Working in Sports Nutrition in the USA

28 Sep 2021
by Dr Alan Kennedy

SENR Executive Support Consultant Dr Alan Kennedy speaks to SENR members Charles Ashford and Connor Spencer about how they have forged exciting and rewarding careers in high performance sports nutrition roles in the United States.

Alan Kennedy (AK): How did you get into sports nutrition?

Charles Ashford: I attended Brunel University in London to study a bachelor's degree in sport and exercise sciences. During the degree, my interest in exercise physiology, nutrition, and training peaked. This allowed me to tweak my classes to help enhance my knowledge in these areas. Following graduation, I had planned to enrol in a master's degree programme in sports nutrition but an application to intern within the sports nutrition department at Texas Tech University met with success. The position was unpaid, but I accepted and made the move to Texas. After about nine months, I was granted a new full-time paid position within Texas Tech. I spent almost three years there working with a wide variety of teams and athletes, which was an invaluable learning experience. Concurrently, I completed an online Diploma in Performance Nutrition through the London-based Institute of Performance Nutrition (IOPN).

Connor Spencer: I come from a competitive cycling background and my interest in sports nutrition began through testing at The Endurance Performance Training Centre in Mill Valley, California. I saw an environment I wanted to be a part of – they offered me an unpaid internship and I took it. I loved every minute of the testing, analysis and consulting and was enthusiastic in my new role. Over time, this turned into a paying job, administering performance tests and providing nutrition support. I was ready to take the next big step in my sports nutrition career so, I also decided to enrol at the Institute of Performance to develop my practice but, similar to Charles, it also allowed me to pursue this career path while keeping my full-time job.

AK: What was your pathway to achieving accreditation by the SENR?

Charles: I gained SENR Graduate Registration in 2017 following successful attainment of my Diploma in Performance Nutrition from the IOPN. Within the same year, thanks to the mentorship and applied practice experience gained at Texas Tech, my application for Practitioner Registration was approved. I have since completed an online MS in Sports Nutrition from Concordia University Chicago.

Connor: Midway through finishing my IOPN diploma, I knew I wanted to continue my education in sports nutrition. I was accepted onto the MSc in Sports Nutrition at Liverpool John Moores University and relocated to England to undertake the course. This comprehensive programme is taught by leaders in the field of sports nutrition, combining applied practice and research opportunities. While studying, I landed an eight-month internship with British Para-Swimming and the English Institute of Sport (EIS). The EIS gave me first-hand experience into an elite sport environment and helped me develop professional practitioner skills. Additionally, the EIS highlighted the importance of the SENR, as it is a required accreditation to be considered for a paid performance nutritionist role. Soon after completing my MSc, I obtained Graduate Registrant status with the SENR.

AK: Subsequent to SENR accreditation, how have your respective careers as performance nutritionists in the US developed?

Charles: Following my stint at Texas Tech, I landed an incredible opportunity to move to the University of North Texas to establish a sports nutrition department from scratch for their athletic programmes. I have now been in place here for over three years in the role of Director of Sports Nutrition.

Connor: On returning to California in 2019 following completion of my MSc studies, I successfully interviewed for the role of Director of Sports Nutrition t California State University Northridge (CSUN). In his role, I oversee the nutritional support of over 300 collegiate athletes across 11 sporting disciplines.

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AK: Within these dynamic roles, what are some of challenges you face toward effective practice?

Charles: The sheer size and scale of US collegiate sport was a huge initial eye-opener, and the commitment required to serve the needs of athletes is therefore substantial, with frequent long working days! I think I went in with a lot of misconceptions about how well these athletes would eat and believed they would all have their nutrition dialled in. This was far from true. Collegiate athletes are often balancing similar sporting demands to those of professional athletes alongside a full-time university education. For many, nutrition can be an after-thought in the chaos of their day to day to lives, especially at an age where the majority may be able to get away with suboptimal eating habits. Therefore, getting these individuals to see the value and importance of their nutritional intake was certainly a challenging task for an inexperienced practitioner.

Also, despite similarities between the US and UK, many cultural differences exist, particularly so with respect to food. For example, some of our American football athletes require a lot of calories and can eat a serious amount of food. However, the rosters are very large and not every individual has such drastic needs. In a country where large serving sizes are the norm, it can be tough to really finetune individual approaches amongst large numbers of athletes.

Connor: The unique demands of all our 11 sports and how they may differ between the men's and women's teams. Every student is starting with a different level of knowledge and interest in nutrition - flexibility and patience are a must.

Student/athlete free time is limited and many of them have hectic schedules, which can be challenging when it comes to recovery, meal timing, food availability, and sleep. Collaborating with student athletes to come up with creative solutions that don't add to their stress level is key, but often requires compromise.

As Director of Sports Nutrition, I also have to consider budget, resources, and who I need to call to order a rice cooker so I'm in compliance with accounting! Finally, no matter how great a strategy may be, it has to fit within NCAA regulations, which are stricter than the World Anti-Doping Agency and UK Anti-Doping.

AK: Conversely, what opportunities have you been able to avail of toward the same goal?

Charles: I am fortunate enough to travel with some of our teams and I will oversee at least one team that is in-season year-round. This affords a great opportunity to gain traction and buy-in with your programme. It's far easier to build relationships with athletes, coaches, and other members of staff when you're there full­ time, something which is not as common in the UK.

Connor: I see the value a sports nutritionist can bring to a university programme, but what's vitally important is that the person who is hiring you also sees it. I'm fortunate that the Director of Performance and Student­ Athlete Welfare at CSUN, Bob Alejo, puts a high value on the work that I do and sees it as a distinct competitive advantage. As a result, my practice benefits from access to good resources and support mechanisms.

AK: What advice would you give to fellow SENR members considering a move to practice within the US?

Charles: Because of the vast collegiate and professional landscape in the US, there is a high demand for practitioners and full-time opportunities do seem to appear frequently, which is certainly promising. Most practitioners in the US come from a clinical dietetic background and practice as credentialed dietitians. Therefore, SENR accreditation has helped me establish credibility and recognised competency as a sports nutrition practitioner, especially being part of the BDA. I hope to see greater global collaboration from dietetic organisations in the future to give more practitioners the opportunity to practice abroad.

Connor: In the US, sports nutrition roles have long been filled by registered dietitians, as Charles has said. This is likely due to the fact that dietitians have been the only option for accredited nutrition support. While, this can initially be a bit of a challenge for a performance nutritionist looking for a role in the US, there is definite movement in our field. Sound accreditations such as SENR and the British Dietetic Association help showcase knowledgeable and skilled sports practitioners. SENR registration - and its association with the British Dietetic Association – provides credibility to my work in sport.

If you've been inspired by Charles and Connor's journeys to sports nutrition practice abroad and want to learn more about becoming a member of the SENR, please visit their webpages.

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