Recovery is just as important as the exercise itself. It allows your body to adapt to the stresses you have placed on it and restore its processes so you are ready to train again. If we constantly deplete our reserves and push our body to its limits, we will 'over-train' and our training will diminish.
If you enjoy competing in events, then a bigger recovery program needs to be factored in both before the event (tapering) to ensure your body is ready, as well as post-competition recovery from the physical and mental stresses of the event.
Everyone has different goals, lifestyles and bodies, hence everyone's training programs are unique. Consequently, everyone's recovery programs will differ. Plan in adequate recovery time, then listen to your body and tailor it as is needed depending on your work, stress levels and so on. Don't be afraid to listen to your body to avoid over-training. Sometimes (…but not always!) less is more.
There are things you can do to support your body in its recovery. I will assume that you actively cool down and stretch after your exercise session. If you don't do this routinely, then that is your first focus.
Beyond this, the most important strategy is sleep. (Easier said than done if you are still ‘buzzing’ from a great workout or competition, or have a baby that doesn't yet sleep through the night!) During sleep, growth hormones get active to help build cells and repair your tissues. It is also a time for restoring enzymes, your immune system, your muscle strength and consolidating any new skills you have been learning.
Balanced and appropriate nutrition is key to re-fuelling your body and providing adequate nutrients to repair and build your muscles. Post-exercise snacking is dependent on the intensity and duration of your session combined with your training aims. If you have been exercising heavily for 60-90 minutes, then refuelling is especially important to restore your glycogen levels. Be careful though. If your mission is weight loss, then guzzling down 10 packets of crisps after a short walk will not do anything to support your goal!
There are lots of expensive recovery drinks out there. One alternative suggestion out there comes from Pritchett & Pritchett (2012), who suggest a low-fat chocolate milk as a cheaper alternative due to its 4:1 carbohydrate: protein ratio. They suggest a general guideline of 1-1.5g per kg of body weight immediately after exercise as well as a couple of hours later.
Once you have got these sorted, there are other things you can try. Hydrotherapy, such as having an ice cold bath, is popular with many people after big training sessions or competitions. Yes, it involves sitting in a bath of cold water... Psychologically, it feels like you are helping your body by reducing inflammation, but the evidence for it improving your next athletic performances isn’t conclusive. So, if you enjoy it (!) do it, if not don’t worry about it.
I am a big fan of a good sports massage, although it isn't always practical to get one after every training session (!), so an alternative is a spot of Self-Myofascial Release. In other words use a foam roller and massage yourself. However, a sports massage has the advantage of relaxing your mind as well as your body benefits. Mental relaxation is a key component in recovery that is often overlooked, and is important in preparing you for your next session or event.
There is no ‘one method suits all’ recovery program. Try out different timings, listen to your body, and find out what works best for you.