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Maximizing Performance Through Nutrition: The Role of the Sports RD

Young woman sports dietitian, performance dietian, registered dietitian for athletes

Anyone who has ever trained to improve their physical performance—whether for competitive purposes, for their own personal health and wellbeing, or simply for the fun of it—wants to make the most of their training and maximize their performance potential. Fortunately, there are an abundance of personal trainers, fitness centers, sporting goods retailers, competitive events, and community activities that offer something for everyone. In addition to these resources, there is another that is crucial to ensuring athletes receive the appropriate fuel to meet performance and recovery needs: Enter the sports RD.

Commonly referred to as performance dietitians, sports RDs are available for everyone from the novice to professional athlete, and they tailor their role to meet athlete needs. A true performance dietitian will be a registered dietitian (RD), accredited by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. You can search for them by specialty and geographic location in the Academy’s find-an-expert database.

Anthony Zamora, Executive Performance Nutrition Chef for the Utah Jazz recognizes his role as athlete-focused and team-driven. As a sports RD working with NBA athletes, Zamora emphasizes the importance of humanizing the athlete, rather than treating them like machines. “We are here because of the athlete.”

An effective team sports RD understands organizational goals and balances these with athlete needs. As Zamora explains, “What your team finds to be the most important will dictate how you run your operation.” For Zamora, the quality of food provided to his athletes is a priority, with menus tailored to meet athlete nutritional needs while delivering a gratifying culinary experience. And Zamora doesn’t stop there: continuous improvement and innovation are integral components of his nutrition program.

Communication between the sports RD and the athlete is also essential to maximizing performance. Dietitian Abbey Lathrop works with athletes across the ability spectrum and finds that effective communication styles vary tremendously among athletes. For example, interactive conversations work well for her younger athletes (middle to high school age), such as brief Q&A sessions focusing on whether they ate before training, and if so, what they ate and how this may impact their performance. For these athletes, involving their parents is important as they make meal decisions and help develop eating habits.

Lathrop also works with a wide range of adult clients, from 30-something former college athletes to 50-something executives looking to shed a few pounds to the, “not-so-average, strong-as-heck 70-year-old.” Because many of these individuals spend their days behind a desk, Lathrop finds the best way to reach them is digitally. For these athletes, monthly emails with nutrition tips and education on a variety of topics delivered in a light and entertaining format are an additional motivator.

Unlike the casual adult athlete, pro/elite athletes benefit from a more intensive nutrition program, with a full nutrition assessment before their physical training begins. As Lathrop explains, “This conversation is about first building a relationship with the athlete.” This initial assessment is an opportunity to get acquainted with each athlete: understanding their goals and gaining insight on their medical history, past injuries or health concerns, food intolerances, allergies, food preferences, daily routines, etc. “It’s about learning the ins and outs of these athletes’ individual needs, learning styles and lifestyles and figuring out the best way to help get them to where they want to be.”

At the end of the day, the athlete is responsible for taking ownership of their nutrition needs. As summed up by Zamora, “Consistency creates change,” a sentiment that applies to anyone with health and fitness goals.

If you are interested in learning more about the sports RD role or becoming an RD check out Wellness Workdays Dietetic Internship! We offer unique concentration areas, including Sports Nutrition and Entrepreneurship.

Learn more about Wellness Workdays and our wellness program offerings by downloading our brochure.

Written by: Bridget Hoopes, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern


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