Yes: Competitive eating is a real sport. And yes, it has professional athletes—men (and women) who dedicate serious time to train and prepare for competitions from the iconic Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest to a hybrid event like the Tour de Donut. (Trust us, the Tour de France has got nothing on this race).
Yasir Salem is one such competitive eater. One of the best in the world, in fact.
He's also a marathon-running, fitness-loving, Krispy Kreme donut-eating badass. How hard does he train? We'll put it this way: He makes both your cheat day—and your long run—look like a warmup.
First: What is Major League Eating?
As the name implies, Major League Eating is the MLB of competive eating. The organization oversees all professional eating contests (there are more than 80), develops and promotes the sport, and includes the sport's governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating.
MLE is already pretty big, though, and considering that any top-ranked competitive eating star—from Joey Chestnut and Matt Stonie to Sonya Thomas and Patrick Bertoletti—is a member of the league, it's only going to get bigger.
The Tour de Donut
Every multi-event athlete has his specialty, and for Salem, it's donuts. Donuts and cycling, to be more specific.
The Tour de Donut, the first of which will take place just after the hot dog eating contest in Illinois on July 8 (there is also an Ohio Tour de Donut that happens later on in the year), is a 34-mile cycling race. The caveat, though, is that for every donut you eat, you get five minutes deducted from your overall time—and there are only two donut pit stops on the course.
That means that, in order to win, Salem must consume anywhere from 39 to 50 donuts (depending on his performance that year) between the two stops. His all-time record is 55 Krispy Kreme original glazed donuts, which he achieved at the 2016 Donut Derby (a similar cycling/donut race). By the way: That's 10,450 calories.
One bun to rule them all: Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest
For a top-tier competitive eater, the Holy Grail of competitions is still, of course, Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place every year on the Fourth of July in the New York City beach haven of Coney Island. Those who score the grand prize not only take home a stack of cash (Chestnut, who downed a whopping 70 hot dogs, took home $10,000 for his 2016 win) but also ultimate bragging rights. And because the competition is so ridiculously challenging and iconic, it's considered the pinnacle of competitive eating.
Salem describes the uniquely American hot dog-shoveling competition as the “hardest eating contest” on the circuit—and for good reason. Scarfing down hunks of bread, disgusting amounts of sodium, and processed meat in a short amount of time does some pretty scary stuff to your body. The buns and salt create a "cotton mouth" effect, sucking all the water out of your system. But it's the dogs themselves that do the most damage, according to Salem. The meat "really attacks your mental state," he says—and the "meat sweats" you get during the competition only make it worse.
Leading up to the competition
If there's anything that Salem has learned over the years since his MLE debut in 2008, it's that preparation is key. Salem tweaks his pre-competition diet and training plan slightly depending on the type of race—and the food he'll be eating—but the basic idea is always "just to feel really empty."
In the days leading up to a competition, especially one like the Tour de Donut, Salem naturally starts to reduce his intake of solid, higher-carb foods, and instead focusing on M.C.T. oil (a saturated fatty acid with a ton of health benefits and keto diet secret), as well as avocados, salads, spinach, and cauliflower—foods that quickly digest.
It's all about technique
Still, preparation for a big competition—not to mention winning one—requires more than just a solid (or liquid) diet regimen. Developing and perfecting just the right eating technique, and keeping it a secret from other top eaters, can make or break an athlete's chances at a strong showing, according to Salem.
"The playing field's a little bit more level because if Joey Chestnut or Matt Stonie—or Miki Sudo, the top female—haven't thought about [a technique] and I think about it and I find something, and I keep it to myself until the contest, then I have an advantage," he says. And when it comes to developing technique, Salem gets innovative, if not straight-up scientific.
Once Salem develops a technique—like crushing a cannoli down in his hand to break down the hard shell, which won him New York's Cannoli Eating Championship in 2013—he videotapes his performances, then practices at home, and makes Google sheets. "I graph all this out and I count how many units, whether it's corn or wings per minute," he says, "and then look at what I did, think about it, and then make a plan for the next practice session."
Salem didn't beat around the bush when it comes to the after-effects of consuming an outrageous amount of food, so we won't either.
"My body just kind of pushes it out pretty fast" and "gives it up," Salem says. You get the picture.
Chugging water helps aid with the digestion, as well as the cotton mouth effect—he usually brings a gallon of water with him to the race and downs the entire jug once it's over. Somewhat surprisingly, Salem stays away from fiber after a race, which he says seems to have the opposite effect.
Mostly, though, he simply "listens" to what his body is telling him and keeps track of his macros and calorie intake: "I do keep track of my calorie count, just so I know that the massive amount of calories that I took in during the race in general, is in the 12,000 range or so," he says. "I've got to take care of it on the opposite side."
Top-ranked competitive eaters are a tight-knit group
Despite the fierce competition and covert methods, competitive eaters who are at the top of their game are a small bunch, a community even—and at the end of the day, there's no bad blood between them. Salem and Chestnut even keep in touch.
"We do compete against each other, but at the end of the day, there are only a handful of us that can really talk shop with each other, that really get it," Salem says. "We really understand each other, so it's like we're really all we have."
A marathon a month
On top of training for insane eating competitions—not to mention a full-time career as a director of marketing for a media company—Salem also maintains a rigorous workout regimen so that he can run a marathon each month.
Weirdly, Salem never had much of a passion for athletics, or an interest in sports. "I was never really a fit person growing up, and I never really was that into sports," he says. "I did a little art in high school and science fair." He has, however, always had a love for bikes and cycling.
And after he and his wife completed their first marathon in 2010, Salem wanted to take on more and bigger challenges, or "projects," as he calls them. This got him into triathlons, competitive eating, and, in 2017, completing a marathon each month, which he says helps keep him "consistent on a schedule with training."
His next project? Qualifying for Race Across America, a 3,000-mile cross-country bike race.
Look out for Salem at the Fourth of July Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, where he'll be competing for the grand prize—and scarfing down a ton of hot dogs in the process.