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Review: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra || All-purpose trail running shoe

The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra is a form-fitting all-purpose trail shoe, with precision fit, reliable outsole grip, and a happy-medium balance between cushioning and feel.

Last month Amanda and I took a “normal person vacation” to Scotland. In my luggage I had room for just one pair of running shoes, and therefore needed a well-rounded model that would be comfortable for a week straight and that would perform well wherever and whenever I could get out for a run, whether that meant pavement, hiking trails, or sheep trails, or dry, wet, or muddy.

I considered the original Salomon Sense Pro (my long-term review), which for several years has been my favorite all-around running shoe, but instead went with the new Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra, which fit similarly and have an equally wide range, albeit more trail-centered. Plus, I’d been sent them for review by Salomon, and Scotland would be a convenient testing opportunity.

Review: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra

The Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra is ideal for mid-length and long outings with varied trail surfaces. They will best fit feet of average and below-average width and volume. Expect precision handling, reliable outsole grip, and a happy-medium balance between cushioning and ground feel.

My most recent run in the Sense Ultra is indicative of this shoe’s range. It was a 34-mile 5.5-hour long run in Boulder with nearly 7,000 vertical feet of climbing. The route included a bit of everything:

  • Paved roads and bike trails to reach and return from the trails,
  • Dry rolling dirt singletrack,
  • Steep, off-angle, rock-strewn trail with wet surfaces after an early-morning thunderstorm,
  • Fine gravel bike path and jeep road, and,
  • Rocky, washed-out, and loose peak trails that maintain 25-30 percent grades (e.g. 1,900 vertical feet in 0.8 miles).

Due to its versatility and long-term comfort, later this month I plan to wear the Sense Ultra in the Bighorn 100 in Wyoming. I’ve logged 120 miles in them, and have put them aside until race day.

Key specs

  • Unisex
  • 9.7 oz (M’s 9), 11.0 oz (M’s 11.5)
  • Breathable mesh upper with reinforcing exoskeleton
  • Bump- and abrasion-resistant toe guard
  • Quicklaces
  • Premium Wet Traction Contragrip
  • Stack height: 26mm/18mm
  • Drop: 8mm
  • $180 MSRP

The S-Lab Sense Ultra fits true to size. I’m a consistent 11.5 in other Salomon shoes, plus models from Altra, Hoka, La Sportiva, Merrell, and Salewa.

Comparisons

How does the S-Lab Sense Ultra compare to other shoes from Salomon?

S-Lab Sense Ultra vs S-Lab Sense 6 and 6 SG

The naming sequence suggests that the S-Lab Sense Ultra is most akin to the S-Lab Sense 6 and Sense 6 SG. But I don’t feel this is the case. These models are considerably:

  • Lighter (7.8 and 7.9 oz vs. 9.7 oz, or 20 and 18 percent lighter), and
  • Thinner underfoot (heel/foot of 18/14 mm and 20/16 vs. 26/18, a reduction of 27 and 18 percent).

The agile Sense 6 and 6 SG are minimalist racers. But unless you’re built like Kilian, you’ll probably find the added cushioning of the Sense Ultra to be more welcoming on longer outings. The Salewa Lite Train (my review) are Sense 6-like, and personally I max out in them after 2 hours.

S-Lab Sense Ultra vs. Sense Pro

I think a better comparison to the S-Lab Sense Ultra is the original Sense Pro, which has been a longtime favorite of mine. The Sense Pro specs at 9.2 oz and 23/17 mm heel/forefoot, and is similarly versatile — you might recall that I chose it for the Colorado Marathon and for trail races like the San Juan Solstice 50 and Run Rabbit Run 100.

The S-Lab Sense Ultra has a grippier and more aggressive outsole, which alone makes the Sense Ultra more trail-worthy than the Sense Pro. While the Sense Ultra can be used on roads, but I wouldn’t do a road race or road workout in them. In exchange, however, the Sense Ultra is more masterful on challenging trails.

The S-Lab Sense Ultra and original Sense Pro feel the most similar. But the Sense Ultra is a more capable trail shoe, due mostly to its more aggressive outsole. The Sense Pro is less capable on trails, but transitions better to roads.

S-Lab Sense Ultra vs. Sense Pro 2

In respect to its trail-worthiness, the Sense Ultra is more like the second-generation Sense Pro 2, which has a more aggressive outsole than the original Pro. But the Sense Ultra is less stiff, making it more comfortable on relaxed trails. The Sense Ultra also fits me better, more like the original Pro.

The S-Lab Sense Ultra (left) and Sense Pro (right) are closely related, sharing a similar upper, outsole, and fit. The Sense Pro 2 has a stiffer midsole, which increases underfoot protection but reduces feel, and only 6 mm of drop (vs 8 for the Sense Ultra).

Aesthetics

Salomon has muted its colors across its entire line. Gone are the highlighted accent colors. The Sense Ultra is a simple red and black. Amanda said they were reminiscent of Air Jordans.

Fit

The S-Lab Sense Ultra is form-fitting, and will feel familiar if you’ve worn other premium Salomon running shoes. The Endofit yoke cradles the mid-foot. The toebox is sized for small- or average-sized feet, but it’s optimized for precision handling, not toe splay or roominess. And the Quick Laces apply even pressure throughout the system.

In short, the glove-like fit is exactly what I want in a trail shoe.

Ride

I assumed that the S-Lab Sense Ultra would have 4 or 6 mm of drop, on par with the Sense Ultra 6/6 SG and Sense Pro models. In fact, it has 8. I was surprised by this, since the heel/toe transition is fairly smooth and natural-feeling. I’d prefer less, but it’s not the deal-breaker that I thought it would be.

When pushed laterally, the Sense Ultra does not allow for sliding inside the shoe, and its outsole provides reliable traction.

The 26/18 stack height is about the minimum I can handle for long training runs and ultras. It’s certainly not as plush as an ordinary pair of Hokas or Altras, but the tradeoff with those models is reduced sensitivity. The Sense Ultra is not mutually exclusive with these more cushioned models: for hard days in the mountains, I grab the Sense Ultra; for easier days on flatter terrain, I grab the foot pillows.

Outsole

I’ve been very impressed by the grippiness of the outsole, which is made of Premium Wet Traction Contragrip. Even on wet, angled, muddy, and ball bearing-covered rocks, I seem to get great purchase. Frankly, I’m still discovering the limits of this rubber — it seems that other shoes have trained me to run too conservatively.

The outsole is moderately lugged, striking a balance between grip, rolling resistance, and weight. It wouldn’t be my first pick for a muddy obstacle course or for a road race, but it performs well on most surfaces in between.

After 120 miles on varied surfaces, the outsole shows some signs of wear, about as much as I would expect.

I’m still learning the limits of this outsole. It grips rock, even if it’s wet or dirty; and it bites into both soft surfaces and hard surfaces covered with “ball bearing” gravel and sand.

Upper

The upper is classic Salomon: breathable mesh overlaid with a more durable exoskeleton. If it works, why change it.

The rubber outsole wraps nicely around the toebox, providing noteworthy resistance to impact and abrasion.

The tongue is thicker and more elasticized than other models. I am generally wary of elastic, which is heavy and which retains water, but I have not yet discovered first-hand a downside to this design.

The design and materials in the upper is time-tested, used on multiple other models from Salomon. If it works, why change it.

Price

Ouch, $180. The Sense Ultra is a great shoe, but at this price it’s probably a “special occasions” treat and not a daily trainer.

Buy now & support this review: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra

Questions about the S-Lab Sense Ultra, or have an experience with them that you’d like to share? Leave a comment.


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6 Responses to Review: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra || All-purpose trail running shoe

  1. Jason June 6, 2017 at 11:09 am #

    Andrew,

    what did you use on the Sierra High Route? and how did they hold up?

    I used the Solomon XA pro’s last summer and i had some of the small lugs coming off from scraping on the granite and just overall pretty worn out for 1 extended trip. (they were new before)..

    • Andrew Skurka June 6, 2017 at 11:26 am #

      I used the La Sportiva Fireblade, which were discontinued years ago. They were nearly toast afterwards, too. High routes are really tough on shoes, especially in the Sierra because of all the exposed granite.

      For high routes I recommend the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor, Salewa Ultra Train, and Salomon X Ultra. The Brooks Cascadia, Saucony Peregrine, and Altra Lone Peak are okay for trails, but I’m not sure they’re rugged enough for a high route. I would also take a look at the Salewa Multi Track and Salomon Odyssey Pro, but they’re new and I haven’t used them.

      • Jason June 6, 2017 at 11:59 am #

        Thanks Andrew. I’ll check those out

        You have got some pull with these companies….pitch one of them to make a new line of shoe called the “High Routes”. they would have a nice breathable yet durable upper with a thick lugged, tough Vibram boot type sole.

        • David Alexander June 9, 2017 at 1:04 pm #

          I was going back and forth on whether to buy new shoes or use my Altra Lone Peaks on the Wind River High Route. I have a slightly wider than normal foot, and a narrow heel. The Salomons I tried didn’t fit well so I went with the Ultra Raptors. I was extremely happy to have picked up new shoes for that trip, can’t imagine doing it in my altras now that I’ve been there.

      • Austin June 9, 2017 at 12:45 pm #

        La Sportiva makes a great shoe for routes like this called the Mutant. More low-profile than the Ultra Raptor and much better at scrambling up to 5.8.

  2. Jeff Valliere June 6, 2017 at 11:35 am #

    Great review. If you can, try the new Sense Ride. Same outsole as the Ultra, weighs just a few grams more (though has a bit more cushion/protection), but is $60 less with very similar quality and performance. The Ride upper is not quite as precise as the Ultra, but man, for $120 it is a killer shoe for the masses.

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