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Billions of hot dogs are consumed annually in America. Taking price into consideration, New Yorkers purchase a staggering $101 billion worth of this barbecue favorite.
One of the most profitable producers of hot dogs, Nathan’s Famous, will be holding their yearly contest on July 4th in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, pitting a field of roughly 20 contestants, including champions Joey Chestnut and Miki Sudo, against each other in a meal of epic portions.
Chestnut will aim to defend his title for the eighth-straight time, while Sudo looks to begin her reign over the women’s division. Competitive eating is one of the world’s most fastest growing sports as more than 40,000 Brooklynites, tourists and fans are expected to crowd Surf Avenue to catch a glimpse of the primed and prepared participants.
One competitor looking to separate himself from the crowded men’s division is Yasir Salem, who has competed in the last four contests. Salem, a three-time Ironman challenger, is ranked No. 15 in the world by Major League Eating. The 38-year-old New York native, who works full-time as a Marketing Director for Business Insider, is one of the most fit contestants on the docket, biking between 32-64 miles in the Tour de Donut cycling event. Salem gave Muscle & Fitness a sneak peak inside his training camp for the Super Bowl of competitive eating, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
M&F: Where did the passion for competitive eating fester?
YS: It started off as a joke. Getting into competitive eating, I thought, would be hilarious. This was back in 2008 when I screwed around a little bit. I realized how difficult it was. This is not easy. The stakes are high and there’s money involved. Between the men and the women at Nathan’s alone, there is a $40,000 purse distributed over five places, for each. There’s the Hooters contest, which is also next month. That’s $17,500.
It took me four years to get to that [high] level and to build up a base — a stomach capacity to be competitive. I’ve qualified for the last four years — I just qualified a couple of weeks ago. The first time I did this, I did 20 and a half hot dogs, which is the same number that Joey did. I have felt so sick at my first qualifier. My body immediately rejected the hot dogs. There’s not a lot people who can say they travel around, with their expenses covered, eating hot dogs.
M&F: The mental part of competitive eating is pretty important I assume…
YS: It’s huge. The person who can best reign in the pain is going to win. If someone with a stomach capacity of eight pounds is going up against someone with the capacity of 12 pounds, but the latter doesn’t know what to do with it, they’re going to lose. It’s more mental than anything. You have to do the physical preparation, but that’s only part of it. The mental part is the absolute most important part.
M&F: What reactions did you draw from friends and family?
YS: It’s so funny because it’s such a great conversation starter. Every once in a while I’ll get the, ‘Oh, that’s disgusting. Why are you doing that?’ All the normal things you’d expect people to say. More often than not, it’s very easy to turn those conversations around. More than anything, they think it’s hilarious and super interesting. Even my mom thinks it’s great. My dad prefers not to talk about it as much.
It works great in business. I usually let friends or co-workers find out on their own. I make sure they know I can do the job and then I’ll let them know about it.
M&F: What was your diet like prior to competitive eating?
YS: I started off with competitive eating and then I dabbled in running. I got really serious about running. Then I progressed, back in 2012, into triathlons. I did an Ironman in 2013 and then two Ironman’s in 2014. I only dabbled in fitness. I had fat phases and fit phases. I just never quite figured it out. I’m not good at ball sports. What I’m good at is riding a bike really fast.
Competitive eating forced me to think about food and sports. There really is a big difference between a fat competitive eater and a fit competitive eater. Just look at the Top 20, there are really not many fat eaters in there because the incentive is high enough that we’re looking for every possible opportunity to be better than the next person. There’s no advantage for being fat, but there is for being fit.
In terms of calories, competitive eating forced me to reevaluate my diet. Because of all these contests, the calories were piling in. I had to figure out what I’m doing with all of those calories. I knew how I’d burn my calories through running, biking and triathlons. I also knew when to say no to certain contests because I couldn’t handle the caloric load. I can’t do a competitive eating contest every day. It’s not practical.
In a way eating all that food made me a better athlete because I’m super aware of calories in and calories out. Just awareness. I’ve become more muscular and lowered my body fat. I’ve become a faster biker; a faster runner, and a faster eater.
M&F: Can you give us a glimpse into your diet?
YS: We’re in the middle of the busy season. All of us are at our highest capacity. Our season kind of starts around March and ends towards October, November. We have one contest in the beginning of December.
During the off-season, I have a fairly healthy diet. I buy organic vegetables and fruits. I eat a lot of vegetables and a medium amount of protein. I’m pretty liberal with my healthy fats like avocado and olive oil. I don’t eat a lot of carbs. On heavy aerobic days, where I’m riding 4-5 hours on the bike on Saturday’s and Sunday’s, I will carb up a little bit a couple of days before. I don’t eat a lot of dairy. I eat a lot of nuts; a lot of almonds. I eat a lot pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds.
In the morning, I’ll eat 2-3 eggs with turkey bacon. I’ll have a big cup of coffee. For lunch, I’ll usually eat a piece of chicken and a bunch of vegetables. I try and get in a gallon of water a day. For dinner, I have this slow cooker in warmer months that we run over night and we usually throw a chicken in there and a bunch of vegetables. I’ll eat that over a couple of days. A big salad for dinner. A piece of fruit here and there; not too much.
M&F: What do you do for protein?
YS: I eat a lot of chicken and sometimes I eat salmon, wild cod. I eat some tuna steaks. Those are my animal proteins. I do have whey natural protein shakes every once in a while when I’m trying to bulk up a little bit in the off-season to put on muscle. I have some baked tofu. If I’m going plant-based, I’ll go with some tempeh. I try to have a couple of teaspoons of chicken and fish a day. I don’t go for one gram per body weight.
When I’m a month out from an Ironman event — I’m doing another one at the end of August — I’m a little bit more anal about it. I have this very specific diet routine I do there. I switch my body to a very carb heavy diet and quite a bit of protein. I’m breaking down muscle quite often.
M&F: Can you talk preparation for an Ironman versus what you would normally do for one of your competitive eating events?
YS: I use Google calendar to not overlap everything. It’s very hard to prepare for an Ironman when it’s close, within a couple of weeks of an eating contest. In the long-term, if I have an eating contest in mid-July or early July, and then a Hooter’s contest in August, that’s enough spacing in between.
What I do for Nathan’s, it’s the same idea of increasing capacity and ability over time. It’s a conditioning thing. In February, I started drinking progressively more amounts of water, eating bigger amounts of vegetables — to the point where I’m close to 13 pounds of capacity. A gallon of water is eight pounds and I ate 5-6 pounds of vegetables. That’s about all I can handle; broccoli and cauliflower.
That doesn’t conflict too much with what I’m doing with Ironman training because the vegetables are totally fine with me; super high in fiber and they run through my system quite fast. I won’t do that every day; usually 2-3 times a week and I’m okay with that.
With the Ironman training, I’ll generally train six days a week, with one day off. It’s usually a Friday or Monday that I have off. At the peak of my training, which is around now, I’m doing a couple hours of aerobic training and 20 minutes of weight training a day. I do about 3-4 days a week of weight training and six total days of aerobic exercise. At my peak, I’m doing 5-6 hours of biking and running a day. My Saturday’s are heavy bike; my Sunday’s are heavy running.
For Nathan’s, I do four months of training, starting in March. My Ironman training I have down to six months. I started in February.
M&F: What parts of your strength training help you perform your best in the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest?
YS: More than anything, the aerobics. When I’m running a race — I have races in between on the weekends, like with New York Road Runners. In those races, I’ll push myself quite hard for 3-4 miles. There’s a point where I have a certain feeling of wanting to stop. I harness that feeling. There’s nobody that can tell me no and there’s no one who can push me. I’m the one who’s pushing myself. That feeling of willpower; I remember it very clearly. I remember that during eating contests because I’ve had multiple sessions of running. It’s good mental training. It translates very well over into eating. It’s also good mental training for the Ironman. Having a history of knowing you can do something, helps me so much. It’s something I can fall back on.
M&F: What are you doing in the final hour to prepare for Nathan’s?
YS: I’ll do 3-4 hotdog practices. What that means is — I won’t do 10 minutes worth. That’s just too many hotdogs. It’s too much sodium. It just makes no sense.
The most important part of a 10-minute contest is the first 3-4 minutes. That will be half of what you’re going to do for the rest of the 10 minutes. You can go balls out for three minutes and if I do 20 hot dogs then I know I can probably do 40 in the 10 minutes. I’ll do two or three [per week], 2-3 minute contests between now and then. At this point, I should be able to do 13-14 pounds of capacity and that translates to around 35-40 hot dogs and buns. That gives me the confidence that I can realistically handle it.
I’ll set up a video camera on a stand and I will watch myself. I’ll look back at it like a football coach would look back at his team and I’ll look at my hand coordination, how long it’s taking for me to chew. I will pace each hotdog. My wife will sit there and give me my splits for each hotdog. I’ll look at each split again. I’ll find out the kinks. Every little second counts. I’ll watch videos of Joey on YouTube of him pacing himself, match it up with mine and ask myself, ‘What is Joey doing that I’m not?’ I document all of my training.
M&F: Can you talk to the technique involved in hot dog eating?
YS: I do the Joey method. Joey, what he does is, takes two buns and hotdogs at a time. What I did last season was — this is what [Takeru] Kobayashi used to do — I’d take two hot dogs, bend them over and pop them. Then, you basically have four, half hot dogs and chew on those. The problem with that is that I’m just not that skilled and that technique really didn’t help me as much. What’s important is to swallow and to clear your mouth. You can shove all that in your mouth and then have a traffic jam. It’s harder to have four, half hot dogs in your mouth than it is to have small parts of two hot dogs in your mouth.
What I do now is I grab the two hot dogs out of their buns and put them in my right hand. I’m left handed by the way. Since my right hand isn’t moving as much it’s easier to manipulate the two hot dogs. I eat those right away. At the same time, I pick up one hot dog bun and you have five seconds to dunk. I dip it in my choice of drink, which is a lemon-flavored Crystal Light. We also have water. What you need is room temperature. Some weirdos like their water cold. You don’t want to shock your body with the cold water. While the hot dog bun is being soaked, I’m just wrapping up the last of the two hot dogs.
I eat the bun and at the same time I’m grabbing the second hot dog bun, which is being dipped and goes down in, in an ideal world, five seconds. Then, I reach down again with my right hand and start the whole process over again.
M&F: What are your expectations for the contest? Can you realistically eat 40 hot dogs?
YS: I don’t practice a full 10 minutes, but when I do, I sure as hell try to get the most information I can out of it and the most realistic expectations. I know for a fact that I can do 40. I’ve been doing this for three years now; this is my fourth. I have a very specific goal of 40 hot dogs and buns. I know I can do it. It’s a huge step forward. It would probably put me in the Top 5 — the top five places pay out. I would like to see myself there. I want to have a good time and see all of the competitive eaters. We’re all friends. We have a crazy after-party. We all kind of let go and it’s nice.
M&F: How do you handle all the sodium after the contest?
YS: I drink about a gallon of water within an hour after the contest. It does two things: helps me digest and seems to help with all the sodium. I’ll also drink another 1/2 gallon to a gallon for the rest of the day. If I don’t do that, I get the worst cottonmouth. Over the next few days, I’ll eat a lot of veggies, fruit, fiber, and more water and my bloat goes away after about three days. Not that much different than recovering from a marathon actually.