Training For Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

Competitive eater Juan Rodriguez reveals how he trains, and we can't look away

In just a few days, Juan "More Bite" Rodriguez will return to Coney Island for the 2017 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, where last year's champion downed 70 hot dogs in 10 minutes. How does this hopeful prepare? Like any other elite athlete: He trains.

The 34-year-old fitness trainer and self-proclaimed former "heavy kid" has turned eating into a sport—and one that he excels at, too. After consuming 146 gyoza in 10 minutes at 2012's Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship in L.A.; 60.5 tamales in 12 minutes during 2012's World Tamale Eating Championship in Lewisville, Texas; 53 MoonPies in eight minutes at the 2016 Bass Pro Shops World MoonPie Eating Championship in Memphis, Tennessee; and countless other foods, Rodriguez is considered to be the number 10 eater in the country by Major League Eating, the national authority on the matter. (Need visual proof? Check out this YouTube video of him finishing off an 18-ounce jar of peanut butter in under 90 seconds—something he's trying to get acknowledged by Guinness.)

Rodriguez describes the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, the biggest competition of the year, as professional eaters' Christmas. In past years, up to 40,000 people have gathered in the audience and up to one million viewers have tuned in for the ESPN broadcast.

Photo: Juan Rodriguez

Last year, Rodriguez ate his way to 11th place by stomaching 27 hot dogs. Impressive but no match for reigning champ Joey Chestnut's whopping victory of 70 dogs. So this year, Rodriguez is gearing up for another chance at the throne.

But it's not all binging on franks.

He maintains his weight and muscle mass with a healthy daily diet of 2,000 calories, combining high protein, moderate fat and minimal carbs. He also exercises seven days a week, often twice a day, with a mix of weights and cardio. "The leaner you are, the more elasticity you have in your stomach," he explains. "We're all in shape and work out. These very athletic-looking people are starting to dominate the sport."

Photo: 2015 National Buffalo Wing Festival

And instead of cramming food, Rodriguez relies heavily on water training, which basically entails filling yourself with so much water you feel like you're going to burst. He can currently drink one and a half gallons in under three minutes—and hold it for another seven. Before the qualifier, he hopes to increase that to at least two gallons.

Don't try this at home.

"I don't recommend people trying this," he advises. "Everyone is different, and you hear about people drowning from drinking too much water.

"One year, I took a page out of Joey's book, and I was practicing every two days with hot dogs," he says. "For the month of June, I went through over 400 hot dogs. I was so burnt out by the finals."

Now, Rodriguez limits his hot dog intake before the competition. After all, in the actual contest, he says "you only taste, like, the first 10." It's really all about capacity, so he will spend a two-month training period stretching the limits of his stomach with water and occasionally fruit. It's a process he endures every other day, if possible.

Photo: Bobby Bank/Getty Images

"It simulates the contest. Some guys—not really the top guys—can't really simulate the feeling of those final three minutes of the contest," Rodriguez says. "That's when you shut your brain off. Your brain is telling you no and your body is telling you no and you have to push through."

Why would anyone put themselves through it? For one, each winner at the Nathan's contest—one male and one female— takes home $20,000. And it isn't the only competition of the year either. Some competitive eaters can make up to $100,000 a year if they participate in enough contests. Of course, only the top competitors can really make a living on the sport. "It's a good supplemental income," Miki Sudo, the female champ at Nathan's for the last three years, tells Las Vegas Weekly. "It's not a full-time job."

For Rodriguez, who's been in the game for 10 years and works as a personal trainer when he's not shoving down hot dogs or gyoza, the pain is all worth it. He loves to compete and loves who he is competing against. "We're not just competitors; we've become family. We're the Island of Misfit Toys," he says of his fellow eaters, who include a marathon runner, a pastry chef, a therapist and a TSA agent. "We clearly would never be friends if we hadn't met this way. It's weird, but it's great."

And when it comes to the big day on July 4, there's not a minute he would trade. "I like to be a character. I like the showmanship," he says. "It's like a sideshow or a train wreck. You can't look away."