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17 Secrets of a Competitive Eating Champion

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Most of the time, Yasir Salem is a mild-mannered marketing director. But on weekends, he regularly pulls off incredible gastrointestinal feats as a championship-winning competitive eater. And it all started as a joke. “I was watching the Nathan’s contest in 2008, and I thought, ‘Wow, all I have to do is eat a bunch of hot dogs and I can be on ESPN?’" he says with a laugh. "I soon learned that it's not that easy.”

But Salem stuck to it, and these days, he's a seasoned competitive eater, ranked #10 in the world. We couldn’t resist asking him for a few tricks of the trade.


When Salem wanted to get started, he didn’t hire a trainer. First, he turned to the internet, and then, as he began to compete, got advice from other competitive eaters. “If you enter enough contests, you get friendly with them, and they’ll share tidbits of how they make things happen,” he says.


Major League Eating puts on some 70 contests every year, including July 4th’s Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Most contests take place during the warm months—exactly the opposite time from when most people want to be eating pounds and pounds of food. “It does sound counterintuitive, but these eating contests are shows for people to come and watch,” Salem says. “They're generally outside.” Which means that the eaters are susceptible to the weather and, if they can’t keep cool, will eat less than normal. “Last year, Nathan’s was brutal,” Salem says. The women, who competed first, let the men know that it was very, very hot on the stage, so “we iced ourselves down. That’s why the numbers didn’t go so low for the men’s last year. We got that insight from the women and we were preparing for the worst. If you look at the tapes, you’ll notice a lot of us had wet shirts because we were trying to stay cool.”


It’s probably not a surprise that the typical human stomach can’t hold the 30 or more hot dogs that competitive eaters routinely wolf down. After watching that first Nathan’s competition, Salem decided he was going to try, right then, to eat 20 hot dogs and buns. “I did three or four and I was like, ‘I’m done,’” he says. “I couldn’t continue.” He needed to increase his stomach capacity, which he did by drinking large amounts of water. Salem worked his way up to a gallon, which he can now drink in under a minute—and does so almost daily when he’s preparing for a competition.

“You have to go up and up and up,” he says. “It’s conditioning. Most people can work their way up to a gallon in a month. A gallon weighs eight pounds. In the majority of contests, we’re not consuming that amount of capacity. Joey Chestnut will consume maybe 5 or 6 pounds. If you do a gallon of water, you’re competitive with most of the eaters.” (He stresses that this strategy is for the pros—you definitely shouldn’t try it at home!)

Two or three times a week, Salem steams 6 to 8 pounds of broccoli and cauliflower, adds “a couple of pounds of sauerkraut,” and eats it in about 20 minutes—“at a fast pace, but not in contest mode”—then washes it down with a gallon of water.


When you’re in an eating contest, you don’t want your jaw to get tired. Some competitive eaters will chew up to six pieces of gum at a time to strengthen their jaw muscles, Salem says, but he has another method: He chews on silicone tubes that doctors recommend for patients who’ve had jaw surgery or for kids with autism who need to chew on things. “I bought three of these things in different strengths and I chew on them two or three times a week or so,” he says.


Though he now regularly competes in triathlons, a couple of years ago, Salem didn’t know how to swim—and learning how helped to up his competitive eating game, taking him from 20 hot dogs to 25. “In swimming, there’s a rhythm to breathing,” he says. “You have to understand you’re going to breathe every two or three strokes. If you don’t stick to that, you’ll throw yourself off. There’s a similar rhythm in eating: Maybe you breathe every hotdog, or every two hot dogs. But you need to figure out your rhythm and stick to it. Otherwise you’ll get out of breath and you’ll have to take a step back and relax, and it takes a few seconds to get your heart rate down. When you’re talking like 25, 30 hot dogs, and you’re breaking every three or four hot dogs for 30 seconds, that’s 30 percent of the contest. You don’t have that time to waste.”


Salem videotapes both his practice sessions and his competitions to analyze his hand speed and technique. “Lots of times, eaters—myself included—think we’re going a lot faster than we actually are,” he says. “When you videotape yourself, you reveal what’s actually happening. Am I chewing too long? Am I messing with the hot dog too long? Should I be breaking [the food] faster? It’s a lot of analysis and just tweaking.” He’ll often put his video side-by-side with another competitive eater to see how he can improve. Mastering hand speed and efficiency is a huge part of being successful. “If your hand speed is too fast, you’re not swallowing fast enough, then you’re just creating a traffic jam in your mouth,” he says. Still, “you have to master the entire process before you work on that.”


A couple of years ago, Salem found that he was having a mental block in competitions that was preventing him from being the best he could be. So he went to a hypnotherapist, and discovered that part of the reason he was getting hung up was because he was afraid of vomiting. “I had to get over that fear,” Salem says. “My hypnotherapist put lots of positive things in my head to help me figure it out.”

Because of the sessions, Salem made the decision to go to a biofeedback specialist, who gave him exercises to do that would help him suppress his gag reflex. “A lot of the suppression training has to do with brushing my tongue really far back, every morning and night,” he explains. “It’s part of my daily routine. I don’t even think about it anymore.”

There are other methods that competitive eaters use, too, including meditation. “Badlands Booker swears by it,” Salem says. “He’ll meditate just to overall have strength over his mind and to keep anxiety down. Just like in sports—you can be top of your game physically, but if you get anxious, and your heart races out of control, then you’re a mess. Same thing happens here.”


You’ll notice that most competitive eaters are very fit—and that’s because they have to be. “If you look at the top eaters—like the top 15 or 20—they’re all in shape, with very rare exceptions,” Salem says. “The fittest eaters have low body fat percentage and work out a lot. I’ve continually worked out and decreased my body fat over the past years and I’ve seen my performance increase from 20 to 25, and now I’m at 30 hot dogs.”

There is a theory about why it is that skinnier people make better competitive eaters. “It’s called the fat belt theory,” Salem says. “It started off as a joke, but there’s a lot of truth to it. If you think about it, there’s only a finite amount of space [in your abdomen]. You’re constrained by your ribcage—that’s all the space that you have to work with. If you have fat, it can hinder your ability to eat and fill the space up.” Though it is just a theory, Salem says there is anecdotal evidence to support it; Badlands Booker, who at one point weighed 400 pounds, saw his totals go from 25 dogs and buns to 40 when he dropped some weight (and then saw the totals drop back down when he gained the weight back). “Certainly no one can argue that being fat is a competitive advantage,” Salem says. “There’s nothing you can gain out of it.”


Eaters compete in categories: Counting foods, weighed foods, technique, and capacity. “Counting foods are like hot dogs. Either you eat a hot dog and bun or you didn’t,” Salem says. “Wings we do by weight—because you might only eat half of it—so they weigh the bucket before and after.”

The hardest category to compete in is capacity, which uses foods like chili. “If you’re consuming something that’s more fluid, it’s purely about people that have trained a lot for capacity level,” Salem says. “Joey Chestnut can do two gallons of chili, which weighs more than water. So if he’s doing two gallons of chili, we’re talking in the neighborhood of 19 to 20 pounds. Capacity is the hardest contest to win against someone who has a lot of experience. Nobody new is ever able to win a capacity contest unless they're some kind of freak.”

The best bet for a novice competitive eater is technique, where foods like wings, corn on the cob, and oysters are used. “It’s purely about how fast can you do it,” Salem says. “Have you developed an innovation where you can strip the meat a lot faster than everybody else? That’s where there’s real opportunity for someone who is a newcomer to break in.”

Within those categories, there’s further specialization—sweet, spicy, and salty foods. Some eaters are better at one than at the others. “Jalapenos are very rough,” Salem says. “I don’t like spicy foods in general—I don’t have a tolerance for it, and I'm not good at it. The intense heat ... I just get sweaty. But I’m pretty good at sweet contests.”


“You know when you go to Thanksgiving and everything feels tight? You don’t want that,” Salem says. “I wore spandex two years ago and all the guys made fun of me, so I don’t do that anymore. I wear shorts that have an elastic waistband. I usually wear a size medium shirt, but in competition, I might wear like a large. You just wanna be as loose as possible. You don’t want to think about the constriction of your clothes.”


Attention, everyone who fasts on Thanksgiving Day: You’re doing it wrong. Even competitive eaters have something in their stomachs before they go into a competition. “When you wake up in the morning, you haven’t eaten for 7 or 8 hours,” Salem says. “You’re tired. More than anything, you want the energy to go into the contest. You have to think of it like a sport. You can’t go into a marathon without having some food in your stomach because you need the energy to go through it.”

To prepare, Salem cuts down on solid foods two days before the contest; instead, he eats shakes, vegetables blended into soups, and soft fruits like bananas and oranges. “It’s not just about your stomach; it’s about your intestines,” he says. “You want to empty out your entire space as much as possible.” The morning of a contest, he’ll drink a strong cup of coffee—“to make sure I’m clear”—then go on an hour-long run. After a shower, he’ll drink one last gallon of water, which he’ll pee out completely before the contest, and have a piece of fruit. “That’s enough to get my body in the mode,” he says. “Caffeine starts me up and clears me out; the water hydrates me; and that piece of fruit or a smoothie is enough to carry me through 5 or 6 hours before.” He’ll also pre-game some fiber gummies to help him digest later.


“When you’re sitting, you’re half-way compressed,” Salem says. “It’s the worst situation to be in. Standing up helps open up the space and you can move around. You don’t wanna squander all the training that you've done over the past few months by limiting your space by being leaned over.”


“It’s just a way to get things down into your stomach, and quickly,” Salem says. “You don’t wanna overdo it. Liquid takes up space and it weighs quite a bit.” If dunking is allowed—as it is at Nathan’s—he’ll dunk the whole hot dog bun before eating it. But dunking isn’t always permitted, and picking up a cup to sip wastes time, cuts down on hand speed and efficiency, and usually causes an eater to consume more liquid—so when he can’t dunk, Salem has to be mindful of those things.

Depending on what the food in a contest is, competitors will have different liquid options: Whole fat milk, which quells the effects of capsaicin, for spicy food; sugar-free flavored drinks or water for salty foods; and coffee or tea for sweet foods (Salem prefers decaf tea). Alcohol isn’t permitted, and soda is a bad choice. “You don’t want anything with carbonation because that’s going to start bubbling up in your stomach," Salem says. "You’ll have to deal with burping every few minutes."

Temperature is also really important. “When you drink cold water, your throat tends to tense up,” Salem says. “You don’t want to introduce any kind of stress. So we’ll use warm water, around body temperature.”


They all take up space that might otherwise be occupied by whatever you’re eating. Salem specifically says that wannabe competitive eaters should avoid mustard, which, when combined with warm water, can lead to some … unpleasant results. “If you down a lot of it, it’s like castor oil,” Salem says. “I was in a contest with this guy—a total amateur. There was Nathan's Spicy Mustard and Ketchup sitting up front for branding purposes, and he was putting it all over his hot dogs. All the sudden he spit it up. It hit the back of my head, which is shaved, and it started burning! It was a mess.”


Competitive eaters are not Fletcherizing. In fact, they're doing pretty much the opposite, chewing only two or three times before swallowing. “You’re just getting it to the point of getting it down,” Salem says. In a Nathan’s contest, each plate has five hot dogs and buns, three on the bottom and two on top. He separates them, grabs two hot dogs and breaks them in half, and starts eating. Meanwhile, with his other hand, he’s dunking a hot dog bun in the cup of water and, as he eats that, he breaks two more hot dogs. And he does this, over and over, as fast as he can. “It’s a race against your body,” he says. “After minute three, you start to slow down. If you’re pacing the same number throughout, then something is really wrong. You’re not going to get a very high number. You need to just go balls to the wall and then cruise as best as you can to the finish.”


“The pros know that whatever you get into your mouth before regulation is over counts,” Salem says. “But you have to swallow it within 30 seconds after. So you should actively try and fill every corner of your mouth; it’s called ‘chipmunking.’ Don’t overdo it—you still have to be able to swallow it in 30 seconds—but you will be at a serious disadvantage if you don’t do it. It’s the difference between winning and losing.”


Unbelievable though it may seem, sometimes competitive eaters do tie—and in that event, they’ll decide the terms of the eat-off, usually quantity of food or time. “It’s usually better to just do time," Salem says. "If we hit our max in regulation—10 minutes—and we talk about eating five more hot dogs, it might not happen. So it’s usually better to choose time. That time is going to happen no matter what.”

5 Ways You Do Complex Math in Your Head Without Realizing It

The one thing that people who love math and people who hate math tend to agree on is this: You're only really doing math if you sit down and write formal equations. This idea is so widely embraced that to suggest otherwise is "to start a fight," says Maria Droujkova, math educator and founder of Natural Math, a site for kids and parents who want to incorporate math into their daily lives. Mathematicians cherish their formal proofs, considering them the best expression of their profession, while the anti-math don't believe that much of the math they studied in school applies to "real life."

But in reality, "we do an awful lot of things in our daily lives that are profoundly mathematical, but that may not look that way on the surface," Christopher Danielson, a Minnesota-based math educator and author of a number of books, including Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies, tells Mental Floss. Our mathematical thinking includes not just algebra or geometry, but trigonometry, calculus, probability, statistics, and any of the at least 60 types [PDF] of math out there. Here are five examples.


Of all the maths, algebra seems to draw the most ire, with some people even writing entire books on why college students shouldn't have to endure it because, they claim, it holds the students back from graduating. But if you cook, you're likely doing algebra. When preparing a meal, you often have to think proportionally, and "reasoning with proportions is one of the cornerstones of algebraic thinking," Droujkova tells Mental Floss.

You're also thinking algebraically whenever you're adjusting a recipe, whether for a larger crowd or because you have to substitute or reduce ingredients. Say, for example, you want to make pancakes, but you only have two eggs left and the recipe calls for three. How much flour should you use when the original recipe calls for one cup? Since one cup is 8 ounces, you can figure this out using the following algebra equation: n/8 : 2/3.

algebraic equation illustrates adjustment of a recipe
Lucy Quintanilla

However, when thinking proportionally, you can just reason that since you have one-third less eggs, you should just use one-third less flour.

You're also doing that proportional thinking when you consider the cooking times of the various courses of your meal and plan accordingly so all the elements of your dinner are ready at the same time. For example, it will usually take three times as long to cook rice as it will a flattened chicken breast, so starting the rice first makes sense.

"People do mathematics in their own way," Droujkova says, "even if they cannot do it in a very formalized way."


woman enjoys listening to music in headphones

The making of music involves many different types of math, from algebra and geometry to group theory and pattern theory and beyond, and a number of mathematicians (including Pythagoras and Galileo) and musicians have connected the two disciplines (Stravinsky claimed that music is "something like mathematical thinking").

But simply listening to music can make you think mathematically too. When you recognize a piece of music, you are identifying a pattern of sound. Patterns are a fundamental part of math; the branch known as pattern theory is applied to everything from statistics to machine learning.

Danielson, who teaches kids about patterns in his math classes, says figuring out the structure of a pattern is vital for understanding math at higher levels, so music is a great gateway: "If you're thinking about how two songs have similar beats, or time signatures, or you're creating harmonies, you're working on the structure of a pattern and doing some really important mathematical thinking along the way."

So maybe you weren't doing math on paper if you were debating with your friends about whether Tom Petty was right to sue Sam Smith in 2015 over "Stay With Me" sounding a lot like "I Won't Back Down," but you were still thinking mathematically when you compared the songs. And that earworm you can't get out of your head? It follows a pattern: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, end.

When you recognize these kinds of patterns, you're also recognizing symmetry (which in a pop song tends to involve the chorus and the hook, because both repeat). Symmetry [PDF] is the focus of group theory, but it's also key to geometry, algebra, and many other maths.


six steps of crocheting a hyperbolic plane
Cheryl, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Droujkova, an avid crocheter, she says she is often intrigued by the very mathematical discussions fellow crafters have online about the best patterns for their projects, even if they will often insist they are awful at math or uninterested in it. And yet, such crafts cannot be done without geometric thinking: When you knit or crochet a hat, you're creating a half sphere, which follows a geometric formula.

Droujkova isn't the only math lover who has made the connection between geometry and crocheting. Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina found crocheting to be the perfect way to illustrate the geometry of a hyperbolic plane, or a surface that has a constant negative curvature, like a lettuce leaf. Hyperbolic geometry is also used in navigation apps, and explains why flat maps distort the size of landforms, making Greenland, for example, look far larger on most maps than it actually is.


people playing pool

If you play billiards, pool, or snooker, it's very likely that you are using trigonometric reasoning. Sinking a ball into a pocket by using another ball involves understanding not just how to measure angles by sight but triangulation, which is the cornerstone of trigonometry. (Triangulation is a surprisingly accurate way to measure distance. Long before powered flight was possible, surveyors used triangulation to measure the heights of mountains from their bases and were off by only a matter of feet.)

In a 2010 paper [PDF], Louisiana mathematician Rick Mabry studied the trigonometry (and basic calculus) of pool, focusing on the straight-in shot. In a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana, he scribbled equations on napkins for each shot, and he calculated the most difficult straight-in shot of all. Most experienced pool players would say it’s one where the target ball is halfway between the pocket and the cue ball. But that, according to Mabry’s equations, turned out not to be true. The hardest shot of all had a surprising feature: The distance from the cue ball to the pocket was exactly 1.618 times the distance from the target ball to the pocket. That number is the golden ratio, which is found everywhere in nature—and, apparently, on pool tables.

Do you need to consider the golden ratio when deciding where to place the cue ball? Nope, unless you want to prove a point, or set someone else up to lose. You're doing the trig automatically. The pool sharks at the bar must have known this, because someone threw away Mabry's math napkins.


tiled bathroom with shower stall

Many students don't get to calculus in high school, or even in college, but a cornerstone of that branch of math is optimization—or figuring out how to get the most precise use of a space or chunk of time.

Consider a home improvement project where you're confronted with tiling around something whose shape doesn't fit a geometric formula like a circle or rectangle, such as the asymmetric base of a toilet or freestanding sink. This is where the fundamental theorem of calculus—which can be used to calculate the precise area of an irregular object—comes in handy. When thinking about how those tiles will best fit around the curve of that sink or toilet, and how much of each tile needs to be cut off or added, you're employing the kind of reasoning done in a Riemann sum.

Riemann sums (named after a 19th-century German mathematician) are crucial to explaining integration in calculus, as tangible introductions to the more precise fundamental theorem. A graph of a Riemann sum shows how the area of a curve can be found by building rectangles along the x, or horizontal axis, first up to the curve, and then over it, and then averaging the distance between the over- and underlap to get a more precise measurement. 

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
The Sky Was No Limit: The WASP Women Pilots of WWII
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shirley Slade sat on the wing of a plane and looked off into an uncertain future. Slade—clad in her flight suit with pigtails guarding against Texas wind—was posing for the July 19, 1943 issue of Life magazine, and the composition between the aircraft and its operator was a juxtaposition spelled out in the cover headline: "Air Force Pilot."

Slade was one of more than 1000 women who had been solicited by the U.S. government to enter an intensive seven-month training course that would make them the first female pilots to enter the Air Force. What had been a boy's club was being forced into a kind of reluctant gender neutrality as a result of World War II and severe pilot shortages. By recruiting women, the Air Force could maintain delivery of aircraft, ferry supplies, and perform other non-combative functions that fueled the war efforts. Collectively, the group would become known as WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots.

While all of these women risked their lives—and more than a few lost them—they were not perceived as equals. Because they were designated as civilians, they were denied military honors and compensation. As the war wound down, men returning from combat jockeyed to take the WASPs' places as active-duty pilots. Occasionally, the women would be used in target practice. It would be decades before the women of WASP would finally get their due.


America's entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor heralded a new policy of rationing. Food, materials, and manpower were doled out carefully, but demand for pilots quickly exceeded the available personnel. By 1942, the Air Force realized they would have to tap into new sources in order to continue their campaign.

Jacqueline Cochran had a solution: A pilot in her own right and a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Cochran knew there was a strong contingent of female fliers who had licenses and had logged air time who could be recruited for support missions. She petitioned the Air Force, including commanding general Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, to approve a training program that would ultimately relocate volunteers to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, submitted a similar proposal.

WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner looks out from her plane while on a Texas runway
WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cochran and Love were up against considerable resistance to involving women in military efforts. General Dwight D. Eisenhower once admitted he was "violently against" the idea (before concluding that none of his concerns came to light and women were an integral part of the effort). Internally, there was concern as to whether women would even be capable of handling a massive aircraft like the B-29 bomber, so superiors hedged their bets by creating two organizations.

Love was put in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS)—an organization to ferry planes—while Cochran was put in charge of the Women's Flying Training Detachment, which did whatever the Army Air Corps required of it. A little under a year later, these two groups were merged into a single organization: the WASPs. This new group demanded that incoming women logged at least 35 hours of flight time before coming to Sweetwater. More importantly, the women would be considered civilians, not military personnel.

Roughly 25,000 women applied; around 1900 were accepted and 1100 completed training. On their own dimes, these women streamed into Texas to begin the seven-month program that taught them every aspect of military flying except for gunnery duty and formation flying. Every day in the barracks included intensive lessons, physical fitness training, and studying. At night, the women would dance, sing, or play ping-pong. Life described their ambitions as "piloting with an unfeminine purpose" and noted that some of the women needed cushions in order to sit comfortably in planes designed for male bodies. Their mascot, a tiny winged sprite named Miss Fifinella, was designed by Disney, and the patch appeared on many of their jumpsuits and plane noses.

According to Life, the Air Force reported that the women were faster on instruments while the men "had better memory for details." But in virtually every way that counted, the magazine wrote, there was no practical difference in ability.

Graduates were dispatched to bases around the country, though the most pressing job was ferrying new aircraft from factories to places like Newark, New Jersey, where the planes would make the jump overseas. The women shuttled 12,000 of these planes during the war. They also escorted military chaplains from base to base on Sundays for religious services and operated test flights for repaired aircraft to make sure they were safe to fly in combat. Sometimes, they'd be tasked with towing targets behind them so soldiers could use live ammunition for combat practice.

Simulated combat may have been nerve-wracking, but it was no more dangerous than the actual flying and the very real possibility that the WASPs would experience equipment malfunction or fuel issues. In the two years the squad was active, 38 women perished during missions. At the time—and for decades afterward—the families of those women were denied many of the basic privileges afforded to the families of their male counterparts. When a WASP died, her colleagues—not the government—would pitch in to pay for her burial. Their families were prohibited from putting a gold star in their windows, a sign of a military casualty, nor were they "allowed" to drape the American flag over their coffins.


On December 20, 1944, the WASPs were sent home. The war wasn't yet over, but men returning from the front lines were dismayed that jobs they expected to find waiting for them were being occupied by women. Despite Cochran's petition to have the WASPs permanently incorporated into the Air Force, Congress turned her down.

WASP pilots are photographed circa 1943
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The pride the women had felt serving their country turned to confusion. By being classified as "civilians," the WASPs found little respect for their efforts. When entering the workforce after the war, some even became flight attendants, as no commercial airline would hire a female pilot.

In the 1970s, the Air Force announced they'd be accepting female recruits for the "first time," a proclamation that angered the surviving WASPs. Their efforts had largely gone unheralded, and now it seemed like the government was wiping them from history completely. Petitioning for recognition and receiving aid from fellow war ferry pilot Senator Barry Goldwater, they were finally granted military status on November 23, 1977.

As the WASPs aged, a handful got the chance to enjoy another honor. In 2010, the women were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts. After flying 77 different types of planes over 60 million miles during wartime and being largely ignored for decades, it was recognition that was long overdue.


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