We're giving it to you straight: You're never going to swim like Michael Phelps. For starters, you're probably not 6'4"—and in the water, length means speed.
Then there's your—by comparison—penguinlike wing span. Phelps's span is 79 inches, and it propels him through the water like a nitro-fueled speedboat. And the 45 miles of practice he puts in a week? Great for him, but you have commitments.
Now, the good news: All of this had less to do with Phelps's six gold medals and three world records at the 2004 Olympics than one basic in-pool principle that anybody can learn: "The longer and more streamlined you can make your body, the faster you'll go," he says.
"It's that simple."
More: How to Streamline Your Stroke
Phelps and swimming guru Terry Laughlin, president of the New York-based swimming think tank Total Immersion (totalimmersion.net), helped us put together a step-by-step swimming workout guide to leaving your lanemates behind.
If you're a beginner, our plan will keep you from flailing about like you're being attacked by piranhas. If you're a pro, we'll show you how to shave seconds without having to shave your knees.
We're focusing on the freestyle stroke here, not only because it provides a killer cardio workout, but also because it works the most muscles overall—building core strength and carving your V.
And it shreds calories. Blows them right out of the water, in fact. Phelps is as thin as an Olsen twin, yet he eats 8,000 calories a day. His average breakfast: two egg-and-cheese sandwiches, a bowl of grits, a western omelet, French toast, and a stack of chocolate-chip pancakes ("for dessert," he says). Being 19 doesn't hurt, of course, but if Phelps can keep his abs well groomed despite eating enough for four, you should be able to make sizable strides with just a modest amount of effort.
More: 10 Elements of the Perfect Freestyle Stroke
Here's our seven-step plan for leaving everyone in your wake.
1. Swim tall
"Water is 1,000 times denser than air," says Laughlin. "So the single most important factor is to slip your body through the smallest hole in the water." Imagine a central axis extending from the top of your head to the opposite end of the pool. Rotate your body along this axis with each stroke, stretching your leading arm (the one reaching out front) as far forward as you can.
Keep the muscles in your lower back and abs taut as you power through the water—doing so will keep the propulsion coming from both your arms and legs and stop your midsection from sagging like an old first-mate's belly.
2. Drop an anchor
Swimming with just your hands is like jumping with just your feet. Instead, grip the water with your entire forearm and hand, holding your forearm at a right angle to your upper arm and digging in like you're gathering sand with a shovel. Keep your hands broad, flat, and firm. You're not pushing your arm through the water as much as anchoring it and pulling your body over it.
More: Developing the Catch and Roll in Freestyle