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How competitive eaters eat all that grub

[Check out the winners of the 2014 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. Read below to find out how the participants train.]

It's time for that wonderful tradition again — the one day a year we gather to watch people race to shove astonishing amounts of sodium and carbs into their mouths as fast as they can. (Via Getty Images)

Of course, we're talking about the glorious spectacle that is the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest — the so-called Super Bowl of competitive eating.

The 98th competition kicked off Friday afternoon at Coney Island in New York. And a few old pros have their stomachs set on that coveted championship belt and thousands of dollars in prize money. (Via YouTube / Matt Stonie)

ESPN, which broadcasts the contest, highlights Joey "Jaws" Chestnut as this year's most promising competitor in the Men's Championship. (Via Getty Images)

The reigning champ has won seven Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contests in a row, and he broke his own impressive record last year by eating 69 hot dogs with buns in 10 minutes. Yes, you heard right — 69. (Via ESPN)

As for the ladies' competition, Sonya Thomas, aka "The Black Widow," is hoping to eat her way to a fourth straight Nathan's championship. Her record? Forty-five hot dogs. (Via Getty Images)

That's a lot of dog, especially for the 100-pound Thomas. And it made us wonder — how do these ruthless competitive eaters fit all that food in their stomachs?

It takes months of intensive training, as Chestnut himself told The Oregonian. He says he'll fast for a day or two, then completely gorges on hot dogs past the point of fullness to stretch out his stomach. "Every time, I'd try to push myself to a new limit."

A radiologist at the University of Pennsylvania says that gradual stretching of the stomach is the key to consuming otherwise unheard of amounts of food. 

In a study published in the American Journal of Roentgenology back in 2007, that radiologist and his colleagues studied X-rays of the stomach of a competitive eater before and after he ate 36 hot dogs. In the "after" X-ray, they compared his stomach to a "giant balloon that looks like it has no limit."

As you might've guessed, all that serious eating isn't too great health-wise.

A gastroenterologist told WebMD, on top of infusing the body with a massive amount of calories, binge eating can cause stomach perforations in people with ulcers. And for those who train by drinking large quantities of water, a deadly condition known as water intoxication is also a concern.

But many seasoned competitive eaters work to counteract those negative health effects. A competitive eater and bodybuilder said in a blog post for The Huffington Post he goes to the gym every day and maintains a healthy diet of veggies, lean meats and fruits when he's not competing. 

And both Chestnut and Thomas said on the "Today" show their focus on health outside competitions seems to be working. (Via Getty Images)

JOEY CHESTNUT: "I'm feeling good. My body's healthy and responding well. My doctor's happy with everything. And as long as I can maintain my weight and I'm healthy and everything, I'll do it."

SONYA THOMAS: "Me too. Happy, and I enjoy it." ​(Via NBC)

The most miserable person in the country on the Fourth of July? Whoever comes in second place at an eating competition.

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