn about our internships and job opportunities.

About the Author

Paige Crawford

Paige Crawford, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., is a senior project coordinator and performance dietitian at EXOS. She develops nutrition content and manages projects on the performance innovation team.

More Content by Paige Crawford
Previous Article
Outrunning: The Carol Reeve Story
Outrunning: The Carol Reeve Story

No More Articles


Contact Us