If you’ve ever watched the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating contest on the Fourth of July, then you probably think that the competitors—and even the winners—are just regular Joes with a hobby for scarfing down a ridiculous number of dogs.
But you’d be wrong. Competitive eaters are athletes—they even have their own professional league, Major League Eating—and despite taking in thousands of calories during competition, many of them are in incredible shape.
One such athlete is Yasir Salem, who is currently 12th in MLE’s rankings and the reigning champion of the Tour de Donut, a combination of cycling and donut speed-eating. But he’s not just good at eating donuts: The 40-year-old maintains a strict diet to prep for competitions like Nathan’s or the Tour de Donut, he runs a marathon each month, and he’s training to qualify for a 3,000-mile bike race across the country.
Here’s how he stays in pristine shape—even when he’s putting away “cheat day” meals by the truckload.
The competitive eater’s pre-competition diet
In the days leading up to a competition, especially one like the Tour de Donut, Salem starts to dial down on solid, higher-carb foods, while making sure not to let his calorie count dip too low (he tries not to eat fewer than 1,800 calories).
“Stuff in my intestines will affect the way I feel or how much space I can hold,” he says. “I just want to go in light as a feather, but also not be completely drained of any kind of calorie intake before the race.”
His go-to pre-race foods? Salem takes in a lot of M.C.T. oil (a saturated fatty acid with specific benefits like making you feel full, aiding digestion, and providing an energy boost), but also eats a lot of avocados, salads, spinach, and cauliflower—foods that break down really quickly in the digestive system.
The night before a race, though, it’s all about liquid-based foods like soups and shakes—but not protein shakes, which Salem says “muck up” his system. A quick bite or two of a banana the morning of also helps keep Salem focused and alert.
The competitive eater’s post-competition recovery
After a competition, Salem must not only recover from the enormous amount of food (and calories, sugar, etc., that come with it), but also side-effects like a dry “cotton mouth”—the result of consuming high amounts of bread or salt. Drinking tons of water just after a race or contest is the key.
“My body will tell me, ‘I need water,'” Salem says. “I’m just crazy, crazy thirsty” and the water “actually really helps with the digestion part.” Somewhat surprisingly, Salem stays away from foods high in fiber after a race, which he says seem to have the opposite effect.
The few days following the competition, Salem also makes sure to “listen” to his body and keep close track of his calories and macros. “Then, the amount of running that I do and biking that I do every week seems to help out, as long as I don’t really do this every week,” he says. “My body forgives me.”
The competitive eater’s weekly diet plan
During a normal week (one where he’s still training to do a marathon every 30 days), Salem sticks to a “pretty keto-adjusted” diet, since he doesn’t consume a lot of carbs outside of competition. For breakfast, he always has Greek yogurt and a cup of coffee.
Most days for lunch, Salem will make a 4- to 6-lb salad using “about a pound of spinach, one avocado, two eggs, about 12 kalamanta olives, quarter of a cucumber, one carrot, peppers, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, then I top it off with M.C.T. oil and balsamic vinegar or apple cider vinegar,” he says. It’s his go-to lunch, and he says it “sets him up” for the rest of the day. In the evenings, he’ll opt for shiitake noodles because they are extremely low in calories. There will also be some yam starch in there, along with broccoli, spinach, okra, and then a couple more eggs.
Two days before a marathon, though, Salem will eat quinoa, lentils, or rice—as much as he wants. “As long as it’s two days before, not the day before, because the rice kind of bloats me up,” he says, “after the rice I want to even it out again.”
Salem’s weekly cardio training routine
Now that Salem is training to qualify for Race Across America, a 3,000-mile cross-country cycling race—on top of completing a marathon each month—he’s working on really dialing up his core strength and flexibity.
In addition to running roughly 35-40 miles each week, Salem takes Pilates and yoga classes. And in terms of a weekly schedule: Mondays and Fridays are days off, Tuesdays and Thursdays are speed workouts, while Sundays are reserved for longer runs between 12 and 16 miles.
He says the strength and flexibility classes “seem to be helping a lot” to prepare for the Race Across America qualifier, in which entrants must bike 400 miles in 24 hours or less. “I only did 350 [miles]. It wasn’t because of my cardio endurance—that was fine—it was that my back hurt so bad that I had to just stop.”
Salem’s go-to cheat meal
Every athlete has a cheat meal—and when you’re a competitive eater who eats junk food for sport, you’ve got to make things a little interesting.
For Salem, his celebration meal is an epic mashup of Amy’s vegetarian chili and Amy’s macaroni and cheese in one big bowl. “I pick them up from Whole Foods and then I cook that—that’s four servings,” he says.
“I fucking love that stuff.”