It would seem intuitive, but the psychological paranoia of "not training enough" invariably steers athletes away from proper recovery, negating some of the hard training they put in.
There are several limiting factors that can't be adjusted when it comes to recovery. The first is age. As with any sport, the older you are, the slower the recovery. Wisdom breeds understanding for recovery, however - the tortoise did beat the rabbit. Your overall fitness level also affects how fast you bounce back; the better shape you're in, the sooner you'll be ready to ride hard again. Proper recovery also reduces chance of injury.
Recovery should be part of your training plan - not an afterthought. Recover well and you'll feel great every morning, ready to punish your legs all over again.
Steps to good recovery:
Eating right all the time is important, but never more so than right after a hard workout or race. Your "glycogen window," a two-hour period after heavy exercise, is the best time to replenish carbohydrates expended on the ride. Right after a workout, eat simple, easily-digestible carbs (apples or apple juice is one of the best; avoid citrus, which is harder on the stomach). Your body has been working in fast-carbohydrate-process mode during the workout and does best with a transition period before more complex foods. After 30 minutes, eat more complex carbs. Energy drinks are a good way to get carbs, plus equal parts protein and fat. There is evidence that the body does better digesting proteins and carbs separately, worth considering if you sit down to a big post-ride meal of meat and potatoes. Eat the protein first, then the carbs.
Daily nutrition should include a balanced diet of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Whole, unprocessed foods (such as brown rice and whole grain pasta, and raw vegetables) are best. Daily doses of antioxidant vitamins such as E and C can help recovery. Avoid high doses of sugar (such as soda pop) and processed foods (most prepared and packaged food).
Water is a huge part of recovery. Water replenishes lost fluids, without which your muscles cramp - and will continue to cramp until you top off. Start drinking before you train (drink a glass before coffee at breakfast), down at least one bottle per hour while you train, and drink after training to avoid dehydration.
Fuel the engine
Don't bonk. Fuel your engine at all times or risk running out of gas - when you bonk hard it takes a long time to get back to normal, as much as two weeks. Whatever food it is - whether it is energy bars or drinks, fruit or bagels - eating and drinking every hour of the ride is important to avoid energy loss, and keeps recovery to a minimum.
Hit the snooze button on the alarm clock - or make sure you get to bed at a reasonable hour. The body does most of its muscle repair when you're asleep. Typically, athletes need at least eight hours per day when racing and training; professional racers are actively encouraged to lie down in bed, and never to stand up if they don't have to. The more you train, the more you should sleep, or at least rest.
Massage is one of the oldest tools for recovery in cycling. Every professional racer receives regular massage, as much as two hours per day during hard races. Massage helps move lactic acid out of the muscles and relieves soreness. It doesn't take a massage therapist to work on your legs, either. As little as 15 minutes of your own basic massage will help speed recovery.
Your body isn't designed to do hard efforts day after day. Train at an even pace until your body is ready for hard efforts, then make sure to take enough time for your body to fully recover before doing another tough ride (instead of intensity all the time). Organize your training plan so you get plenty of rest after hard days, and increase training on a steady scale.
Factors that reduce recovery time:
Psychological stress raises your heart rate, which in effect is a workout in itself. If you've had a long day at the office, consider skipping the evening ride until you're recovered from daily life. Adding a physical workout on top of emotional stress can push you into a fatigue hole.
If you're sick, training should involve getting back to normal health, not riding your bike. Illness forces your body to expend energy fighting the virus or bacteria, and workouts will only slow recovery. The faster you get back to health, the faster you can train, but not vice versa.
Climate, altitude, new environment
New environments stress the body. Cold or hot weather and altitude are big factors that should be considered and accounted for in the training and recovery process.
Serious training is hard to do, but unnecessary fatigue shouldn't be a part of your problems. Experiment with different recovery methods, and don't let pressure to train hard block out adequate recovery. Give yourself a break: Recover.