17 Secrets of a Competitive Eating Champion
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Most of the time, mental_floss’s Yasir Salem is a mild-mannered marketing director. But on weekends during the warm months of the year, 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 #12 in the world. He took home the top prize in the 12th Annual Cannoli Eating Contest last year, downing 32 cannolis in six minutes, and ate 27.5 hot dogs to qualify for the 2014 Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, being held this Friday in Coney Island. We couldn’t resist asking him for a few tricks of the trade.
1. THERE’S NO MANUAL...
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.
2. ...BUT THERE IS A SEASON—AND A PROFESSIONAL ASSOCIATION.
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.”
3. WATER IS A COMPETITIVE EATER’S MOST IMPORTANT TRAINING TOOL.
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.
4. THEY WORK OUT THEIR JAW MUSCLES.
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.
5. BREATHING CONTROL IS HUGE.
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.”
6. GETTING IT ON VIDEO HELPS, TOO.
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.”
7. THEY GET HELP FROM HYPNOTHERAPISTS AND BIOFEEDBACK SPECIALISTS.
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.”
8. THE BEST COMPETITIVE EATERS ARE IN SHAPE.
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.”
9. THEY SPECIALIZE.
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.”
10. COMFORTABLE CLOTHES ARE A MUST.
“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.”
11. THEY DO EAT ON COMPETITION DAYS...
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.
12. ...BUT THEY NEVER SIT DOWN.
“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.”
13. LIQUIDS ARE LUBRICANTS, NOT THIRST-QUENCHERS.
“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.”
14. CONDIMENTS ARE A NO-NO.
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.”
15. THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS PACING YOURSELF.
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.”
16. CHIPMUNKING IS WHAT WINS COMPETITIONS.
“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.”
17. EATERS DECIDE HOW THEY’LL BREAK A TIE.
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.”