Competitive hotdog eaters nearing limit of human performance

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The four-minute mile and the two-hour marathon were once believed impossible: now a new gauntlet has been thrown down for the world of elite competition. A scientific analysis suggests competitive eaters have come within nine hotdogs of the limits of human performance.

The theoretical ceiling has been set at 84 hotdogs in 10 minutes. The current world record, set by Joey “Jaws” Chestnut earlier this month, stands at 75.

James Smoliga, a sports medicine specialist at High Point University in North Carolina who authored the research, described 84 hotdogs as “the maximum possible limit for a Usain Bolt-type performance”.

The analysis is based on 39 years of historical data from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, an annual spectacle of gluttony held on Coney Island, New York, combined with the latest sports science theory, which uses mathematical modelling to project trends in performance.

Hotdog composition and size have, reportedly, remained unchanged at Nathan’s Famous in the fast food company’s 104-year history, allowing for valid comparison between competitors across years.

Improvement curves in elite sports ranging from sprinting to pole vaulting tend to follow a so-called sigmoidal curve, featuring an initial slow and steady rise, followed by an era of rapid improvement and finally a levelling off. “Hotdog eating has definitely reached that second plateau,” said Smoliga.

The early years of the Nathan’s contest featured a motley assortment of winners – mostly “big obese guys” who chanced their luck on the day, according to Smoliga. In 1984, the contest was won by Birgit Felden, a 17-year-old, 130lb, West German judo team member, who managed nine-and-a-half hotdogs despite never having eaten one before the competition.

By the 1990s, the participation of Japanese extreme eaters changed the playing field. In 2001, Takeru Kobayashi downed 50 hotdogs, smashing the previous record of 25.125.

“It wasn’t just people with big appetites any more,” said Smoliga.

Elite eaters started to follow elaborate training regimes, with some ingesting vast volumes of liquid or gels to expand the stomach without having to process the calories. Chestnut, this year’s winner, claims to train for three months leading up to the competition, including weekly practice runs, a carefully controlled diet and yoga and breathing exercises to help with mental focus.

In the trade, being lean is generally viewed as an advantage because a thick layer of fat round the middle can constrict the stomach.

The 84 theoretical maximum comes from fitting a curve to the data and also factoring in the possibility of outliers whose performance lies within a certain error margin of the curve.

The prediction should hold true, Smoliga said, unless a “new kind of competitor” shows up – someone with gigantism or a metabolic condition that placed them well outside the normal parameters of human biology.

The limiting factor is likely to be chewing and swallowing rather than gastric capacity, based on the observation that at the end of the 10 minutes many competitors are still trying to gobble down more sausages and buns.

According to the research, published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, the achievements of human speed eaters are impressive even by comparison with other species. “Humans are able to eat faster than bears or coyotes,” said Smoliga. Wolves, which devour prey at incredible speed, could outdo even elite human eaters, however.