If you read the books, you'll find some info on recovery. They talk about the fact that you should take one day off and work out for six out of seven. On that day off, they recommend that you do absolutely nothing. Then they talk about getting rest during the week, like getting enough sleep at night, and eating after working out to replenish your fuel stores. If you get hurt, they tell you not to do anything until you are healed. After races, you should take about 4 weeks off after an Ironman, and about a week off for other shorter races. Post-race recovery is often described as little or no activity, maybe some active recovery like light cycling, swimming, or jogging. And that's about it.
In learning about recovery for myself, I've found that it's much more complex than that, and books don't explain this to you, and neither do many coaches or so-called experts. I've found that recovery is a fickle thing, and varies by many factors and even across a race season.
First, I do take one whole day off each week and I don't do any training on that day. I find that it's a good thing to rest the body and mind completely. The other days are the usual regimen of doubling up on some days and not on others. I usually like to bike singly, and swim and run on the in-between days. Then on Friday morning, I go for my long run. On Saturday, I go for a swim, long bike, and then do a short brick run after.
But I have found that on really intense, long days, which for me means my usual 4000+ meter swim, and then long bike doing hill repeats upwards of 5 hours total or more, and then I run as fast as possible for about 20-30 minutes after that, sometimes stretching that to an hour, that after these long Saturdays I rest my Sunday, but then on Monday I'm still wiped out. In fact, the intense workout leaves me drained for about 3 days afterwards.
Sunday is complete rest day. Monday mornings I have tried to workout but I can tell I am not recovered because I hit my LT very quickly and cannot maintain long tempo sets. Even on Tuesdays, I still reach LT very quickly and cannot do fast workouts. Instead of panicking, I just go with the flow. On Mondays I sometimes swim a short set, like 1500-2000 meters relatively easy. Then I jog a recovery run on the treadmill, or do a form run. On Tuesdays, I do a low wattage pedaling efficiency workout on the bike trainer, which is varying sets of one legged pedaling. Basically, it's two days of active recovery as my body gets back to being able to stand higher intensity workouts. By Wednesday, I am ready to do a more usual swim workout of 3000+ meters, and then I usually run track or a long distance tempo run and I'm pretty much back to my old self at that time.
Given my age and my fitness level, this is just the way it is. I'm 41 and I take longer to recover. I am also trying to improve my speed so that requires more intensity. But my body can't take that kind of intensity without rest. And believe it or not, I am still getting faster despite needing more rest.
I also find that "rest" sometimes doesn't mean just sitting around, watching TV and doing truly nothing. A lot of people talk about active recovery but don't give enough talk about how effective it can be. I believe that the other reason why I get faster is because I employ active recovery instead of just sitting around. I believe that active recovery does two things:
1. It gets your blood pumping so that you can flush your system of lactic acid by-products, and get nutrients to muscles that need it. You'll be amazed at how much better you feel if you are sore the next day after a workout, just by doing a light workout.
2. It trains the neuromuscular system of that particular sport's movement, which enables you perform a particular athletic movement better. When I do active recovery, I always keep this mind. I do form runs, cycling drills, or swimming drills for active recovery so that I'm not just moving about. I keep the attitude that I am training, even though I am actively recovering. Many people go out for a jog, but don't really concentrate on this aspect. They just go out but don't use the time as training time.
Another example: the day after Ironman Half Vineman 70.3, my legs were really sore, and my body ached from the hot race day prior. I didn't feel all that good, so I went and got on my bicycle trainer and proceeded to do a pedaling efficiency workout. After 30 minutes of that, I got off and noticed that my legs were not sore anymore, and my body definitely felt looser and didn't ache so much! So that old rule that you should just take off a week after a race isn't really that accurate. In fact, I would advocate active recovery (if you're not injured of course) even on the day after a race, and then basically do active recovery workouts until you feel that your aerobic system is back to normal.
I have also found that recovering after Ironman, it is important to keep up your activity or else you fall back in fitness level. Of course, you cannot maintain pre-Ironman levels of intensity and duration. But it is important to do some speed work to keep your muscles primed for that kind of activity. After Ironman Brazil this year, I took my first week and dis active recovery until my muscle soreness went away. Then I started doing some faster speed work, but not fast track workouts or sprinting on the bike or swim. Basically I would get my speed up but cut back on the duration. Whereas previously I could do 2, 3, 4 or higher minute intervals, I would only do 30 seconds per interval and do at least a minute jog or walk recovery. The overall workout I would cap at 30 minutes. By keeping my muscles neuromuscularly stressed but not overstress my muscles and aerobic system, I found that I could gain benefits in active recovery and prevent my body from falling into fitness levels that approached the way I was right after the winter off-season.
In previous years when my Ironman recovery stretched to 4-6 weeks, I had often done almost nothing during those days, following the advice of some books. But as I waited for my aerobic system and body to come back, I found that it was really tough to get back into the racing groove. My body had regressed back to a pre-Build phase state! Definitely not good, if you have races after Ironman!
What other things help my recovery? I eat immediately after the workout, even before taking a bath. Lately I have taken to eating half a cake of tofu and a bowl of rice to replenish my fuel stores after my long swim and ride on Saturdays. This is in addition to drinking down a glass of Endurox, into which I also dump a scoop of Endurolyte powder for electrolyte recovery and a packet of Emergen-C to bolster my immune system. Remember, everything gets stressed after a long workout, and you need to make sure you replenish whatever your body has used up during its long hard effort.
Ice baths are also key in my recovery scheme. More on that in this post, Call Me Mr. Freeze.
I also discovered a supplement which seems to be working really well. It's called Sportlegs and it seems to nearly completely remove the burn in my legs both during workout and also afterwards. Their claim is that these lactate compounds of common vitamins raise the blood lactate level and tells the body not to make so much lactic acid which is the cause of "burn" in your muscles. I take 3 pills before my long workouts. Then I take 3 more post-workout. During a race, I'll take 3 before racing, and then 3 every three hours during the race, and of course 3 after the race.
One other word about recovery. I have found that recovery varies by where you are in the race season. For me, as I cross into the second half of my race season, my body has experienced tremendous stress and now I only swim and run twice a week, with sometimes recovery runs and swims earlier in the week coming off the long swim/ride/run Saturdays. But yet, I do not experience a slowdown; I maintain my speed. It only goes to show that you don't have to train intensely each sport 3-4x a week. You need to listen to your body and give it the proper rest it needs.
The essential message is that you shouldn't blindly follow training programs. You need to be acutely aware of what your body needs and adjust your training program accordingly. Hammering your body through intense workouts week after week, month after month, could wear on your body over time. Some people can take it, but some cannot. If you're like me, you need to reduce the number of workouts but not the quality, or else you risk injury. You need to do what your body needs and not stress about following a training program or missing workouts. As a guide, I make sure I do my long bike, swim, and run each week. During the week, I often only do one more intense workout and then the other workout is an active recovery workout.