The former Team GB cyclist, who competed at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, will lead the coordination of a UK-wide performance strategy.
Symington will be responsible for successfully delivering the UK Sport-funded Olympic and Paralympic World Class Programmes.
She said: “I am delighted to join British Athletics at this juncture in its journey.
“On a professional level I’m looking forward to sharing some of my experiences whilst learning from others within this great sport, including all the staff, athletes, coaches, stakeholders and partners as to how the sport moves forward but ultimately strives for future success on the world stage.
“I’m an athlete at heart who moved into leadership roles but my overriding ambition has always been about creating an environment where our athletes and staff thrive and deliver continued success both individually and collectively.”
Symington, who will start the role in the autumn, held coaching positions at British Cycling and British Triathlon before spending six years as performance director for Archery GB.
She was named performance director at England Netball in 2015 and oversaw the formation of a World Class Performance Programme and an historic Commonwealth Games gold medal in 2018.
It is chief executive Joanna Coates’ first senior appointment, with a new Olympic head coach also due to be chosen with Symington on the selection panel.
Coates said: “I am excited to welcome Sara as our new performance director. Her appointment is a major step as we move into an incredibly exciting time for athletics in the UK and is a brilliant opportunity for her to make a difference both immediately and in planning the future.
“Sara possesses a vast wealth of knowledge and experience as both an athlete and a successful leader at a number of sports, which will prove vital in our short-term planning towards Tokyo and allow us to quickly review and evaluate for the cycle to Paris.”
British Athletics has been without a performance director since Neil Black left the role last year. Black died in April, aged 60.
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