Most runners recognize that it's the recovery, not training, that yields improvements.
There are all kinds of ways to make recovery complicated. Ice bathing, tart cherry juice, the 30 minute window of opportunity, getting in proper nutrient ratios, and even hanging upside down.
The KISS principle suggests to Keep It Super Simple. The simplest solution is most often the best. When applying this to recovery, you're left with recovery methods of time, sleep, food, and proper pacing of subsequent workouts.
Let us break these down further:
Giving your body time and the opportunity to recover is simply the best recovery tool available, nothing comes close. It's free and fool proof. For true recovery after a race, many recommend waiting a full day for every mile spent at race pace before getting back into hard workouts again. That's 3 days after 3 miles at 5k pace or a month after a maximum effort marathon. For professional runners, it becomes clear why they only run 2-3 a year. Add in the taper, the recovery, and the long training blog, and you that a marathon takes up a lot of time out of a season!
Daily food intake is of the utmost importance when recovering from quality workouts. Unless doing another long/hard workout that same day, eating within 30 minutes of the workout is less important than your nutrition over the entire course of the day. This is because glycogen, electrolytes, hydration, and nutrients can generally be replenished easily with your daily nutrition.
This is referring to both recovery runs and any cross training you may partake in. The day after a hard workout or race it may be a nice walk or an easy bike ride. Depending on the workout or race, a couple days later a very easy recovery jog might be appropriate. No fitness gains come from returning to real training too soon.
Perhaps the easiest, yet unfortunately and often the first to go when it will be needed the most, when training is increased. During the 3rd and 4th sleep stages, high amounts of human growth hormone are released, which is key for recovery.
How get the most out of your sleep? There are many tricks or habits you can implement to hopefully improve your sleep quality. If you waste anywhere from 30-60 minutes trying to fall asleep, you may want to look into a magnesium supplement. It is also suggested that avoiding artificial light prior to bed can help one fall asleep. Even keeping your phone outside of the bedroom can help improve sleep. Having a phone that is turned on and possibly not silenced can induce threat vigilance in a person, which is a type of anxiety common in insomniacs, according to Harvard neuroscientist Orfeu Buxton.
When it comes down to it with recovery, most important is experiment to find what works best for you and your goals. Find that balance between building up and breaking down!