If your favorite clients are athletes, training to become a registered dietitian may not quite quench your thirst for sports nutrition knowledge. You may be considering a sports nutrition certification to bolster your skills and knowledge, not to mention your resume.
But which one?
With several sports nutrition certifications to choose from, it can be confusing to pick the best one for you.
This article covers the main sports nutrition certifications available, who they’re intended for, and the process to certification. This dossier of options lets you decide which certification matches your career needs and goals.
This article also helps you to be more informed about how one sports nutrition certification compares to the rest. Being able to clearly advocate for your own robust training, certification and continuing education helps you to stand out in the field as you apply for job and contract opportunities.
Let’s dive in!
Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) Certification
The CSSD certification is the gold standard for registered dietitians working with athletes.
“The CSSD is the first and only sports nutrition certification program to be accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)” (1).
And if you’re going to be applying for sports nutrition jobs, the CSSD certification is a very common minimum requirement.
- Offered by: The Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR)
- Intended audience: Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDNs)
- Prerequisites: Have been practicing as an RDN for two years with 2,000 documented hours of specialty practice within the past five years.
- Preparing for certification: The content outline is going to remind you of a marathon, not a sprint. You’re going to want a study guide to move thoughtfully and purposefully through the plethora of content. Good news: we have a robust study guide available for you.
- Timeline: Self-guided, minimum of two years to be eligible for the exam.
- The exam: Taken in an approved testing center.
- Cost: The exam fee is $350
- Continuing education: The CSSD certification is valid for five years. To recertify, you must document 1500 hours of specialty practice and have met the continuing education requirements.
Psst: you can read our full post about becoming a CSSD dietitian right here.
ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist
This certification is intended for licensed or otherwise qualified healthcare professionals. The curriculum includes sports nutrition, but also the discussions about the stages of change, business management and honors the scope of practice for an ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist vs. a registered dietitian. A registered dietitian contributed to the creation of the ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist course materials.
- Offered by: The American Council on Exercise
- Intended audience: Health and fitness professionals
- Prerequisites: Hold a current professional certification in health education, fitness, wellness, or allied health that is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or the International Organization for Standardization or hold a current license as a healthcare professional, which includes being a registered dietitian.
- Preparing for certification: Course materials are available online and can include a physical textbook; studying is self-directed
- Timeline: Self-guided
- The exam: Online
- Cost: $699 if you purchase a hard copy of the textbook, $599 if you opt for the ebook.
- Continuing education: None
Note: anyone can complete this course, but only a person with an approved healthcare credential can call themselves an ACE Fitness Nutrition Specialist.
ISSA Nutritionist Certification
This certification is an example of a sports nutrition certification that is less geared towards registered dietitians or other licensed professionals. This certification is for the general public.
- Offered by: The International Sports Sciences Association
- Intended audience: Laypeople – there is no requirement to be a college graduate or to have a nutrition degree.
- Prerequisites: You must be at least 18 years old and have a CPR certification.
- Preparing for certification: Candidates for the certification purchase access to study materials online. They will also receive textbooks. Studying is done at the participant’s own pace.
- Timeline: Self-paced
- The exam: Exam is taken online and is open book. The passing score is 75% or higher.
- Cost: $999 when paid in full, $99 per month when paid monthly for a year
- Continuing education: None.
Notes: While four of the ISSA certifications are accredited, the nutritionist certification is not.
AFPA Certified Sports Nutritionist
This course is intended for the general public, not registered dietitians.
- Offered by: American Fitness Professionals Association
- Intended audience: Laypeople. There is no requirement for a college degree. You must be 18 years old and have a good understanding of English.
- Preparing for certification: Course materials are provided online and studying is self-paced.
- Timeline: Self-paced
- The exam: You need a minimum final exam grade of 85% to pass.
- Cost: $499
- Continuing education: The AFPA Sports Nutritionist Certification is valid for two years. In order to maintain AFPA certification, individuals are required to obtain 16 Continuing Education Credits (CECs) during each certification period.
Note: Active military, veterans and eligible spouses and dependents can receive reimbursement for any and all AFPA Certifications.
NCSF Sports Nutrition Specialist
This course is intended for sports enthusiasts, not registered dietitians.
- Offered by: National Council on Strength and Fitness
- Intended audience: The general public
- Preparing for certification: Study material is available online, applicants can also choose to purchase a physical textbook.
- Timeline: Self-guided, may take two to four months to be prepared to take the exam
- The exam: Taken online or at a testing center. There are 150 multiple choice questions and you must have a score of at least 70% to pass.
- Cost: The course and exam are $499
- Continuing education: None listed
Note: The NCSF Certification is approved by the US Department of Veterans Affairs for post-9/11 GI Bill reimbursement.
NESTA Certified Sports Nutrition Specialist
The NESTA certification is intended for personal trainers and does meet continuing education requirements for several national organizations including the NASM and SCNC.
- Offered by: National Exercise and Sports Trainers Association
- Intended audience: Sports trainers and coaches.
- Preparing for certification: Course training is 100% online
- Timeline: Self-paced
- The exam: Online, 100 multiple choice questions; you must have a minimum score of 70% to pass.
- Cost: $347
- Continuing education: None is required; this certification does not expire.
NSPA Certified Sports Nutrition Coach
The NSPA Sports Nutrition Coach course was created by Christopher Mohr, PhD, RD. This course has been approved for continuing education credits by The National Academy of Sports Medicine.
- Offered by: National Sports Performance Association
- Intended audience: Sports trainers and coaches.
- Preparing for certification: The NSPA course includes a training manual and online video modules completed at your own pace.
- Timeline: Online materials include a few hours of classes; can be completed in a week’s time
- The exam: Online; you have two attempts to reach the 80% passing score. The exam format is 75 multiple-choice questions.
- Cost: $495
- Continuing education: None required.
Sports nutrition certification study tips
No matter which sports nutrition certification you pursue, be sure to make the most of your testing opportunity. Break down the curriculum into smaller chunks so that you don’t feel overwhelmed by too much content at once.
Take practice tests to solidify your knowledge and identify weak areas as you continue to practice. Flashcards are still a great tool – old-fashioned, on paper or virtual apply!
To prepare you for your chosen sports nutrition certification, we invite you to check out our comprehensive study guide!
Key takeaways for sports nutrition certifications
There are many options for sports nutrition certifications, some far more robust than others.
The truth is, registered dietitians are not the target audience for most of these certifications.
While there is always room for the general public to educate themselves about nutrition, including sports nutrition, the certifications options are not all of the same caliber, nor do they merit the same professional level of credibility to work with clients or when applying for jobs.
As a registered dietitian or certified personal trainer, it is important to know what options are available. The right additional certification may offer you more career growth and even a raise. As you are advocating for your own opportunities and educating your clients, knowing what goes into certification from various institutions is helpful.
Sports & Fitness Nutrition Resources
RD2RD is your go-to for tools and education handouts
We have many tools and worksheets that teach key performance nutrition principles for athletes of all levels. These include high-quality tools made by fitness and sports dietitians.
Spend more time with your clients instead of reinventing the wheel by downloading the worksheets that support your business.