I see plenty of discussions about training sessions and programs but there's some important subtitles of training that I don’t think get the time they always deserve. One of these is how much focus and concentration is put into sessions.
It's easy to just go through the motions when you're training but I think it is important to be concentrating and to be present during the session. I've done many sessions where I paddled it but was thinking about other things. I’ve watched many others do the same. They aren't completely wasted sessions but you don't get as much out of them as you could.
You may well have heard of the idea that you need 10,000 hours of practice to get expert at something. It's been distorted from the original research / idea but the key point really boils down to the fact that you can't get good at something without deliberate practice.
There’s a few components to deliberate practice but focusing on the task and getting feedback are key. Spend as long as you like pretending to practice but you won't be anywhere near what you could have been with deliberate practice. Focusing on what you're actually doing yield vastly better and faster results, as does performing drills and exercises that target areas you need to improve. Getting feedback is very important. Without knowing if what you did was better or worse than before you can’t hope to improve it.
Sometimes you can tell what’s happening yourself, maybe you changed technique and your time trial time improved or you lifted more weight (though you still have to make sure you actually notice it!). Other times you need someone else like a coach or training partner, for example to video technique or shout changes at you mid session.
You need to be conscious of what you're doing if you're going to improve it. Sure if you’re not that fit and you start paddling five times a week instead of two you're going to get quicker but you will plateau much faster without making a conscious effort to improve in every way possible. It can be hard.
One of the reasons I don't like doing 60 to 90 minute steady paddles is because I struggle to keep focused for that long. By breaking it up into 10 on one off times 6 I can have quick mental breaks and (mostly) manage to stay focused. If you can’t manage to do it all the time then either try to do it for the more important sessions of the week or for the first, last and middle efforts of a session. Maybe make an effort to focus on time trials or a sessions where you have a coach to give you feedback.
Some things to think about could be: seeing how your pace (GPS or relative to other boats) when you tweak your technique, thinking about each stroke and how it varied from the previous stroke, thinking about the water and watching the flow, looking at other paddlers’ techniques (whether they are good or bad, learning to understand what you're seeing is immensely useful), feeling how you react to different efforts or sessions, running through pointers in your head like “hips & legs” / “catch, pull, exit” / “early catch” / "sit up" or whatever you need to work on.
When you are in a crew boat I think it’s very useful, especially if it’s a new crew, to keep asking each other how things feel and tweaking technique or trying drills to get the boat to gel, rather than just paddling and hoping everything will come together by itself.
You can extend it to paying attention to how different things affect your training; food, sleep schedules, warm ups, drinks, tracking you resting heart rate etc etc, and you probably should if you are interested in going fast. Paying attention during training sessions is a great place to start though. If you're not deliberately practicing then you're leaving a huge amount on the table.