Developing a sports nutrition practice

Developing a sports nutrition practice – column

Nancy Clark

Developing a Sports Nutrition Practice

Consultant’s Corner, featuring news by or about nutritionists and their work as nutrition consultants, will be an occasional feature dealing with the issues and concerns of the industries involved in marketing food products. This column is the second in this series.

Twenty years ago, jogging was just becoming the “in” thing. Today, exercise for fitness is an integral part of many people’s lifestyle. Ten years ago, 75 triathletes attempted Hawaii’s Ironman Triathlon. Last year (1988), more than 1500 people entered this grueling test of human endurance (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike race, and then 26.2 mile run). Ten years ago, when I started my sports nutrition practice, people were just waking up to sports nutrition and the fact that food affects performance. Today, most athletes are more than eager to learn about what’s best to eat.

Americans have not only become more conscious of health and fitness, they’ve also increased their interest in learning how to eat a healthful sports diet. Runners want to know what to eat before a marathon. Ballet dancers wonder how they can lose weight and still maintain energy for training. Wrestlers search for information about how to make weight and keep off the pounds without dehydrating themselves. Recreational athletes want information about the best pre-exercise sports snacks.

As the athletes demanding sports nutrition information have become more outspoken, nutritionists are being called upon to fill the void and feed the athletes the information they desire. Yet, many nutritionists hesitate to step into this specialty area because they lack special training. For those interested in getting more involved in developing a practice as a sports nutritionist, I offer the following tips based on my entrepreneurial experiences at SportsMedicine Brookline one of the largest sports medicine clinics in the Boston area and the United States.

PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH

To be an effective sports nutritionist, you should be sports-active yourself. You will be better able to relate to the athletes you counsel, and they’ll have more respect for your knowledge, since it will be first-hand, rather than book-learned. One of the first questions my clients ask me is “What do you do for exercise?”

Since I’ve always been sports-active, I have a wide repertoire from which to draw: I’ve ridden my bicycle across America as well as through the Canadian Rockies; I’ve trekked in the Himalyas, winter-camped and cross-country skied in the White Mountains, and competed in 10K road races, marathons and even mountain marathons. As a bike-commuter, cycling is an integral part of my daily routine. I’m a member of both the Charles River Wheelmen Bike Club and the Greater Boston Track Club. Biking is for relaxation; running is for a competitive experience. Maintaining a fit body is important to me both personally and professionally, lending great credibility as well as an understanding of my clients’ needs.

GET SPECIALIZED EDUCATION

Every week, students and registered dietitians who want to specialize in sports nutrition write to me, inquiring about the wisest career path. They’re undoubtedly active in sports and want to combine their personal sports interests with their professional nutrition career.

I recommend they complement their nutrition curriculum with additional classes in exercise physiology. Many state universities have exercise physiology departments that offer appropriate courses. Although it is not necessary for the nutritionist who wants to do counseling to have a degree in exercise physiology, it is important that he or she understands the basics and can answer in-depth physiological questions that a client might ask.

After getting my undergraduate degree in nutrition from Simmons College in Boston, completing an internship at Massachusetts General Hospital and working for 4 years, I went to graduate school at Boston University for my master’s degree in nutrition with a special emphasis on exercise physiology. Before I had this fundamental exercise physiology background, sports-active friends and athletes would ask me questions that I felt hesitant to answer. For example, I could tell them that they did not need a high protein diet to build up muscles, but I couldn’t explain what does build muscles. I could say that water was fine for replacing sweat losses, but I didn’t know how sports drinks fit into the picture. I had the surface answers to their questions, but not the in-depth theory and scientific background. Graduate school became an obvious need.

Conveniently for me, Boston University’s Sargent College of Allied Health Professions offered graduate programs in both nutrition and exercise physiology–a perfect combination! Fortunately for me, the nutrition department’s chairperson was Dr. Beverly Bullen, a pioneer in the area of sports nutrition. She understood my interests and helped me design a program that would fulfill my requirements.

Today, several colleges offer the opportunity to combine nutrition with exercise. Columbia, Berkeley, Tufts (graduate) and several state universities are the names of a few. If you’re interested in furthering your education in this area, it’s important to talk with the professors to learn their areas of interest, what research opportunities are available and the possibilities of coordinating between the nutrition and exercise physiology departments.

I thoroughly enjoyed the exercise physiology classes that I took. Since I’d previously studied only medical physiology, the exercise physiology classes clearly demonstrated that the active, healthy body is different than that previously emphasized. I learned about the biochemical, hormonal and muscular changes associated with training and strenuous exercise. I learned the scientific theory behind the nutrition recommendations, so that I could explain the “whys.”

My thesis project, which looked at the effect of a high fat diet on endurance performance, gave me an invaluable experience working with athletes. Only by counseling them, administering maximal performance tests, measuring oxygen uptake, observing muscle biopsies and participating in the research process did I internalize a working knowledge of these textbook concepts. I’ve since learned that most athletes are also “exercise physiologists” … somewhat self-taught, but nevertheless very knowledgeable. They understand their bodies remarkably. Since I can understand their lingo of fast twitch fibers, anerobic threshold, max tests and other such terms, I’m able to relate to them on their level.

The hours and hours of graduate study have paid off, but the need to keep learning is never-ending. Sports nutrition is a rapidly changing field. Each year, new facts replace old theories. To keep up to date is a full-time job in itself!

BECOME AFFILIATED WITH A LARGE FITNESS FACILITY OR SPORTS MEDICINE CLINIC

Being a member of the medical team at SportsMedicine Brookline has been a fundamental key to the survival of my sports nutrition practice. The clinic deals primarily with athletic injuries; my job is to address the nutritional concerns of the clients. The medical team includes orthopedists, podiatrists, physical therapists, athletic trainers–all with a sports background and the skills to focus upon the needs of both casual exercisers and competitive athletes. To my good fortune, Dr. William Southmayd, medical director, is very supportive of having me as a nutritionist on the team.

Although positions such as mine are few, they are growing in availability–and sometimes are just waiting to be created if the right nutritionist happens to come along. I highly recommend that registered dietitians knock on doors of their local sports medicine clinics to inquire about the possibilities of becoming associated on a professional basis.

Health clubs, universities, Ys and other fitness facilities are also logical places to start a practice. Try to find one that has a large volume of flow-through traffic. This will enhance your visibility and potential client-base.

ENJOY WRITING AND PUBLIC SPEAKING

In order to generate business, you’ll have to market yourself and let athletes know that 1) you exist and 2) you’re available for consultations. One of the best ways to become known is through writing for your local newspaper, track club newsletter or other local sports publications. The second way is to set up talks with sports groups. With time, the athletes will become familiar with you/your name and know who to call when they are seeking professional advise.

Writing is a way not only to market sports nutrition services, but also to educate large numbers of people about the importance of eating healthfully. The written word also adds credibility to your name. For me, writing is also a way to express myself creatively; I enjoy it. The audience is there, ready and waiting, since most sports-active Americans are more than eager to read how to protect their health, to say nothing about how to run faster or become stronger through the powers of good nutrition.

PLAN ON THREE TO FIVE YEARS OF HARD WORK

Most people who are starting a business are warned that they’ll need 3 to 5 years to develop it. Most of these same people, myself included, think “No, not me. I have more energy than the other entrepreneurs … I’ll reach success far sooner.” Well, I repeat that warning and encourage you to consider the possibility that you, too, will need those 3 to 5 years of energy! Only with time, hard work, public visibility and written articles will the sports world get to know your name and respect your expertise.

In the 10 years that I’ve worked at SportsMedicine Brookine, I have learned that creating a sports nutrition practice demands an incredible amount of time, energy and creativity. As any consultant knows, the work is never done–or so it seems. Yet, all the hard work and long hours are paying off. Although sports nutrition is a rewarding (and fun) specialty area, the disappointing news is that the average athlete prefers free nutrition information. They love to ask questions in group classes, but hesitate to pay for individual consultations. You might get tired of living on beans and peanut butter before you tire of helping them win with good nutrition!

GO FOR IT!

I only hope that I have opened doors for other up-and-coming sports nutritionists. You have my support to knock on doors, create possibilities and give it your all. By working together, we’ll have greater success. As any entrepreneur understands, you have to do it yourself, but you can’t do it alone.

Editor’s Note–For further information about purchasing her “how to” book The Athlete’s Kitchen and camera-ready master copies of her sports nutrition fact sheets, contact SportsMedicine Brookline, Nutrition Department, 830 Boylston Street, Brookline, MA 02167

Ms. Clark is nutritionist at Boston area’s SportsMedicine Brookline, one of the largest sports medicine clinics in New England. She counsels both casual exercisers and competitive athletes, teaching them how to make the best food choices for optimal health and top performance.

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