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17 Secrets of a Competitive Eating Champion

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YouTube // NYRRVideo

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.

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.”

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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iStock
A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
iStock
iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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